If it looks like Thomas Jefferson and talks like him, it's Rob Coles

November 21, 1993|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

Dressed in a Colonial style suit with coat, waistcoat, ruffled shirt, knee breeches and stockings, a dignified Thomas Jefferson talked to students of North Harford Middle School on Thursday and shared with them "a few recollections" from his lifetime as statesman, scholar and patriot.

"The Declaration of Independence was like a navigational chart," Mr. Jefferson, who wrote the 18th-century document, told the audience of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in a distinctive Southern voice. "It put everybody on the same course."

Standing in the shoes of the nation's third president was his great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Rob Coles, a 39-year-old Virginian who lives near Monticello -- the mountaintop estate in Charlottesville, Va., that was Thomas Jefferson's home. Mr. Coles, like Mr. Jefferson, is 6 feet 2 inches tall, and has red hair and freckles. He is said to bear a striking resemblance to the man who was noted as diplomat, political thinker, architect, scientific farmer, inventor, avid reader, book collector and musician.

"I try to make him come to life," said Mr. Coles of his "Meet Thomas Jefferson" presentations. "And I try to give an overview of what he accomplished during his lifetime. Sometimes people really think it is Thomas Jefferson."

During his 30-minute monologue, the performer recalled his childhood at Shadwell -- the family farm near Monticello -- the debates concerning "the serious question of independence," the death of his wife, Martha, his many years of public service and his life at Monticello.

He spoke of his school days at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg where he studied law and "heard more good talk and more good sense than I would ever hear again."

He shared stories about his contemporaries: Patrick Henry, John Adams, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin. And he told the students that reading was "the greatest of all amusements" and said that he was able to read in seven languages and was determined to read as many books as possible.

"I thought he was neat," said 13-year-old eighth-grader Erin Goodwin, who got the chance to talk with Mr. Coles when he visited several classrooms after the performances. "He looked a lot like Thomas Jefferson."

Erin is a student in one of teacher Barbara DeRose's language arts classes, where the performer talked with young people both as Thomas Jefferson and as Rob Coles. Erin and her fellow

students wanted to know more about Jefferson's life.

"Why didn't you want your house to look like other houses?" Erin asked. "Why did you invent a new money system?" wondered George Farinholt, who is 13.

"Why did you have slaves if you did not approve of slavery?" said Pat Lau, also 13.

"You have many interests," said 12-year- old Mindy Maccubbin. "How do you find time to do all of them?"

"Why is letter-writing important to you?" asked Mike Lurz, 13.

After answering the questions addressed to Jefferson, Mr. Coles told the youngsters that his own life is considerably different from that of his famous forebear, but they both share a love of books: "I like to read and one of the things I do enjoy reading about is Thomas Jefferson."

"I wanted them to experience his love of books," the students' teacher, Mrs. DeRose, said of Jefferson, who once had nearly 7,000 volumes in his library at Monticello.

Mr. Coles began portraying his famous kin in public performances 15 years ago and now commands fees ranging from $400 to $1,000. He has appeared in 31 states as well as in Canada and Italy. His visit to the Pylesville school north of Rocks State Park was sponsored by the cultural arts committee of the Parent Teacher Student Association.

Interest in his performances has grown this year as the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth is commemorated, Mr. Coles said. By the end of the year he will have made about 100 public appearances.

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