Teacher fulfills lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln as costumed interpreter

Bryce Stenzel points out that at age 52, he’s the age Abraham Lincoln was when he ran for president in 1860. Bryce has no intention of running for the office of U.S. president — his schedule filled with teaching at the St. Clair Elementary School and volunteering in a variety of ways to educate people about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. When he’s not in the classroom (and sometimes even there), Bryce dons authentically detailed clothing to portray the 16th U.S. president anywhere from Mankato to Washington, D.C. A natural full beard adds to the resemblance.

This photo, taken of Bryce in Springfield, Illinois, in June 2018, on the steps of the Great Western Railroad Station, site of Lincoln’s departure for Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11, 1861, as President-elect. It was here that Lincoln delivered his now famous, “Farewell Address” on the back of the departing train. Photo by Sandy Gilbert of Cornell, Wisconsin

“My interest in Lincoln began when I was 10 years old and received a book from my parents titled Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance,” Bryce said. “When I was in elementary school, we didn’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday by having the day off, as we now have with Presidents’ Day. I remember when I was in kindergarten, we watched a 16 mm film about Lincoln on his birthday, Feb. 12, and made cutouts of him. My interest grew when I learned about Lincoln preserving the Union. My father, a veteran, was very patriotic, and I appreciated his love of country.”

In addition to portraying Lincoln (often by delivering the Gettysburg Address from memory), Bryce has written a series of seven plays about Lincoln that have been performed by young people in the Mankato area. The plays were officially recognized and endorsed by the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He also makes costumed presentations to community groups, covering topics such as the literature that contributed to Lincoln’s education, including Pilgrim’s Progress, The Arabian Nights and Aesop’s Fables. Bryce said, “Lincoln was a voracious reader, devouring books for information. That’s one of many things that attracted me to him,” he said.

In another presentation, Bryce discusses Lincoln’s spirituality. He explains that through coping with the Civil War, emancipation of the slaves, the death of two sons, and having a wife who occasionally suffered emotional and mental instability, Lincoln’s spiritual beliefs evolved. “He took an almost 180 degree turn from belief in an impersonal God to a belief that he, Lincoln, was the Almighty’s chosen instrument for saving the nation’s unity,” Bryce said.

Bryce’s work is not limited to Lincoln, but includes related topics. He has discussed post-Civil War reconstruction as well as the historiography vs. political correctness of removing statues of Civil War heroes in the South. He recently scheduled a presentation on the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice president who became the president after Lincoln’s assassination.

Bryce also was instrumental in reinstating a “Boy in Blue” memorial, honoring a generic Union soldier, in Mankato’s Lincoln Park. But it’s evident that Bryce’s main focus is Abraham Lincoln.

Bryce Stenzel gave this recitation of the Gettysburg Address (by memory) to the Minnesota House of Representatives on Presidents’ Day, Feb. 16, 2009. This was done to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The painting of Lincoln (by George Healy) in the Minnesota House Chamber was hung because Lincoln was the first president Minnesotans could vote for in the Presidential Election of 1860. Minnesota became a state in 1858. Contributed photo

Growing up, Bryce found himself relating to Lincoln on many levels. He explained, “In first grade, I struggled with learning how to print. I was pretty clumsy as a kid, at least in the beginning. The young Lincoln described himself as being backward, and that’s another reason I relate to him. Getting something into his mind was difficult, but once he learned it, he didn’t forget it.”

Bryce’s third grade class studied the history of the Mankato area, including the hanging of 38 Native Americans in 1862, rather than the 303 who were sentenced to be executed as a result of the Dakota Conflict. The others were pardoned by Lincoln, which impressed Bryce. He said, “The President of the United States, involved in a Civil War, had cared enough about the Mankato area to intervene in the matter. That’s when it became personal for me.”

Bryce’s love of history was in full bloom by fifth grade, which offered him the opportunity to try his hand at writing and acquainted him with another role model and a career goal. He received an award in a short story writing contest, setting the stage for his future historical writings, and he had a teacher who truly enjoyed teaching history. Bryce explained, “That’s when I decided to emulate Keith Matheson, teaching history that way, bringing history alive.”

Bryce donned his first Lincoln costume in 1985, when his high school marching band went to Washington, D.C. The excursion involved a costume party. He recalled, “I had a tuxedo I had borrowed from an uncle and a ‘beard’ to hook over my ears. I recited a biography of Lincoln and got first prize among those who took part.”

After graduating from Mankato East High School, Bryce pursued a social studies teaching degree at Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University, Mankato). While doing student observations in a third grade class, he delivered a small speech. He said, “I was a hit, so I decided I’d better memorize the Gettysburg Address–and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve delivered it roughly 2,000 times now, including in the three states in which Lincoln lived–Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, as well as in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Washington D.C., and at Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania.”

Bryce has portrayed Lincoln several times at Gettysburg, and on Nov. 20, 2013, he was one of four costumed Lincoln interpreters featured in the newspaper USA Today. On President’s Day 2009, Bryce delivered the Gettysburg Address to the Minnesota House of Representatives and recited the address on WCCO radio, having to aver that he was reciting it from memory.

Bryce earned a Master’s Degree in History in 1995, writing his thesis on German immigration to Minnesota, which affected Lincoln’s win of the state’s four electoral votes in the 1860 election. Bryce also has been writing stage plays and short books about Lincoln for more than 25 years. His first book, published by the Friends of the Minnesota Valley Regional Library, was “Abraham Lincoln: Man of the People.” It has been followed by six more books on Lincoln as well as two on other historical subjects, all for a Mankato publisher. Bryce recently completed an as yet unpublished book on the story of Mount Rushmore.

Bryce at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Photo by Sandy Gilbert of Cornell, Wisconsin.

In 1995, Bryce’s first script, “Beware the People Weeping,” about Lincoln’s assassination, was performed by a volunteer cast at the Blue Earth County Historical Society. The following year, he recruited a retired Minnesota State University theatre set designer for a restaging of the play and learned a few tactics from him. This led to an increase in Bryce’s interest in theatre. He played several roles in Lake Crystal’s 125th anniversary historical pageant in 1995, where he met others interested in historical theatre. He promptly wrote more scripts about Lincoln and involved some of his new-found theatre friends in the performances.

Then, from 2009 to 2015, Bryce meshed his interests in theatre and education by writing the series of seven plays that received national recognition. Lincoln’s Traveling Troupe was open to young people from ages six to 18. Bryce recruited cast members by word of mouth. Many participants were home-schooled, so their parents spread the word. The Troupe received a certificate of merit from the Bicentennial Commission, recognizing the organization as a “Lincoln Legacy School.”        

Bryce still has the book about Lincoln he received when he was 10. When his mother, a dementia patient, was in the last days of her life, he read to her from the book, especially the chapter in which Lincoln bid his step-mother farewell before leaving for Washington to serve as president. The story comes full circle when Bryce explains that his mother, as the valedictorian of the Minnesota Lake High School class of 1944, delivered the Gettysburg Address on Memorial Day that year, and that he was reciting the Gettysburg Address in Mankato on Memorial Day, May 29, 2017, a few hours after his mother’s passing that morning. He said, “It was a tribute to her.”