WASHINGTON – In the oak-paneled hush of the reading room overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, Karen Needles mostly works alone — but always in good company.
Five mornings a week, Needles signs in at the National Archives, often wearing an Abraham Lincoln T-shirt, and her hand sets to work atop a Lincoln mouse pad. Some days, she stations an Honest Abe bobblehead beside her laptop, his bearded chin seemingly nodding approval.
Here, backed by bound volumes of Lincoln's writings and three blocks from where, 150 years ago this week, he was felled by an assassin's bullet, Needles is on a self-appointed mission: to bring the Great Emancipator to life.
"They call me Lady Lincoln," chuckles the former middle school history teacher who digitally scans every original record she can from Lincoln's administration — from letters he signed to his final paycheck for $1,981.67 — posting them online for anyone to see without charge.
To Needles, raised in small town Kansas and first in her family to go to college, Lincoln has long been a role model. But in a new era of poisoned politics, she says, we could all use some Lincoln. She laughs, thinking how satisfying it would be if his seated likeness at the Lincoln Memorial could take a few of today's politicians over his knee and give them what-for.
"Lincoln never dies," she says.
Lincoln's life in memory began almost immediately after he was shot on April 14, 1865. The country embarked on a 1,700-mile funeral that stretched from the capital through seven states. Crowds lined the rails, even in the dark, in an outpouring that has never been rivaled. They mourned Lincoln as a proxy for all the young men who'd never be coming home from war.
But that was a long time ago and Lincoln belongs to history now. Or does he?
From Washington to Lincoln's resting place in Springfield, Illinois, the commemoration of his death echoes past grief and a nation's defining struggle.
But it also stirs the voices of Lincoln's many modern-day admirers, people like Needles. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, people continue to connect with him in almost personal terms, while searching anew for his relevance to the Republic he left behind.
"There was a rush towards the President's box when cries were heard — 'Stand back and give him air.' ...The entire city to-night presents a scene of wild excitement, accompanied by violent expressions of the profoundest sorrow." — Washington, April 14, 1865, The Associated Press
When tourists queue in front of Ford's Theatre on a recent blustery morning, 9-year-old Luke Ring is near the front, blond hair poking out from under the dark blue cap of a Union soldier.
"I like that he was president during the Civil War and he wanted freedom for the slaves," says the boy, here with his parents and three siblings. "I like everything about him. He's just really cool."
The Rings, from Franklin, Tennessee, have arrived by way of Gettysburg, scene for one of the most recalled moments of Lincoln's presidency. But this spring break history lesson wouldn't be complete without gazing into the theater box, draped in red, white and blue bunting, where John Wilkes Booth drew his pistol.
Lincoln's death, in the backroom of a boarding house across the street, elevated him to martyrdom, says Richard Wightman Fox, author of "Lincoln's Body: A Cultural History." For a century, Americans with a cause attached themselves to that legacy, right up to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
"Lincoln is important today, but it's a different kind of importance," Fox says. He still embodies the American ideal that anyone can reach the pinnacle, even from the most humble beginnings. But with Lincoln now used to market everything from auto insurance to barbecue sauce, the aura of sainthood has faded.
Instead, for many, he is the approachable president, looked to as a "model for what it means to be a leader," Fox says.
"His vision still resonates in American culture -- that we can always do better," says Tyler Ring, Luke's father.
At the Memorial, throngs of visitors pose for photos with Lincoln's 19-foot statue. But some pause to study his words engraved in the Indiana limestone. Sherri Bell, a market development manager from Indianapolis, clasps boyfriend Brien Smith's arm, as they read Lincoln's second inaugural address.
"He was very real," Bell says. "He was president, but he seemed liked a regular person, with all the pain and suffering and decisions."
"From the White House to the Capitol, the roofs, porticos, windows and all elevated points were occupied by interested spectators ... This was the largest funeral procession that ever took place in Washington ... Many thousands of hearts throbbed in unison with the solemn dirges, as the procession slowly moved upon the way." — Washington, D.C., April 19, 1865, AP
From Washington, the funeral train traveled to Baltimore, then Philadelphia, where lines to view Lincoln's body stretched three miles from Independence Hall. In Jersey City, New Jersey, German immigrants mourned so vigorously their songs were heard across the water in New York — where 120,000 later filed past the coffin.
