When can we invite TJ to town?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Jefferson is a small town in the middle of the cornfields beloved by its inhabitants. It is named after a towering and beloved founding father and president of these United States. After more than a century and a half of being a town named Jefferson, we are taking advantage of our name — we are showing signs of being a true spot on the map of national Jeffersonalia. With Thomas’s surname as our town name, with our friendly Declaration-reading statue of the man himself, placed in the garden named after him amid the trees and vegetables he once cultivated, it is high time we invited TJ to visit and talk to us in the authentic Jefferson voice about “the great issues of our experience.”

Clay Jenkinson has been reenacting Thomas Jefferson for more than 30 years. And he is so Jefferson you forget he’s pretending.

I saw him in Reno three decades ago, where he was a University of Nevada-Reno humanities professor and co-founder of revitalized Chautauqua*, traveling troupes that spread culture across the country from their inception in Chautauqua, New York, in 1874.

Jenkinson performed under the big white Chautauqua tent in a park near the Reno campus in the mid-1980s. He came onstage dressed like and looking like Thomas and sat down.”Like my hero Jefferson,” he said, “I believe in the leavening power of ideas, and the importance of a public conversation about the great issues of our experience.”

When he finished the monologue, he went out of character for a moment to explain a few things about the times Thomas lived in and some things Thomas believed in (slavery and relocating Native Americans) that we don’t believe in now. Then he resumed the persona and took questions from the audience. He answered from Thomas Jefferson writings and actions regarding his strong beliefs in democratic government, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, free education to all. It was impressive, the breadth of information he had memorized and how easily he picked the quotes to answer 20th-century questions. The whole impersonation was so believable that I for one was completely taken in for the couple of hours that Clay Jenkinson assumed another’s life and times.

Since his first depiction of Jefferson in 1984 in his home state of North Dakota, Jenkinson has enhanced his position as a preeminent American humanities scholar, author, showman, public speaker and educator. He’s worked with Ken Burns on the PBS Jefferson series, led symposiums on Jefferson and on Lewis and Clark, created documentary films on him, taken folks on cultural tours along the Lewis and Clark trail on the bluffs of the Missouri, performed for the Clintons in the White House on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. As mentioned earlier, he is co-founder-director of Great Basin Chautauqua in Nevada. He writes a column for his now-hometown Bismark, SD and hosts The Jefferson Hour on public radio.

Having penned a memoir of his growing up in North Dakota, he has gone on to write extensively about Jefferson as well as Lewis and Clark, and of Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota badlands. Furthermore, he has portrayed Sir Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Wesley Powell, Jean-Jacque Rosseau and Meriwether Lewis.

The fellow is, as was his brilliant mentor, a Renaissance man.

My favorite Jenkinson quote is “Unlike Jefferson, I believe that humor is the lubricant.”

You can hear that humor in another of his statements from a 2011 interview: “When my professional life began, I never expected to spend a significant portion of it in tights.”

From the wealth of information on Jenkinson, it is apparent that he is an overly busy man. But what if we asked him to come to his hero’s namesake town downriver and a tad east from where he lives and engage in a public conversation with us? How could he resist the chance?

*The first Chautauqua tent show in Jefferson was held in 1905 across from the hospital along Grimmel Road. Soon the town bought the land where Chautauqua Park now sits; plenty of room for the big tent and for the little tents of the hundreds of campers who came for the week-long shows each early August until 1931. For its edifying and inspirational music, plays and oratory, our hometown historian Tom Morain dubbed Chautauqua “cultural evangelism.”



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