“Hello, Mr. Jefferson”
Bill Barker has played the sagacious statesman in Colonial Williamsburg for more than 20 years.
To the crowds that gather every day in the garden of the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, the lanky red-haired gentleman standing among them, in 18th-century breeches and silver-buckled shoes, is Thomas Jefferson. He looks like the sagacious statesman, and he sounds like him. But put him in jeans and a T-shirt and he’s Bill Barker, the guy who’s been portraying one of Virginia’s favorite sons for more than 20 years.
Not just one of a stable of historical characters passing waistcoats and wigs to the next performer, Barker is Colonial Williamsburg’s one and only Jefferson. A professional actor and director with a degree in history from Villanova University, Barker more than resembles TJ. He’s a Jefferson scholar who’s spent years studying and perfecting the art of historical interpretation. Who’s the guy behind this most famous of men? Erin Parkhurst spoke to Barker to find out. Excerpts:
So, how did you get this gig?
In ’83, I was in Philadelphia, acting and directing, and a friend who was portraying William Penn at the time told me I looked like Jefferson. I got hired to do a photo shoot as Jefferson at Independence Hall. After that, agents got wind and started hiring me. I came to Colonial Williamsburg in ’93 and have been here ever since.
Tell me something that most people don’t know about Jefferson.
He had a wonderful, sublime sense of humor. We tend to think of him as the lofty philosopher-king, but when he got to know you he was talkative and very funny. He once tried to discover if there was a coat of arms for his line of the Jefferson family. He contacted the College of Arms in London and discovered there wasn’t. When it was suggested it could be created for purchase, he said, “Apparently, a coat of arms may be purchased as readily as any other coat.”
You’ve been doing TJ for a long time. Do you still like this guy?
Without question! He’s one of the most consistent people in U.S. history; he never gave up on what he wanted to achieve. He’s never boring. He’s always relevant to what’s going on.
How much time have you spent studying Jefferson and his life?
I’ve been interested in him since I was a kid. This is a true story: I was fired once for reading about Jefferson. It was the late ’70s and Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History had come out. I was in Philly working a summer job during college at a department store, and I was engrossed in the book. My boss caught me reading on the job two times, and on the third I was out.
How have you prepared to portray Jefferson?
I’ve built a database from studying primary documents over the years. I rarely use a contemporary author’s account of something Mr. Jefferson said. I speak from his actual letters, public papers and eyewitness accounts. It keeps me non-political and honest! You know there are more than 20,000 letters? I’ll never be finished reading them.
What book about him would top your list?
Anyone who wants a full reference should read Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, all six volumes. I also recommend a wonderfully fluid and spirited book, the opposite of Malone, Albert J. Nock’s Mr. Jefferson. It’s short, concise, gets right to the point.
You’ve lived on Duke, above Edinburgh Castle, since 1995 …. Do you have to be in character when you go out to buy milk?
No, or a beer! It’s a delight living in the historic district. To live in 2009 and yet be in a world 200 years removed every day has given me a great lens from the past to the modern world. To wake up and walk out the door to go to work is wonderful, absolutely wonderful. We just keep all modern things like A/Cs in the back, out of view.
You’ve traveled around the world as Jefferson and met U.S. presidents and world leaders. Do any of them stand out in your memory?
About 10 years ago, I met Jiang Zemin, the former president of the People’s Republic of China. He was fascinated by Jefferson. He knew that Jefferson’s ideas for the Declaration of Independence came from the English philosopher John Locke. It made the world seem smaller to me, more connected.
What has kept you doing this for so many years?
[My] continual fascination with the man. This is what I was meant to do. I enjoy this too much, it can’t be work.
Does Jefferson creep into your own daily life unexpectedly?
Yes, when I’m in jeans and a T-shirt in line at a shop in Williamsburg and someone says “Hello, Mr. Jefferson.” I usually just say, “Hello, how ya’ doin’?” I’m not the only one—George Washington and Patrick Henry have the same thing. It’s a small town.
Have you had any particularly memorable moments portraying Mr. Jefferson?
I was on the Colbert Report about three years ago with a couple of Jefferson interpreters from Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Colbert spent four hours trying to provoke an argument between us, but we wouldn’t do it! He ended up tossing a coin to decide who was the best Jefferson. He brought out a throne, a crown, an ermine robe and a scepter for the winner, about the worst insult you could make to Jefferson.
