York educator plays Abe’s friend: ‘This definitely was a cool thing’
Calvin Weary, drama teacher at York’s William Penn High School, portrays William Johnson in an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary about the Gettysburg Address. Background posts: York County has its own Lincoln photo debate., Goodwin cites York countian’s story to tell about Gettysburg Address and Abe’s smallpox story has been told before.
Calvin Weary is making York proud by landing the part of William Johnson, a black man who travels with Abraham Lincoln, in a Discovery Channel documentary.
And that’s just not because he’s another local person starring nationally on the big or little screen… .
Weary directs the William Penn Performing Arts Institute. When discussing magnet schools, the question is raised about why suburban students would be attracted to attend classes in the troubled York City School District. (The exchange would be that city students could take certain classes in suburban districts.)
Weary’s Performing Arts Institute is usually mentioned as an Exhibit A attraction for students outside the city to take William Penn classes. (Update, 5/19/14: Calvin Weary most recently taught at New Hope Charter School.)
And Weary’s good work on the screen only underscores the quality of that program.
A York Daily Record/Sunday News story (1/12/08) on the documentary follows:
In the black-and-white photos taken by Calvin Weary at the movie set, it’s hard to tell the film is being shot in 2007.
In his top hat and bow tie, Calvin Weary of York has been transported back to when trips on a locomotive were common and Abe Lincoln was president. The William Penn High School drama teacher plays a part in a Discovery Channel documentary that will tell the story behind the Gettysburg Address.
Weary was cast as William Johnson, a man who traveled with Lincoln from Illinois to Washington, D.C.
In the movie, Weary’s character, who is black, is the first to hear a reading of the Gettysburg Address. He also travels with the president to make the historic 1863 speech.
“He read it to him because he was a friend, and he wanted him to hear it,” Weary said of the scene. “It shows Lincoln did more than pay lip service to his cause.”
Jim Getty of Gettysburg plays Lincoln in the film. Getty, a nationally known Lincoln impersonator, said he shares “quite a few” scenes with Weary’s character.
Weary’s part highlights the friendship between the president and Johnson, Weary said. Johnson died of smallpox, and some historians say it was contracted from the president on the way home from Gettysburg. On the train ride, Lincoln becomes ill, and Weary’s character tends to him in the film.
“It was very unheard of at that time for a black person to be sitting on a train, especially in a regular car, when he was not working,” Weary said.
After Johnson’s death in late 1863 or early 1864, Lincoln paid to bury Johnson in the Arlington National Cemetery, Roger Norton, author of the Abraham Lincoln Research Site, said in an e-mail.
The gravestone, which reads “CITIZEN,” is written in the script as one of the last scenes of the film, Weary said.
The film is to air sometime in the next few months, and Weary said he hopes to set up a local screening when it is released.
Parts of the movie that required a train ride were shot last summer at East Broad Top Railroad in a small town in Central Pennsylvania. Despite the summer heat, actors – who were sporting heavy costumes – had to act like it was cool outside because the Gettysburg Address was given in November, Weary said.
“It was back and forth, back and forth, on that train,” Weary said of the 13-hour day. “It was kind of grueling, but it was an awesome experience.”
Weary spent a week shooting his part. He got it because a friend – Diane Crews of the DreamWrights Youth and Family Theatre in York – had a connection to one of the crews working on the film, Weary said.
Weary is the director of the William Penn Performing Arts Institute at the city high school. He said playing the part – and getting to know some more people in the industry – gave him an experience he plans to share with his students.
“This definitely was a cool thing,” Weary said. “It was also a learning experience as a teacher.”
Learn more about William Johnson, the man whom President Abe Lincoln brought with him to Washington, D.C., from Illinois.
President Lincoln helped Johnson – who worked as the president’s barber – get a job in the U.S. Treasury Department.
Go to the Web site at http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org and click “residents and visitors” on the left and then “employees and staff” at the top of the Web site.