In celebration of President Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, and President's Day, Feb. 18, Gettysburg College President Katherine Haley Will wrote about the importance of Lincoln to the college and community. The opinion piece appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot News on Feb. 18.
"Living with Lincoln"
He was born in Kentucky, grew up in Indiana, and spent much of his adulthood in Illinois. But it is in Gettysburg, where Abraham Lincoln's voice continues to resonate across the grassy slope of the Soldiers National Cemetery. The Gettysburg College students, who followed the President down Baltimore Street to the cemetery nearly 145 years ago, noted: "he spoke in a most deliberate manner, and with such forceful and articulate expression that he could be heard by all of that immense throng."
Lincoln still draws a crowd. Two million visitors come to Gettysburg each year. Most of them visit the cemetery, note the semicircle of aging white grave markers and walk up to the Lincoln Speech Memorial where the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address are etched in bronze behind a bust of the orator himself.
A more accessible President Lincoln stands in the center of town. Tourists and townspeople alike can cozy up to the 6'4" sculpture of the President in coattails and top hat as he points up to the second story of the famous David Wills' house where, it is said, he added the finishing touches to his two-minute speech the night before the cemetery dedication.
A larger, more somber Lincoln in bronze stands sentry at the south side of the Pennsylvania Memorial. He surveys a small slice of the more than 1,400 monuments that dot the 6,000 acres of battlefield preserved by the National Park Service. These images of Lincoln and the hundreds of memorials that surround Gettysburg form part of the tapestry of this small rural town in south central Pennsylvania.
We pass Lincoln on the Square as we do our errands; we walk our dogs by Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry. They are familiar landmarks of our landscape, but no matter how familiar, we never fail to be moved by them-powerfully. These monuments fuel our imagination and bring to life the bravery, determination, fear, compassion and melancholy captured on the sculpted bronze and marble faces.
And Lincoln's presence must be the most powerful of all. He has been called the American nation made flesh-born to a poor family in rural Kentucky, hardened by physical labor, fueled by idealism, motivated by a sense of justice, tempered by pragmatism and wrought with contradiction. Poet Carl Sandburg said of Lincoln: "Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as a drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect."
Democracy found its educator in Abraham Lincoln. He served as midwife to a "new birth of freedom" in the crucible of the great crisis over slavery that tested the very meaning of liberty and equality. His Gettysburg Address may be the nation's most significant speech with words that redefined and enlightened the concept and promise of America and summarized the meaning and price of our nation's freedom.
That price was tragically clear to the 15,000 individuals listening to Lincoln's words on that mid-November day. When the war was over, 620,000 had lost their lives, two percent of the U.S. population. That equates to more than six million Americans today. Every family was touched by the Civil War in some way, and the fields of Gettysburg were the setting for its defining moment.
Today, we still find meaning in Lincoln's words and from these fields. Our first-year students begin their college experience walking with their classmates up Baltimore Street-retracing the path their predecessors took as they followed President Lincoln from the town square to Cemetery Hill in 1863. There they listen to a reading of the famous Address.
Our students tell me they draw meaning and a sense of purpose from their Gettysburg experience. Many of our alumni distinguish themselves in public service, and a kernel of that calling may well have been nurtured on the green fields of Gettysburg. After graduation, our students leave Gettysburg to pursue their dreams. Wherever they go, whatever they do, I hope they take a little piece of Lincoln with them.