William Barker may refer to:
- William Barker (prospector) (1817–1894), Canadian miner and prospector
- William Barker (chemist) (1810–1873), Irish professor of chemistry
- William Burckhardt Barker (1810–1856), English orientalist
- William George Barker (1894–1930), Canadian Victoria Cross recipient and World War I flying ace
- William Gibbs Barker (c. 1811–1897), English clergyman and genealogist
- William Higgs Barker (1744–1815), English Hebraist
- William S. Barker (born 1934), American church historian, educator, and leader
- Will Barker (1867–1951), aka William George Barker, English film producer and director
- Bill Barker (born 1957), creator of Schwa, underground conceptual artwork
- Bill Barker, police officer who died in the November 2009 Great Britain and Ireland floods, namesake for the Barker Crossing
- Bill Barker, actor who portrayed Dr. Duckbill Platypus and Elsie Jean Platypus on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
- Bill Barker, soldier in Children of the Corn (2009)
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William George Barker
Canadian WWI fighter ace
This article is about the First World War pilot. For the film producer and director, see Will Barker.
William George "Billy" Barker, VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Two Bars (3 November 1894 – 12 March 1930) was a Canadian First World Warfighter ace and Victoria Cross recipient. He is the most decorated serviceman in the history of Canada.
Born on a family farm in Dauphin, Manitoba, "Will" Barker grew up on the frontier of the Great Plains, riding horses, shooting, and working as a youngster on his father's farm and sawmill. He was an exceptional shot, using a lever-actionWinchester that he had modified with his own iron sight. He was particularly adept at shooting on the move, even while on horseback. One biographer has suggested that he could have been a trick shooter in a circus. He was physically poised, emotionally intense, with wide-ranging interests, and had an innate flair for the dramatic act. He was a very good student in school, but had frequent absences due to farm and sawmill life; he was the hunter providing food for the workers in the sawmill while still a young teenager, and missed classes because of this obligation. Barker was a Boy Scout at Russell, Manitoba, and a member of the 32nd Light Horse, a Non-Permanent Active Militia unit based at Roblin, Manitoba. He was in Grade 11 at Dauphin Collegiate Institute in the fall of 1914, just before his enlistment.
First World War
In December 1914, soon after the outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent call to arms in the Dominion of Canada, Barker enlisted as No 106074 Trooper William G. Barker in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles. The regiment went to England in June 1915 and then to France on 22 September of that year. Barker was a Colt machine gunner with the regiment's machine gun section until late February or early March 1916, when he transferred as a probationary observer to 9 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, flying in Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 aircraft.
Western Front 1916–17
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in April and was given five days' leave in London to acquire an officer's uniform and equipment. On his return, he was assigned to 4 Squadron and on 7 July transferred to 15 Squadron, still flying in the B.E.2. On 21 July Barker claimed a Roland scout "driven down" with his observer's gun, and in August claimed a second Roland, this time in flames. He was Mentioned in Despatches around this time. He officially qualified as an Observer on 27 August and on 15 September he worked for the first time with Canadian troops, including his old regiment. On 15 November, Barker and his pilot, flying very low over the Ancre River, spotted a large concentration of German troops massing for a counter-attack on Beaumont Hamel. The crew sent an emergency Zone Call which brought to bear all available artillery fire in the area onto the specified target. The force of some 4,000 German infantry was effectively broken up. He was awarded the Military Cross for this action in the concluding stages of the Battle of the Somme.
In January 1917, after spending Christmas on leave in London, he commenced pilot training at Netheravon, flying solo after 55 minutes of dual instruction. On 24 February 1917, he returned to serve a second tour on Corps Co-operation machines as a pilot flying B.E.2s and R.E.8s with 15 Squadron. On 25 March, Barker claimed another scout "driven down". On 25 April 1917 during the Arras Offensive, Barker, flying an R.E.8 with observer Lt. Goodfellow, spotted over 1,000 German troops sheltering in support trenches. The duo directed artillery fire into the positions, thereby avoiding a counter-attack.
