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Three Tall Men

By Jessica Marten, Assistant Curator
President’s Day 2009

In celebration of Lincoln’s bicentennial, the Memorial Art Gallery exhibition Lincoln in Rochester (2/12-4/26) gathers together over forty photographs, prints, sculptures and objects from Rochester’s cultural institutions and private lenders. Almost every work contains the wise and homely face of the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln. His was such a compelling visage that the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote “He has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful…” Lincoln’s face is such an integral part of his legend (i.e. the penny, the $5 bill, Mount Rushmore, an orange crate label on view in the gallery) that to many it’s become more symbol than mere countenance.

To me, Abe’s appearance has always been inextricably linked to that of my dad, Jerry Marten.

Jerry Marten

Jerry Marten

See what I mean? Beard? Check. Nose? Check. Ears? Check. Although not a traditionally handsome man, I saw such beauty in my dad’s face. He always wore facial hair of some kind, from a handle-bar moustache to a full beard. As a girl I would often sit on the bathroom sink to watch him shave. He used the old-fashioned cakes of shaving cream and a bristle brush. I loved the sound of the razor cutting through the bristly hair as he trimmed and tidied his face. My dad taught his four daughters that the most valuable thing we could do was to help other people – to leave a mark of compassion and generosity on this world.

Marten Girls

Carolyn, Jerry, and Jessica Marten (author), early 1980s

Dad passed away two days before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America and the first African-American to be elected to the highest office of our country. The death of my father, President Obama’s inauguration, Lincoln’s bicentennial – these three things are now forever tightly bound together inside of me. The inauguration that we all gathered together to watch on TV has already started to bleed into the pageantry of my father’s funeral – the police pallbearers, the bagpiper playing Ave Maria, the military folding of his burial flag at Calverton National Cemetery. (It was President Lincoln who signed into law the establishment of national cemeteries for veterans during the Civil War – one year after his first inauguration and three years before his funeral.)

This morning on my way to work I heard on the radio that Abraham Lincoln was ranked the best American president in a survey of 65 historians conducted by C-SPAN. Presidents were judged on categories like pursuing equal justice for all, crisis management, and vision. It is no surprise that President Obama has positioned himself alongside Abraham Lincoln in both substantive and symbolic ways – a moment of particularly symbolic beauty was Obama taking the oath of office on the same Bible that Honest Abe used at his first inauguration. These two American presidents share many commonalities – both tall men from Illinois with humble beginnings; both excellent speech writers; both seeking to unite, rather than divide. And their inauguration images contain such power. Capturing more than just a moment in time, these images symbolize our empowerment as citizens to make a mark.

Dad didn’t know about the election, much less the impending inauguration, as he had suffered with the cruel disease of dementia for the past 10 years. But I know he would have been impressed by this historic moment, as he had always been a history buff (in particular all things Civil War) and a seeker of fairness, tolerance, and justice. I imagine showing Abraham Lincoln and my dad (maybe even at the same time – why not? – it’s my imagination) a photo of the monumental crowd at Obama’s inauguration.

Barack Obama Inauguration Party, image by Matt Borowick, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 LicenseI wouldn’t look away from their faces. I’d watch their eyes scan the crowd; eyes that had already seen so much. What fun it would be! I would wait, breathless, to witness that thrilling moment when their expressive, weathered faces turned from confusion to understanding and from understanding to awe.


Comment from Christine Marten
Time: February 24, 2009, 12:32 pm

Jess, your entry was written with such eloquence and beauty. Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, and Jerry Marten…wouldn’t you love to witness the conversations they would all have together? Dad would have loved what you wrote.

Comment from Kathleen Sacco
Time: February 25, 2009, 12:42 am

The second I scrolled down to the picture of your dad I saw exactly what you saw before I even read the article. I burst immediately into tears. The likeness is astounding: the look, the temperament, the ideals, the honesty and humility, the life long pursuit of justice and tolerance, the guiding, gentle spirit and, most especially, the bigger than life-ness of these three men.

The Lincoln story I heard on my way to work this morning was about the magnitude and magnificence of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The statue and pedestal are 30 feet high and sit on top of several tiers of steps. The structure that surrounds it is between 100 to 200 feet in every direction. It’s tremendous. I remembered how speechless and awestruck I was when I first experienced this majestic monument and the feeling of overwhelming gratitude that took me over in this almost spiritual place.

The hundreds of thousands of people who gathered on the National Mall to witness the inauguration of our long awaited, gifted and talented (yep) president evoked the same sense of gratitude and awe. Obama’s empowering speech tonight was reminiscent of that historic moment.

I think I can safely say that I’ve been grateful since the first day I met your dad and it was wonderful to meet so many people at his funeral who felt the same way. He brought hope and joy to so many people and was instrumental in helping so many broken souls put their lives back together and become once again complete. His basic beliefs changed people’s lives. How Lincoln/Obama is that?!

I’m also reminded of the very large (10 feet?) Jesus statue that was suspended over the altar and seemed to welcome your dad, and indeed the entire congregation, into the safety of the church. I’m not usually moved by this type of thing, but somehow in this setting I felt elated, enormously happy, and absolutely certain that the last 10 years of your dad’s broken life had been put back together and that he was again a complete and joyful soul. It was definitely spiritual and definitely bigger than life-ness.

Comment from Jeannie Duffy-Rice
Time: February 25, 2009, 2:15 pm

Wow Jess what a great blog! My Mom fwded this on to me, it is beautifully written, I’m sure your Dad would have loved it!

Comment from Mary D
Time: February 25, 2009, 2:15 pm

Wow! How I enjoyed reading your blog. Your father would have loved reading your sentiments – how proud he would have been!!

Please keep in touch, love hearing from you.

Comment from Carolyn Reuter
Time: February 25, 2009, 6:05 pm

This peice is beautifully written… touching.

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