'President Madison' visits Auke Bay

Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Students at Auke Bay Elementary were treated to a presidential visit Tuesday when the fourth United States president spoke at several classes.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

“President James Madison,” interpreted by Sarah Everett, told stories of his life and ongoing politics up through Jan. 4 — 1811 — two years into his presidency.

As Madison approached a classroom, students craned their necks trying to grab a first peek at the 59-year-old president.

“Hello, how do you do?” he greeted Deborah Eriksen’s fifth-grade class. “I come before you 200 years to the day.”

Everett, from Juneau, is a theater major at James Madison University in Virginia and was home on break Tuesday. Everett has extensively studied Madison via primary and secondary resources, and even had clothing tailored for her to resemble what Madison wore, which works well since she is of similar stature.

“Madison” spoke of his life growing up at Montpelier, a tobacco plantation; going to boarding school where classes were taught by a Scotsman (which is why Madison’s French has a Scottish burr); going to college at Princeton and his love of education. In fact, Madison said he completed four years of university in two, but had become so tired and sickly from doing so he was unable to make it to his own graduation. He tended to be a sickly child and didn’t expect to live a very long life, he said, so post-college he wasn’t enthusiastic about pursuing a career. Given he was the first-born son of a plantation owner, his options were to become a merchant, doctor, politician, minister or to continue the family farming business. Initially, none of those appealed to him, until around 1776. At that time, he was age 25 and became actively engaged in politics.

“I was very enthusiastic about politics,” he said. “I was very thoughtful about how I might serve my country.”

Madison spoke of the different documents that were drafted, reforged, and thrown out on the way to completing the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Madison also spoke of his wife, Dolley, whom he met in 1794 and married five months later. He had seen her in a courtyard one day and asked Aaron Burr, who was living in the same building as her, to introduce him.

Students asked Madison questions of his time, and confused and shocked him when they got a bit out of his era.

His favorite food isn’t a specific item, but French cuisine. He particularly enjoys Spanish Madeira, but only a small amount after dinner — he never gets drunk.

His hobbies are reading, writing, horseback riding and watching horse and dog races — but he never gambles on those.

One student asked him about the White House burning down and his wife saving the pictures.

“I hope that doesn’t happen,” a shocked Madison said of the fire, but he could see his wife trying to secure those treasures. The fire occurred in 1814 as part of the War of 1812.

Madison’s favorite color is black.

“It is a modest color,” he said. “It is a gentleman’s color. Other gentlemen of my time wear oranges, blues and browns.”

As for pets, Madison has 26 horses and other livestock. His favorite is his horse, Liberty, a light-brown mare.

“I am the smallest of all the presidents,” he said. “I’ve always had horses that are too big for me and very uncomfortable.”

Why did he name her Liberty?

“Liberty is the most precious of all principles established in our Constitution,” Madison said.

Does Mr. Madison play sports?

“Might you enlighten me to the term?” a confused Madison asked. Once clarified, he said he likes to play an early form of tennis called racquet and polo.

As Madison left to talk to another class, students excitedly talked about how much they liked the interaction.

Eriksen said the fifth-graders are working on a “wax museum” project, where the students will impersonate anyone from history — living or dead — who has positively impacted society. She said some of the people selected so far are Amelia Earhart, Joe Montana and Barack Obama. They will make their presentations on Feb. 17, and Eriksen hopes her students were inspired by Everett’s work with Madison.

Fifth-grader Sophia Puliafico said she thought Madison’s appearance was cool.

“I learned a lot about his childhood,” she said. “I think she did really good. I didn’t realize we were talking to a girl. It seemed like talking to him.”

Meg Kurland, also in Eriksen’s class, also liked the enactment.

“I thought it was really good,” she said. “She stayed in character the entire time.”

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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