Former Colorado Springs history teacher makes presidential history come to life

By Stephanie Earls Updated: February 17, 2014 at 12:36 pm • Published: February 17, 2014 | 11:45 am 0

The town criers spotted the former president exiting his truck and hustled to spread the exciting news.

"It's Lincoln! Lincoln's here!"

Correction: The tall guy in buff-colored breeches, stockings and tricorn hat is actually Gen. George Washington.

Details. "The president's here! The president's here!"

David Wallace is used to the celebrity of his alter-ego, which is his personal favorite and the most popular of the 15 historical characters - including Pikes Peak namesake Zebulon Pike - that he performs at schools, visitor's centers, churches and service clubs along the Front Range. On Wednesday, Wallace spoke in character to a pair of fifth-grade classes at Evangelical Christian Academy, helping bring to life the students' current studies on the Revolutionary War.

Wallace, 69, expects curiosity - and some confusion - about the costume, deeds and personality of the fledgling nation's first elected leader.

It's understandable. Pop culture representation of Washington is threadbare, especially compared with other founding fathers and legendary commanders in chief.

"A new book comes out every week on Lincoln," said Wallace, who developed his take on the first president's nature by reading biographies, official documents and correspondence. "Washington never talked about himself, so to talk about myself as Washington when he didn't is very difficult."

Also, Wallace has found that knowledge of early U.S. history isn't as strong among older students as it once was.

"High schools don't usually cover anything before the Civil War. This bothered me when I was a teacher," Wallace said. "There's more of an emphasis on modern history."

Investing in a costume

A Colorado Springs native, Wallace discovered his current calling about seven years ago after retiring from a 40-year career teaching high school history.

"I was looking for something to do and a teacher invited me to come speak about George Washington at a grade school," said Wallace, who also volunteers at the Springs Rescue Mission. It was the first and last time he gave the talk in street clothes. "I just didn't feel like the kids were getting into it as much. Here's just a guy talking. But in costume, in uniform, it really makes a difference, especially for the grade school kids."

The second time Wallace was asked to deliver a talk about Washington, he rented a costume. But when demand for his talks began to rise, the expense of renting no longer made sense. Wallace decided to invest in a custom-made, period-correct costume, a $2,400 museum-quality piece.

To afford the purchase, Wallace cashed in three of his childhood heroes.

"I saved all my baseball cards I bought as a kid in the 1950s and, when I decided to do this, I sold my most valuable cards," said Wallace, who now charges a small speaking fee to help cover his travel and dry-cleaning expenses. "My George Washington outfit is from Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson. They were in mint condition, 60 years old. In a way, I traded my childhood passion for my retirement passion."

It was important to Wallace to get Washington historically correct, right down to the slick, leather-soled shoes.

"I'm doing an impression of the father of our country, of the father of the United States, so it's very important that they get the right impression," said Wallace, who wears his silver hair long in front, in a pageboy style popular for men during the Revolutionary War period. "The younger kids, especially grade school, some of them actually believe that I'm Washington."

A tall, good-humored leader

A few things you might not know about the first president: He had a really good sense of humor and was once so overcome with laughter that observers saw him drop to the ground and roll around. He was an accomplished athlete who loved to dance and had a fondness for sweets, especially ice cream. Like Wallace, Washington was tall - 6-foot-3.

"He was one of the four tallest presidents," Wallace said.

His dentures weren't made of wood, but a combination of human teeth and carved hippo ivory. He didn't get along with his mother, a British loyalist who undermined him and refused to acknowledge him as president. That story about the cherry tree? Never happened; it appeared for the first time in a biography published a year after his death.

If we met him in person, for real, we might not recognize him. The famous image that appears on the dollar bill is misleading, allegedly due to a personality conflict between Washington and the painter.

"The painter said, 'Look natural,' and he said, 'How else am I supposed to look?' so the painter, in retaliation, painted his mouth large," Wallace said.

Washington was also the only founding father who freed all of his slaves.

"My favorite thing about Washington was his determination to see something through and his deep caring for the people around him," Wallace said. "The biggest thing I try to get across is he was a real person and had real human characteristics. If you have problems with your temper, that's OK. Washington could too. If you have problems with your mother, that's OK. Washington did too. Just try to work on it."

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