After being awarded a bar to his MC in July, Barker was wounded in the head by anti-aircraft fire in August 1917. After a short spell in the UK as an instructor, Barker's continual requests for front line service resulted in him being transferred to become a scout pilot, being offered a post with either 56 Squadron or 28 Squadron. He chose command of C Flight in the newly formed 28 Squadron, flying the Sopwith Camel that he preferred over the S.E.5s of 56 Squadron. Although Barker was reportedly not a highly skilled pilot – suffering several flying accidents during his career – he compensated for this deficiency with aggressiveness in action and highly accurate marksmanship.
The unit moved to France on 8 October 1917 and Barker downed an Albatros D.V on his first patrol, though he did not claim it as the patrol was unofficial. He claimed an Albatros of Jasta 2 (Lt. Lange, killed) on 20 October, and two more, of Jasta 18, on 27 October (Lt. Schober killed, Offstv. Klein, force landed).
Italian Front 1917–18
On 7 November 1917, 28 Squadron was transferred to Italy with Barker temporarily in command, and most of the unit, including aircraft, traveled by train to Milan. On 29 November he downed an Austrian Albatros D.III flown by Lt. Haertl of Jasta 1 near Pieve di Soligo. A Jasta 39 pilot was shot down and killed and a balloon of BK 10 destroyed on 3 December.
One of his most successful, and also most controversial raids – fictionalized by Ernest Hemingway in the short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro – was on 25 December 1917. Catching the Germans off guard, he and Lt. Harold B. Hudson, his wingman, shot up the airfield of Fliegerabteilung (A) 204, setting fire to one hangar and damaging four German aircraft before dropping a placard wishing their opponents a "Happy Christmas."
Lt. Lang of Jasta 1 was killed by Barker on 1 January 1918, and two balloons, two Albatros fighters (one flown by Feldwebel Karl Semmelrock of Flik 51J) and a pair of two-seaters fell to Barker during February. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in March, he also claimed three more Albatros and an observation balloon.
Owing to his tendency to ignore orders by flying many unofficial patrols, Barker was passed over when the post of Commanding Officer of 28 Squadron became vacant. Dissatisfied, he applied for a posting and joined 66 Squadron in April 1918, where he claimed a further 16 kills by mid-July.
On 17 April, he shot down Oblt. Gassner-Norden of Flik 41J, flying an Albatros D.III (OEF), over Vittorio. He then became Squadron Commander of 139 Squadron, flying the Bristol Fighter. Barker however took his Sopwith Camel with him and continued to fly fighter operations. He carried out an unusual sortie on the night of 9 August when he flew a Savoia-Pomilio SP.4 bomber to land a spy behind enemy lines.
By this time, his personal Sopwith Camel (serial no. B6313) had become the most successful fighter aircraft in the history of the RAF, Barker having used it to shoot down 46 aircraft and balloons from September 1917 to September 1918, for a total of 404 operational flying hours. It was dismantled in October 1918, Barker keeping the clock as a memento, although he was asked to return it the following day. During this time Barker trialed a series of modifications to B6313, to improve its combat performance. The Clerget rotary engine's cooling efficiency was poorer in the hotter Italian climate, so several supplementary cooling slots were cut into the cowling. The poor upward visibility of the Camel resulted in Barker cutting away progressively larger portions of the center-section fabric. He also had a rifle-type, notch and bead gun-sight arrangement replace the standard gun sight fitting.
Having flown more than 900 combat hours in two and a half years, Barker was transferred back to the UK in September 1918 to command the fighter training school at Hounslow Heath Aerodrome. Barker ended his Italian service with some 33 aircraft claimed destroyed and nine observation balloons downed, individually or with other pilots.
In London at RAF HQ, he persuaded his superiors he needed to get up to date on the latest combat techniques in France and he was granted a 10-day roving commission in France, wherein he selected the Sopwith Snipe as his personal machine and attached himself to No. 201 Squadron RAF, whose Squadron commander, Major Cyril Leman, was a friend from his days as a Corps Co-operation airman. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on day 10, Sunday, 27 October 1918.
While returning his Snipe to an aircraft depot, he crossed enemy lines at 21,000 feet above the Forêt de Mormal. He attacked an enemy Rumpler two-seater which broke up, its crew escaping by parachute (the aircraft was of FAA 227, Observer Lt. Oskar Wattenburg killed). By his own admission, he was careless and was bounced by a formation of Fokker D.VIIs of Jagdgruppe 12, consisting of Jasta 24 and Jasta 44. In a descending battle against 15 or more enemy machines. The dogfight took place immediately above the lines of the Canadian Corps. Severely wounded and bleeding profusely, Barker force-landed inside Allied lines, his life being saved by the men of an RAF Kite Balloon Section who transported him to a field dressing station. The fuselage of his Snipe aircraft was recovered from the battlefield and is preserved at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario.