Then the 9-car procession continued north, retracing nearly all of Lincoln's 1861 route to the White House.
On that celebratory first journey, the train had stopped briefly at Peekskill, New York, and for decades the Hudson River town has relished its brush with greatness. Each year, the local Lincoln Society holds a dinner, and last year, Peekskill's restored train station opened as the Lincoln Depot Museum.
Most of the stations where the funeral train stopped are long gone. But the little brick building where mourning locals gathered is the same place that today New York commuters hurtle past morning and night.
Last year, Tony Czarnecki, a past president of the society, heard that someone had built an exact replica of Lincoln's coffin. In fact, there are four, made by Indiana's Batesville Casket Co. — one for a museum and the rest sent to funeral homes and others that ask to exhibit them, usually for events around Lincoln's birthday.
"This year they're booked for the entire year," company spokeswoman Teresa Gyulafia says.
In late April, one of those walnut coffins, covered in black broadcloth, will lie in state in Peekskill's depot, with Civil War re-enactors standing sentry. Visitors will sign a condolence book to be sent to Springfield.
"We wouldn't be the country that we are without the Union that he preserved," Czarnecki says. "We honor that in ways large and small."
"The body of President Lincoln arrived here at ten o'clock ... The stores are all closed, the whole population is in the streets, bells tolling, and minute guns firing. The weather is unpleasant; a fine mist falling and the lowering sky add to the sadness which is depicted on every countenance."
— Baltimore, April 21, 1865, The Daily Age of Philadelphia
People bond with Lincoln in their own way.
Mary Coe Foran's fascination with him dates to childhood, when her family treasured a swatch of cloth, stained with blood, reputedly cut from the dress of the actress who cradled the dying Lincoln's head. She recalls the many questions it prompted.
Foran became a teacher, won a grant to study Lincoln in Springfield, where her family has its roots, and returned to Nashua, New Hampshire, bent on passing on her enthusiasm.
When Foran heard that Springfield would re-enact Lincoln's funeral, she signed up along with her mother, father, brother and son — who will play the part of Lincoln's eldest son. And she recruited 10 Fairgrounds Middle School students, who started their own Lincoln Association, meeting after school to research the period so they could make an exact replica of Robert Todd Lincoln's frockcoat.
"To me," Foran says, "it's about connection and it's about trying to understand people."
The Rev. Duncan Newcomer was so drawn to Lincoln that he wrote his divinity school thesis on the Illinoisan. At 23, he spent $500 to commission a painting of Lincoln that still hangs next to his desk.
Leading congregations in Kentucky and Connecticut, Newcomer sermonized about Lincoln. Later, as a psychotherapist, Newcomer says he found Lincoln a prism for understanding people's struggles.
Today, 71 and living in Belfast, Maine, Newcomer says Lincoln remains present as a template for Americans still struggling with race relations and societal conflict.
"I do feel like he's been some kind of soul mate for me," Newcomer says.
"There were no social lines, no boundaries between condition separating those who, in solemn pageant, moved past the coffin that held the mortal parts of Abraham Lincoln. The banker and merchant walked side by side with the laborer, the lad of fashion and estate with the lowly kitchen maid..." — Cleveland, April 29, 1865, Cleveland Leader
People have been carving and casting tributes to Lincoln ever since his death. But inside a mechanical workshop in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Dave Kloke has found a decidedly different way to honor him.
Kloke, owner of a home construction business, became an admirer 20 years ago after watching a documentary about Lincoln's push to build the transcontinental railroad, even as the Civil War raged.
The initiative and the machinery intrigued him. So Kloke put his skills to use and built a working replica of a 1860s steam engine, completed about nine years ago. Looking for a follow-up, he took a friend's suggestion and began researching the custom-made train car that carried Lincoln's coffin. The original car was destroyed in a 1911 fire.
Over the past five years, Kloke has built a copy of the dark maroon car, with gold leaf and brass fittings. He had hoped to hook it to the locomotive and re-travel the funeral train's exact route, but couldn't find financial sponsors. In recent weeks, though, he and other volunteers have scrambled to finish painting and upholstering, to get the car to Springfield by early May, before going on tour.
Of Lincoln, Kloke says, "I just think he lived like I try to live my life, just trying to be an honest person and going forward and doing the right thing."
