‘Our Lincoln’ dazzles Washington, D.C.

By Julie Nelson Satterly, Kentucky Humanities editor

Some things are just not meant to be.

Take horse racing, for example. You can study the race program, you can look at past performance and breeding. You can even resort to choosing the jockey wearing your favorite colors. If the racing gods aren’t in your corner, however, even the most creative betting tactics can become the worst decisions.

But on this day, as she drove to Washington, D.C., racing enthusiast Virginia Carter was certain she had placed her bet on the winner. Nevermind that she put everything on the nose of a 90-to-1 longshot.

Our Lincoln: Kentucky’s Gift to the Nation – Carter’s labor of love and a massive undertaking by the little-humanities-council-that-could – would take the stage in three days in the nation’s capital. It had become a bet not even the most experienced gambler would take.

Kentucky Chautauqua performer Jim Sayre portrays Abraham Lincoln during Our Lincoln at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Kentucky Chautauqua performer Jim Sayre portrays Abraham Lincoln during Our Lincoln at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo by Jonathan Palmer)

What made her so sure it would be a success? The utility trucks. Dozens of them. They drove in the opposite direction of the Kentucky Humanities Council executive director as she prepared to cross the West Virginia state line. The trucks were headed to Carter’s home state to assist in the worst power outage from a winter storm the Commonwealth had ever seen.

That same winter storm canceled rehearsal for Our Lincoln less than a week before the show’s 375 performers took the stage. There was a plan B, but it required electrical power.

But the show was still on.

The weather also prevented many Kentucky Humanities Council friends and state dignitaries from being able to attend the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Gov. Steve Beshear – who co-hosted a reception at the Kennedy Center Feb. 2 with University of Kentucky President Lee Todd Jr. – had to cancel his appearance because he had been called to duty. The Commonwealth was in a state of emergency.

But the show was still on.

And as the convoy of utility trucks drove by, Carter was more confident than ever.

“It was wonderful to see help was on the way,” Carter said. “But it was also a reminder that this show was still going to happen. The courage of people who were surviving, the courage of the people who were pitching in – it was the same spirit that time after time allowed this show to happen.”

Looking back, Carter says, the mere idea that an organization with five employees and a $1 million annual budget would sign a contract with the Kennedy Center for this type of event is preposterous. Maybe the first performance was even a lofty goal. But in February 2008, Carter and co-producer Everett McCorvey lit up the stage with hundreds of Kentucky performers at the UK Singletary Center for the Arts to a sell-out crowd, honoring the nation’s 16th president Kentuckians hold so dear.

It was during the post-out meeting after the first performance that McCorvey pitched the idea of taking Our Lincoln to Washington, D.C. And before she knew it, Carter was standing in the Capital Rotunda in Frankfort, announcing to the media that the Kentucky Humanities Council would be telling Kentucky’s Abraham Lincoln story again – on a national stage.

The stage during Our Lincoln Feb. 2, 2009. (Photo by Jonathan Palmer)

The stage during Our Lincoln Feb. 2, 2009. (Photo by Jonathan Palmer)

There were so many questions to be answered, so many tasks to be accomplished, so much money to be raised – and very little time to do it in. Carter and Our Lincoln event coordinator Julie Klier began the daunting work of creating contracts, finding sponsors and catering to performers.

Oh yes, and figuring out how to transport 375 performers and technicians by bus to Washington, D.C.

In February.

“It’s difficult anytime you go outside of your comfort zone,” said Klier, who has been organizing major events in Kentucky for more than 20 years. “We were going to a foreign land. … By far the greatest challenge was the sheer magnitude of people traveling from Kentucky to the venue.”

The number of performers grew as time went on. The cast included the Lexington Singers and their Children’s Choir, the UK Opera Theatre, the American Spiritual Ensemble, Kentucky Repertory Theatre, the Lexington Vintage Dance Society, the UK Symphony Orchestra, the UK Chorale, Kentucky Chautauqua performers, the state’s poet laureate, world-renowned violinist Mark O’Connor and Metropolitan Opera stars Angela Brown and Gregory Turay. Bob Edwards, host of the Bob Edwards Show on XM Radio and former National Public Radio personality, had agreed to serve as master of ceremonies. And Nick Clooney, who was a narrator for the first performance, quickly agreed to come on board for the second.

And all of these people needed very different things.

There were times when Carter wasn’t sure from where the energy or the money for the next step would come.  But she always made it happen – sometimes finding resources hours before they were needed.

The stars aligned even in planning. How to circumvent winter weather was always at the forefront of every decision. Though the group was traveling more than 500 miles to its destination, Blue Grass Tours helped the council find hotels for every performer, side by side, 1 ½ miles away from the venue. Klier filled six binders of information for every group for this project, the most she’s ever filled, to make sure everyone had everything they needed – right down to the type of boxed lunch. Klier and Blue Grass Tours even did a dry run before the group left for D.C., walking through the experience with each individual who had a credential to make sure their needs were met.

By then, there were more than 400.

The effort spent with advance planning paid off the week winter weather hit the Bluegrass state.

“From a coordinator’s perspective, it was my worst nightmare,” Klier said. “But it also proved to me that the advance planning had us in pretty good stead.”

With no phone, no computer, and no signal on her Blackberry because of a downed cell tower, Klier drove to the Thornton’s up the street from her house every two hours in order to communicate with people involved with the show.

“I had to e-mail my signature for contracts, and pray it was OK,” she said.

The winter storm didn’t prevent the group from making it to the capital, however, and had a minor impact on the number of people from Kentucky who were able to attend. The council sold nearly 1,500 tickets – drawing in people from six states plus Washington, D.C., to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

The sponsors who said “yes” when the council asked for assistance played no small role in the success of Our Lincoln. The National Endowment for the Humanities, Meridian-Chiles, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the Scripps Howard Foundation and Scripps News Service gave much needed support to bring the show to life.

And headline performers were gracious with honoraria, which were comparatively small, just to be a part of the performance.

“These people had an instinctive understanding why it was so important to take Kentucky to the nation’s capital in February 2009,” Carter said.

As did the audience.

“They were of one piece,” Carter said. “It’s as if there were no individuals in the audience. They were a single unit.”

A unit, no less, that gave a standing ovation at the end of Acts 1 and 2 – a very unique honor, Klier said.

Though she is usually backstage moving people around, this time Klier had the opportunity to watch the performance.

“When [U.S. Congressman] Ben Chandler thanked people for traveling through the ice storm to be there, we went from being in this concert hall to this intimate space,” Klier said. “We knew we were all in this together.

“I was very proud. I felt like I was part of something that showed what Kentucky can do.”

While Carter and Klier recognize each other for the hard work they accomplished, they also recognize the power of collaboration and how strong it is when trying to unite so many people on one stage.

And finally, they also recognize that sometimes, some things are just meant to be.

“It had everything to do with the stars lining up in the skies,” Klier said. “The timing was right, the people were right, and ultimately, the end product was right.”

In her thank you letter to Our Lincoln’s master of ceremonies, Carter told Bob Edwards that it is “a very Kentucky thing to do not what you know you can do, but what you know you must do, whether you can do it or not.”

Kind of like betting on the 90-to-1 horse, because you saw that look of courage and will in her eye. Every now and then, amazing things happen.

“That’s why I love horse racing,” Carter said. “Because I see these things happen.”

This story appeared in the April 2009 issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine. To receive the magazine, e-mail Editor Julie Nelson Satterly at julie.satterly@uky.edu. To download a PDF, visit www.kyhumanities.org.


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