At a hospital in Rouen, France, Barker clung to life until mid-January 1919, and then was transported back to England. He was not fit enough to walk the necessary few paces for the VC investiture at Buckingham Palace until 1 March 1919.
Barker is officially credited with one captured, two (and seven shared) balloons destroyed, 33 (and two shared) aircraft destroyed, and five aircraft "out of control", the highest "destroyed" ratio for any RAF, RFC or RNAS pilot during the conflict. The Overseas Military Forces of Canada recognized Barker as "holding the record for fighting decorations" awarded in the First World War.
Most decorated hero
Barker returned to Canada in May 1919 as the most decorated Canadian of the war, with the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals for Military Valour, and the French Croix de guerre. He was also mentioned in despatches three times. The Canadian Daily Record, a publication of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada, wrote in December 1918 that William Barker of Dauphin, Manitoba was the Canadian holding the record for "most fighting decorations" in the war. No other Canadian soldier, sailor or airman has surpassed this record, and the Canadian War Museum exhibit, located in Ottawa, Ontario, states: "Lieutenant Colonel William G. Barker, one of the legendary aces of the war, remains the most decorated Canadian in military service." A plaque on his tomb in the mausoleum of Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery, officially unveiled on 22 September 2011, describes him as "The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations." Only two other servicemen in the history of the Commonwealth or Empire have received as many British medals for gallantry. These were Mick Mannock and James McCudden and, like Barker, both were "scout pilots" in the First World War. Barker, Mannock, and McCudden each received six British medals, including the Victoria Cross. McCudden was also awarded a French Croix de Guerre. But with his three foreign medals and three Mentions in Despatches, Barker received a total of 12 awards for valor.
Barker formed a business partnership, Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited, with fellow Victoria Cross recipient and Canadian ace Billy Bishop which lasted for about three years. In 1922 he rejoined the fledgling Canadian Air Force in the rank of Wing Commander, serving as the Station Commander of Camp Borden from 1922 to 1924.
Barker was appointed acting director of the RCAF in early 1924 and he graduated from RAF Staff College, Andover, in 1926. While waiting to start RAF Staff College Course No 4, Barker spent two weeks in Iraq with the RAF to learn more about the uses of airpower. He formally reported on his findings to the Minister of National Defence, and informally to Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, of the US Air Service. One of his achievements in the RCAF was the introduction of parachutes. After leaving the RCAF he became the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club and involved in tobacco growing farms in southwestern Ontario.
Barker continued to suffer from the physical effects of his 1918 gunshot wounds: his legs were permanently damaged and he suffered severely limited movement in his left arm. He also struggled with alcoholism in the last few years of his life. He died in 1930 when he lost control of his Fairchild KR-21 biplane trainer during a demonstration flight for the RCAF, at Air Station Rockcliffe, near Ottawa, Ontario. Barker, aged 35, was at the time the President and general manager of Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal.
His funeral, the largest national state event in Toronto's history, was attended by an honor guard of 2,000 soldiers. The cortege stretched for more than a mile and a half, and included the Chief of the General Staff and his senior officers, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Mayor of Toronto, three federal government cabinet ministers, and six other Victoria Cross recipients. An honor guard was also provided by the United States Army. Some 50,000 spectators lined the streets of Toronto en route to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Barker was interred in his wife's family crypt in the Mausoleum.
On 6 June 1931, an airport in Toronto was renamed Barker Field in his memory.
In his hometown, Dauphin, Manitoba, an elementary school, and the Barker Airport (dedicated in 1998) is named in his honor. The Dauphin squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets is named for Barker. An elementary school at CFB Borden in Ontario was also named after Barker before its closure in the mid-1990s. In 2012, Southport Aerospace Centre named their new flight student accommodation building after him. During the week of 8 January 1999, the Canadian Federal Government designated Barker a person of national historic significance. The Discovery Channel's Flightpath series, a television documentary, included an episode entitled "First of the Few", a biography of William Barker, broadcast in Canada on 27 April 1999. In 2003 History TV broadcast "The Hero's Hero – The Forgotten Life of William Barker."
