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Lincoln re-enactor James Getty remembered by family, Gettysburg community

Written by Davin Jurgensen, The Evening Sun | Sep 29, 2015 6:30 PM
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File James Getty, portraying President Abraham Lincoln, said a few words at the Woolson Monument for the 57th Annual Remembrance Day Observance in Gettysburg in 2013. The Lincoln re-enactor died Saturday. He was 83. (File, The Evening Sun)

(Undated) -- James Getty, famous for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, is remembered not only for his career but for the great impact he left on his family and the community.

"Without a doubt, he was one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever had the pleasure to know," said daughter-in-law Amy Getty.

James Getty died Saturday night at 83 years old.

For 38 years, James Getty has been portraying Lincoln all across the country, said his wife, Joanne Getty.

"If he hadn't gotten ill," she said, "he'd still be doing it."

Beset by numerous health issues, he hadn't performed as Lincoln since April. He was recently admitted into Genesis HealthCare's Gettysburg Center for skilled care, Charles Getty said about his father.

James Getty made an impact with the Gettyburg community with his impersonation of President Abraham Lincoln.

He worked frequently with Destination Gettysburg in his theater performances, special presentations, leadership training and oration of the Gettysburg Address, according to a news release from the company.

Steve Wiley, founder of the Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, worked with James Getty for more than 20 years.

"He was an extraordinary man," Wiley said. "He was fascinating, captivating and all the other great words you can find; I'm just heartbroken that he's gone."

James Getty over-delivered at every event the leadership institute held, Wiley said, taking part in meetings with companies like Apple, and ExxonMobil.

The beginning 

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James Getty portrays President Abraham Lincoln at the Woolson Monument for the 57th Annual Remembrance Day Observance in Gettysburg in 2013. (File, The Evening Sun)

Joanne and James, both from Illinois, met freshmen year at Illinois Wesleyan University.

He was a music major, taking part in school musicals and singing at funerals and weddings, Joanne Getty said.

However, after a year and a half of college, James Getty spent four years in the Navy, still taking classes while attending to his duties.

After those four years, he returned to school and finished his bachelor's in music education, continuing on to work toward his master's, she said.

They married in January 1952.

James Getty taught at the college level in Sandusky, Ohio, as well as in Maine, his wife said. He not only taught students but directed church choirs at each institution he taught at, his wife said.

"Music was in his blood," she said.

The start of Lincoln

James Getty grew a beard when the couple lived in Ohio, Joanne Getty said.

"The students started calling him Lincoln, but he didn't believe it," she said.

It wasn't until they took a picture of him from the side that he saw it. Then, the wheels started turning.

In 1977, the two moved to Gettysburg and got started on transforming James Getty into a Lincoln re-enactor.

"When he stopped being a teacher, I was really heart sick," she said. "But I realized he's still teaching."

The later years 

After the move to Gettysburg, Lincoln was the focus.

At first, Joanne Getty handled the equipment and lighting for her husband's shows, traveling to each of them. She then focused on handling the bookings and the details, while James Getty took his creativity to the stage.

"It was mostly just the two of us," she said.

Although the re-enactments of Lincoln were a big part of the family's lives, James Getty was much more than his presidential portrayal.

Tom Kolmer, of the Spring Grove area, knew James Getty for 16 years, he said. He became friends with the Gettys when the two families met at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church.

"He was a brilliant man," Kolmer said. "His house was filled with books and manuscripts of everything Lincoln; he was so knowledgeable."

Kolmer remembers the speech James Getty gave at his son's Boy Scout Troop 105 ceremony in 2010, portraying Lincoln and discussing the relationship between Boy Scout values and those during Lincoln's time.

"He had a heart of gold," Kolmer said.

James Getty's wife couldn't agree more.

"Ever since I've known Jim he's been the kindest, gentlest person," Joanne Getty said.

Diane Good, James Getty's daughter, said he was a wonderful person.

"He was good at everything, at being my dad."

Daily Record/Sunday News reporter Flint McColgan contributed to this report.


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF. 

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