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Improved Abe Lincoln returns to Anaheim school

His years of service left him stressed, weathered and wearied, just like the real Abraham Lincoln was after years of strife commanding Union armies during the Civil War.

But this Abraham Lincoln, a life-sized plaster statue, has been returned to the vigorous form of his youth, when he watched thousands of students coming and going over the years at Lincoln Elementary School. Come January, he'll be surrounded again by schoolchildren.

Abe the statue hasn't always stood sentinel over the school. For most of the past two decades – no one seems to be certain exactly how long – Abe made his way from his post at the school to the district's warehouse, to an antique mall, to a collector's back yard. The collector, recognizing the statue's sentimental value to the school district, made sure it found its way back home.

"I am very excited. I can't believe it came true," Lincoln Elementary Principal Tammie Ledesma said.

Right now, Ledesma's students occupy a temporary school site near Harbor Boulevard and Ball Road while the original Lincoln Elementary – near Broadway and East Street – gets remodeled and upgraded. In January, the near-as-new Lincoln statue will have a prominent place in the campus office where it will greet visitors and serve as a focus for history lessons.

It's a happy ending and the terminus of a long journey, though Abe doesn't appear to have left Anaheim.

The last place Abe spent a significant amount of time, perhaps 10 to 15 years, was in the west Anaheim back yard of John and Cathy Spencer. Both are avid collectors with a particular interest in Lincoln memorabilia.

When the antique mall's owner began to shut the place down, the Spencers negotiated to purchase Lincoln for $500. They had thought about buying a larger home with high ceilings and thought Lincoln would be the perfect accompaniment to the foyer.

"This statue was going to be the crown jewel of our collection," John Spencer said, but that changed when they decided to remain in their current home. "He's so big, and you need a big space for him."

Because of his size, Abe, though treasured, was relegated to the back yard, where the summer sun and winter damp alternately tested the statue's exterior.

"The type of material he's made with doesn't weather well. He needs to be inside," Spencer said.

Distressed at watching Abe deteriorate, he began to make calls.

The local historical society was happy to learn of Abe's whereabouts but had neither the space nor the budget to care for him, Spencer said. A Lincoln museum in Redlands similarly turned down custody of the statue because of a stretched budget. Everything changed when Spencer called Peter Daniels, director of communications for the Anaheim City School District.

Spencer's voice quickened as he spoke about Daniels coming to their home, smiling and excitedly checking out the statue. Daniels, with the Spencers' blessing, immediately began crafting a plan to bring Abe home.

"I was so happy to give him away so he could find a new home. Finally," Spencer said.

Not that Abe could just roll into the school, where he stood outside for years – although no one seems to know how many. Weathering had peeled the statue's paint, caused chunks to fall out of its base, and caused a large crack to open down Abe's right side.

"There were a couple places where you could look in and see out the other side," said David Aeppli, the owner of Display, an Anaheim business that specializes in transportation and installation of art pieces. Still, being in the art business, Aeppli knew how to gather a team to rescue Abe.

"He was just horrible looking. Now, he looks like a completely different statue," Ledesma said. "It's amazing the transformation that's been done. It gives me goose bumps. I'm so excited for the kids."

It cost about $10,000 to refurbish Lincoln; with three local businesses contributing $6,000 toward that cost. The rest, the district is trying to raise with a penny and $5 bill drive at the school (both feature Lincoln's portrait). Anyone who wants to contribute can send checks designated for "statue restoration" to ACSD Education Foundation, c/o ACSD 1001 S. East St., Anaheim, 92805.


License plates famously boast of Illinois as the "Land of Lincoln." However, the future president actually was a native of rural Kentucky, having been born in the famous log cabin that belonged to his frontiersman father.


Lincoln ran unsuccessfully to represent Illinois in theU.S. Senate in 1858. Despite the loss, his debates against Stephen A. Douglas won him national fame and, along with it, the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.


The statue isn't the only representation of Abraham Lincoln in Anaheim. A mechanized version of the 16th president resides in the "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" attraction at Disneyland. Originally built in the 1960s, Disney's Lincoln got an update in 2009, with a new surround-sound system and mechanical improvements. Lincoln's gestures and movements are created by a compressor that activates pistons inside the figure.


A likeness of President Lincoln by Victor David Brenner has appeared on the penny since 1909. Previously the coin featured a woman with flowing hair representing liberty.


In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had very strong words for the residents in Southern states: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you .... You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it."


This fall marked the release of "Lincoln," a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg. Lincoln is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a Briton. Ironically, the real Lincoln had to work to avoid British recognition of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Contact the writer: Sources: The National Park Service; the White House; Orange County Register archives.

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