Barker's only daughter, Jean Antoinette Mackenzie (née Barker), died in July 2007. On 22 September 2011, a memorial at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto was unveiled to mark William Barker as the "most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations."
- ^Constable, Miles. "William George 'Will' Barker: World War I Fighter Ace". Archived from the original on 31 March 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2007.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)Canadian Aces Home Page. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
- ^"Major William George Barker". Archived from the original on 31 March 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2007.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)constable.ca. Retrieved 28 September 2010.
- ^"Major William George Barker."billybishop.net. Retrieved: 28 September 2010.
- ^"Barker Family." sitescapers.com. Retrieved 28 September 2010.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 12–13.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 15, 19–20.
- ^"Barker."The Aerodrome. Retrieved 28 September 2010.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 38–42.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 50–52.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 56–57.
- ^ abcdShores et al. 1991, p. 62.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 80–81.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 84–85.
- ^Ralph 2007, p. 97.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 118–119.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 140–141.
- ^"No. 31042". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 November 1918. p. 14203.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 148–149.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 153–155.
- ^Shores et al. 1991, p. 63.
- ^"The Canadian Daily Record." Overseas Military Forces of Canada, edition of 5 December 1918.
- ^Pigott 2003, p. 26.
- ^, Marion, MWO Normand. "A War Hero at Camp Borden."Royal Canadian Air Force, 31 August 2005.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 157–162.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 229–230.
- ^Ralph 2007, pp. 237–239.
- ^Daubs, Katie. "The flying ace you've never heard of?"Toronto Star, 19 September 2011.
- Drew, George A. Canada's Fighting Airmen. Toronto: MacLean Publishing Co. Ltd., 1930.
- Enman, Charles. "Billy Barker: 'The Deadliest Air Fighter that ever Lived'." Ottawa Citizen, 12 November 2005, p. E6.
- Pigott, Peter. Taming the Skies: A Celebration of Canadian Flight. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-55002-469-2.
- Ralph, Wayne. Barker VC: The Classic Story of a Legendary First World War Hero. London: Grub Street, 1999. ISBN 1-902304-31-4.
- Ralph, Wayne. William Barker VC: The Life, Death & Legend of Canada's Most Decorated War Hero. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., 2007. ISBN 978-0-470-83967-6.
- Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces, 1915–20. London: Grub Street, 1991. ISBN 0-948817-19-4.
- Ralph, Wayne. BARKER, WILLIAM GEORGE
- William George Barker's digitized service file
- William George "Will" Barker
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- "The Great Air Fight", Flight and Aircraft Engineer, Flightglobal, 14 November 1918
- Burial location of William Barker: "Toronto"
- Location of William Barker's Victoria Cross, "Canadian War Museum"
- Legion Magazine Article on William George Barker
- William George Barker at Find a Grave
- Major William George Barker VC, DSO & bar, MC & 2 bars, Croix de Guerre, Medaglia al Valore Militare d'Argento & bar RFC, RAF
- Barker's Medals At The Canadian War Museum
- William George Barker – The Aerodrome – Aces and Aircraft of World War I at www.theaerodrome.com
- Barker at The Canadian Encyclopedia
- William George Barker at IMDb
- William Barker VC at www.mysteriesofcanada.com
- Death notice for Jean Barker Mackenzie
Thomas Jefferson Heads to Monticello
The same actor has portrayed Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg for 26 years. June 7 will be his last day.
Costumed actor Bill Barker is transferring to Monticello.
Barker is not only loved by guests but is also recognized nationwide as one of the most popular and knowledgable Thomas Jefferson interpreters. He has appeared on many prominent media outlets including CNN and PBS, and has been featured in national magazines such as Time and People.
His career as Jefferson kicked off in 1984 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Later, Barker founded Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builder program, a group of renowned actors who portray prominent members of 18th-century Williamsburg.
Barker has also portrayed Thomas Jefferson in Washington D.C. He has a passion for history which he combines with a love of the theater to bring Jefferson’s distinguished demeanor and notorious wit to life.
