Monday, April 12, 2004
On this date in 1958, John F. Kennedy, who was then still a U.S. Senator, delivered a speech at Dickinson State College titled Moral and Spiritual Imperatives of Free Government. He was honoring the memory of T.R.’s 100th birthday at the first Theodore Roosevelt Symposium.
Yesterday was also a notable anniversary for Clay Jenkinson, who, too, is related – in a way – to presidential history. He portrays Thomas Jefferson on his radio program, “The Jefferson Hour.”
On April 11th, 1994, Jenkinson portrayed Thomas Jefferson during a gathering hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton. It was the first time a public humanities scholar ever presented a program at a White House-sponsored event.
Clay was born in Minot but grew up mostly in Dickinson. When he was 15, he landed a job as chief photographer for the Dickinson Press, which allowed him to leave school a couple of times a week to go out into the Badlands on newspaper work. He calls it “the making moment of my life.” Later he went to Oxford as a Rhodes and Danforth Scholar. He became increasingly interested in Lewis and Clark and did extensive traveling along their expedition route. In fact, in 1985 he hiked the entire course of the Little Missouri River.
Jenkinson also did in-depth research on the Corp of Discovery’s champion, Thomas Jefferson – an interest that ultimately led to his national radio program. For those of you who have never heard “The Jefferson Hour,” Jenkinson portrays President Jefferson on the show. During interviews about current events, he answers questions in character, speaking from Jefferson’s personal and political perspective.
Jenkinson has become popular on “real-time” talk shows as well. He’s appeared on the Today Show, Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, CNN, and a variety of other national and regional broadcasts. When Ken Burns did his documentary on Thomas Jefferson, it was Jenkinson he called in as a collaborator.
Clay also portrays Meriwether Lewis and J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose name is forever linked to the Atom Bomb. He is also an author; among his publications is a booklet called A Lewis and Clark Chapbook, published by the ND Humanities Council, in which he offers us many words of wisdom for those of us who will be meeting Lewis and Clark tourists in the next few years.
“Long after visitors go away,” he writes,”…they will remember the quality of their experiences on the Lewis and Clark Trail. These will have a great deal to do with human contact, and not much to do with American History. The people who come here will be full of questions. Some… will be about Lewis and Clark. Many will be about Sacagawea. Some will be about the Indians of North Dakota.”
Jenkinson goes on to urge us to be well-informed, to know our stuff and to not perpetuate “bad history.” He urges us in another direction as well. “It is important that we help promote good relations between Indians and the white community,” he writes. “This is a time to introduce outsiders to North Dakota Indian life. It is also an opportunity for race dialogue and indeed racial healing within North Dakota… When visitors… say things about Lewis and Clark, North Dakota, and American Indians that you know are not true, you can lead them to a better understanding.”
Jenikinson’s lastest book is “A Vast and Open Plain: The Writings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in North Dakota, 1804-1806,” Published by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He has also written of North Dakota in Message on the Wind: A Spiritual Odyssey on the Northern Plains.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm