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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 12:20 pm

Filling Lincoln’s shoes, size 14

This week is without precedent in our city’s history. Not only are we celebrating the 200th birthday of Illinois’ favorite son in the community he famously called home, the newly elected leader of the free world, President Barack Obama, also an Illinoisan, has chosen to speak in Springfield at a non-political dinner to commemorate the life and achievement of Abraham Lincoln. We are blessed to have lived so long and seen such things. Scholars and statesmen, politicians and dignitaries, and the great, great-grandchildren of Mr. Lincoln’s neighbors will gather to reflect on what his legacy means for today and for our future. “It is altogether fitting and proper that we do so…”

But before we pop the sparkling wine, let’s pause for reflection. We all acknowledge that Lincoln’s shoes, size 14, have been difficult to fill. “Savior of the Nation” and “The Great Emancipator” are tough acts to follow. Yet, for our children’s sake and for the generations to come hereafter, let’s remember that Lincoln’s feet were molded of clay, not of bronze.

The beauty of the new “Looking for Lincoln” signboards in Springfield is that many of them present Honest Abe as our neighbor, not as the patron saint of liberty. The marker near 4th and Washington streets tells us that Lincoln had a fondness for playing billiards. Another at 7th and Monroe reminds us that he was superstitious and had more faith in folk remedies than in “modern” medicine. Still another reveals the future president was a melancholy romantic with a fondness for poetry. The world knows he could tell a joke.

In his superb new biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Michael Burlingame gives us the richest, most engaging history of Lincoln yet published. Anecdotal and refreshingly earthbound, Burlingame presents a hero to admire, to weep and laugh with, and to cast our vote for — not a statue to worship. “In 1847,” Burlingame tells us, “a Boston journalist described a stagecoach ride he shared with Lincoln from Chicago to Springfield. Once they reached the Seventh Congressional District, Lincoln ‘knew or appeared to know, every body we met, the name of the tenant of every farmhouse, and the owner of every plot of ground. Such a shaking of hands — such a how d’ye do — such a greeting of different kinds, as we saw, was never seen before; it seemed as if he knew every thing, and he had a kind word, a smile and a bow for every body on the road, even to the horses, and the cattle, and the swine.’”

Keeping Lincoln mortal, making him more human, is perhaps the best gift Springfield can bestow on the nation. When we raise our glasses tonight to honor him in the pantheon of immortals, let us remember to keep his feet firmly on the ground. That will make it easier to ask our children to follow in his footsteps.

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