“Portraying Thomas Jefferson — in all his genius and complexity — is a daunting challenge, yet Bill Barker has succeeded where some of Hollywood’s finest have failed,” Monticello President Leslie Greene Bowman said in a press release.
Wikipedia bill barker
Bill Barker, one of Colonial Williamsburg’s star interpreters, specializes in being Thomas Jefferson. Some Williamsburg costumes are generic, while others, like Barker’s are specific to the characters, for he actually is an actor playing the role of Jefferson in a whole repertoire of historical speeches and Q & A sessions with visitors to the re-created city. Curators, specialists in eighteenth-century costume, study portraits, early manuscript store orders, a whol library of prints and even drawings to document the designs. Tailored to what is known about Jefferson’s taste in clothes, Barker’s costumes follow the highest standards of authentic textile and construction.
This article was originally published in White House History Number 32 Fall 2012
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Kurt Smith looked up from his shoes. Before him sat an older version of himself.
Smith was auditioning for the role of Governor Thomas Jefferson with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He was in character for the final segment of the audition, answering questions as Jefferson might.
The audition was nearly over when Thomas Jefferson himself — or, rather, longtime Jefferson interpreter Bill Barker — spoke up.
“He raised his hand, and I remember thinking, ‘Please, anyone ask a question but him,’” Smith said.
Barker asked Smith which legacy his late father left him was the most valuable. Was it the 7,000 acres Jefferson inherited?
Smith racked his mind until Jefferson’s words popped into his head.
“It was as direct of a Jefferson quote as I could muster from my then quite small Rolodex of quotes, but it applied directly to this,” Smith said. “I looked up from my shoes and said, ‘I would take the education my father provided me over the estate that he left me.’”
Barker shouted, “Bingo!” It was exactly the line he had in mind.
Colonial Williamsburg had found its second Jefferson interpreter.
A mentor in youth, a friend throughout life
Smith first sauntered down Duke of Gloucester Street in costume in the summer of 2016.
Following six months of study at the Rockefeller Library, Smith said he was scared to head out onto DoG Street and engage Colonial Williamsburg guests at all. That was the big stage, where the likes of Bill Barker performed. Smith felt his own Jefferson belonged on East Nicholson Street.
Just as Jefferson relied on mentors such as George Wythe, whom he referred to as “my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life,” Smith draws from Barker’s three decades of experience and research as he follows in his footsteps in the Historic Area.
Barker began depicting Jefferson, fittingly, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1984. He brought his act to Colonial Williamsburg in the early 1990s.
“For years and years I’ve been the only one out there,” Barker said. “I was the first name-brand historical sermon to come in here. I was the guinea pig for years, and still am in this mentoring capacity [with Smith], which I think is marvelous. Jefferson mentored so many, and I would’ve never got it without this opportunity.”
Now Barker has not only a protégé, but finally someone else with whom to share the experience of living his life in someone else’s shoes.
When Smith came into the fold in 2016, Barker welcomed him with open arms.
Barker shared more with Smith than Jefferson’s affections for Isaac Newton, John Loche and Francis Bacon; his violent outbursts of grief after his wife, Martha, died; his legislative attempts to curtail slavery while owning hundreds of slaves; or his taste for French cuisine and the architecture that he incorporated into Monticello’s designs.
“He gives his knowledge freely and gives Thomas Jefferson’s life to me to portray as I wish,” Smith said. “Bill doesn’t tell me how to interpret Jefferson, but rather gives me information and allows me to find Jefferson on my own.”
While Smith has been walking Duke of Gloucester Street as Jefferson for a year and a half, he still draws from Barker’s experience and willingness to offer guidance.
Barker, in turn, said having another Jefferson to speak with after 30 years is refreshing.
As they speak to one another they weave passages from Jefferson’s own letters into their speech. Only a slight drop in their voices demarks the boundary between interpreter and founding father.
Smith often looks to Barker as he repeats Jefferson’s words, deferring to the elder Jefferson when unsure if he quoted Jefferson precisely.
They trade bursts of sharp laughter about Jefferson’s embarrassing moments for brief pauses of silent contemplation over the ideals Jefferson scribbled on parchment that shaped the United States.
“He’s so incredibly relevant and continues to live on in so many ways,” Barker said. “He’s so enduring.”
Read and think
Both men come from acting backgrounds, and so they don’t feel as if they’re in character until they put on their costumes. They agreed that even when they change into street clothes, Jefferson remains both on and in their minds.
“I can’t help but turn on the television and see the news or read the newspapers and think, ‘Oh, I know what Jefferson would say about this,’” Barker said.
For the two Jeffersons, portraying him with historic veracity begins long before he enters the dressing room.
“When I asked him this early on, [Bill] said, ‘Go directly to the source,’” Smith said. “’Go read Jefferson. Read his words. We have 22,000 of his letters, so read him, and discover for yourself who he is.’”
Smith said his primary resource is “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” a collection of Jefferson’s letters and manuscripts compiled by Princeton University.
He did the math. If he dedicated 40 hours a week to reading Jefferson’s work – and assuming each paper took him five minutes to read – with about 70,000 papers in the collection, it would take him nearly three years to read them all.
“Clearly, I am behind,” Smith said.
Jefferson’s two interpreters said they found many things in common with Jefferson while combing through his correspondences. For example, Jefferson lived with his mother until he was 27, and only moved out because a fire destroyed her home.
Smith himself moved back home after college so he could pursue a career in acting.
“Unbeknownst to me, I was walking in well-trod footsteps,” he said.
The third president was also someone who savored every moment in life. After 30 years with Jefferson in his mind, Barker has adopted Jefferson’s propensity for quiet contemplation.
“In a 4 mph world he needed a place where he could simply get away and think,” Barker said. “I think the essence of Jefferson is simply this: think. Think about it.”
Just like the men who pore over his writings, Jefferson was an avid reader who tore through thousands of books in his lifetime. The subject of science and political philosophy were of particular interest, and he rarely spoke in absolutes outside the domains of scientific fact.
It’s clear to both men they can study Jefferson for their whole lives and never learn everything.
That won’t stop them from trying.
“I take it in the same way you would eat an elephant,” Smith said. “One bite at a time.”
For Barker, understanding Jefferson and conveying his persona to the public can be neatly described in two steps.
“Read, and think.”
Question with boldness
When Barker first dressed as Jefferson in Philadelphia, it was purely for photo ops and celebrations. He never envisioned the role would turn into a career.
Yet when he arrived in Independence Hall, the people he encountered spoke to him as if they were speaking to Jefferson himself.
“The questions were immediate, and I wanted to get them right,” Barker said.
The questions haven’t stopped since.
Early on in Smith’s time as Jefferson, Barker asked how he would respond, in character, to a particular question from a guest.
“I answered, ‘Well, I would take a page out of your book and say….’ Bill quietly stopped me and said, ‘No. We are interested in your interpretation of Jefferson. How do you see him answering?” Smith said. “This was a simple answer, but completely foundational in my understanding of portraying Jefferson.”
Whether as president or governor, when Thomas Jefferson walks through Colonial Williamsburg he draws the attention – and questions – of the park’s guests.
Not all of those questions are pleasant, or easy to answer.
Smith said when he first started, he was terrified of answering questions about religion, slavery and, in particular, about Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Jefferson had children. The questions even kept him up at night.
Read, and think. Jefferson wrote immense amounts about slavery and religion.
“Jefferson really sets you up for success on those topics,” Smith said. “All you have to do is read him and begin to incorporate these quotes.”
Jefferson boldly questioned everything except established scientific fact. Likewise, few things about him are cut and dry.
He introduced legislation to curtail slavery – and even prevent it from spreading to the Northwest Territories – but was unsuccessful in passing the bills into law. To Jefferson, the institution was a “moral depravity,” yet he refused to free his own slaves.
Jefferson’s interpreters don’t shy away from telling guests he viewed the future of slavery as a score for the next generation to settle.
Whether responding to a pointed remark about his misdeeds or making a child laugh about the time rats carried off Jefferson’s garters, Smith and Barker said engaging guests conjures Jefferson from the pages of a history book.
“The task I have given myself since day one at the Foundation is this: to portray Thomas Jefferson as a human; not the dark villain nor the deified god, but a very gray, very flawed, very raw, very hopeful human,” Smith said. “Within Jefferson is contained all the controversy, all the flaws, and all the promise that we Americans experience today.”
“He is us.”
Inside Colonial Williamsburg: The life of historical interpreter Dara King, 27
Inside Colonial Williamsburg with costume designer Brenda Rousseau
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