"Along the road the people appeared to the number of thousands, carrying torches and kindling bonfires to enable them clearly to see the funeral car, or as if to light it on its way."
— April 30, 1865, between Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, New York Herald
The night before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address, a crowd gathered under his hotel window to sing a welcome. After 150 years, though, their song — "We Are Coming Father Abraham" — had largely faded from memory.
Then Don Johnson, a former firefighter who now makes a living playing and teaching classical trumpet, got a call. Johnson, who lives near Lebanon, Kentucky, had played in Civil War bands but knew relatively little about the president, when he heard producers were searching for musicians to recreate period military tunes for the 2012 film, "Lincoln."
Johnson recruited the band for the film, then kept it together as "President Lincoln's Own." And watching modern audiences react to the tunes and the stories of turmoil behind them, he began to appreciate Lincoln in ways he hadn't considered.
One audience, clapping to an upbeat number, turned silent and a man wept when the band sounded the mournful "Home Sweet Home," which was played in unison by Union and Confederate troops encamped along the Rappahannock River. Another piece, from a favorite Lincoln opera about war and sacrifice, made Johnson consider that the president knew many he sent to battle would not return.
Those tunes will live again when Johnson's band marches in the re-enactment of Lincoln's funeral.
"All you need to do is just look at his face and you can see the kindness in him...," Johnson says. "I think we connect every time we have a concert."
"But Illinois when she saw her Lincoln made President, and now, when she receives his cold ashes, contrasts (as) widely as heaven and hell. And yet she finds some balm for her grief in pride that he in whom they first saw virtue and greatness is now reckoned by the whole nation as greatest and most worthy." — Chicago, May 1, 1865, New York Tribune
The first school bus arrives curbside just after 9, and soon the rotunda of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield echoes with fifth graders.
"This is Lincoln's story," volunteer Stephen Sauer, a retired history teacher, tells students gathered on a bench. Over his shoulder, a young Abe sits on a stump outside a reimagining of his family's Indiana log cabin. Across the way, the facade of the White House beckons. "As you wander through his journey, you'll see him grow and change."
Students from nearby Pleasant Plains Elementary pause before Civil War photos, including one of a 10-year-old soldier. "Holy smoke!" one boy says. A doorway leads to a darkened chamber, where the sounds of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" play over a replica of Lincoln's coffin.
"It's hard to imagine that it actually happened," says fifth grader Nevaeh Ezzo, who is black.
"The world would be very different, there would still be slavery, if it weren't for Lincoln," a white classmate, Dylan Schaller, says.
"I think it's his relatability that makes him a perennially fascinating individual," says Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, at the neighboring presidential library.
Like Lincoln, we're still wrestling with questions and conflicts surrounding race, the balance between state's rights and federal power, and the frustrations of self-government, he says. Lincoln's place in those debates continues to draw people looking for answers.
Robert Davis' journey began as a boy in Detroit, hearing elders talk of his great grandparents' life after slavery and the family's migration — accounts always dated relative to Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march through the South.
Davis, now 72 and retired to Springfield after a career in business, became a student of Lincoln. In his spare time, he dons a Union uniform to join Civil War re-enactments, playing a runaway slave who joined the United States Colored Troops. To commemorate the assassination, he is directing Springfield teens in a play about the abolition of slavery, with the role of Lincoln to be played by a black woman.
"I think Lincoln was one of those men who could see through the fog of time, the fog of history, and he had a vision of a road for this country," Davis says. "We're not there yet. Ferguson showed us that. We're not there yet, but we're still on that road."
Any student of history knows how Lincoln's journey ended. But on an overcast afternoon, visitors circle into Oak Ridge Cemetery, still trying to get close to him.
"There's this kind of quietness that we feel," says Kristin Petersen, 27, of Clarksville, Arkansas, pausing with her fiance for a moment of remembrance on the grass before the tomb. "It didn't feel sad, it felt peaceful. It was more like being grateful."
A few minutes later, 10-year-old Ryan Harvey and his parents, Phil and Jennifer, visiting for the day from Gurnee, Illinois, come to pay their respects.
Ryan lays a penny atop the stone marking where Lincoln was first buried. He rubs the nose on a bronze sculpture of the president's head, burnished smooth and gold by visitors hoping Abe brings them luck.
"I can feel that he's still here, somehow," Ryan says.
Adam Geller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller