Being Ben: Historian takes on role of Benjamin Franklin

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Being Ben: Historian takes on role of Benjamin Franklin

By GAIL WESTERFIELD
Published Monday, June 7, 2010   |  960 Words  |  neighbors

Steve Nousen described his vacation time in the Northeast as "a sort of pilgrimage. I'm out here doing some personal things and some Franklin things."
Those "Franklin things" are visits to areas important in the life of founding father Benjamin Franklin, whom Beaufortonian Nousen impersonates to give history lectures.
Speaking via phone, he said he was presently touring the place on Staten Island, N.Y., where Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge went to visit British Admiral Howe on Sept. 11, 1776, in a final attempt to reconcile the differences between the two nations before an all-out war.
He had recently come from Burlington, N.J., where Franklin, as a 22-year-old, was the first to print money for the colony of New Jersey.
Nousen grew up in Oregon and went to the State Teacher's College, which today is Western Oregon University. After teaching high school social studies for 14 years, he began working for Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., in 1984. He later served as Hatfield's last chief of staff for five years until the senator's retirement in 1996. Nousen remained in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist until June 2008 when he retired, and he and his wife moved to Habersham.
They had seen the community advertised and came to Beaufort to check it out. They liked the design and concept, he said, and as soon as they arrived to have a look, both decided, "this feels like home." They bought a house within the month and have lived here for a year and a half.
Nousen admitted that the "prospect of never having to shovel snow again" was alluring to the couple as well. Referring to the snowfall this past February and its one-day accumulation, he said, "I was able to clean my porch with a broom. I said, 'If that's as bad as it gets, I'm okay with that!'"
AGING GRACEFULLY
Though he estimated he has only seriously been doing impersonation gigs for five years, Nousen started in earnest 10 years ago after he wrote into a job evaluation that he would find a unique way to do a presentation to a monthly board of directors meeting.
He'd had the idea of impersonating Franklin "in mind for a decade but never took it seriously" but had "always wondered what would happen if I did it." He decided to take a chance and said his performance at the meeting was a hit.
He said he'd always been fascinated by the Revolutionary War and Colonial America, "and Franklin is the one guy who ties it all together." Franklin was born in 1706 and lived to the age of 84, which was somewhat unusual for the time, Nousen said, but he "got great genes" from his parents. His father was 89 and his mother 87 when they died.
Because Franklin lived through the better part of the 18th century, he saw and took part in many of the formative events of American society, Nousen said. Franklin "saw us go through from being an outpost of the British empire to being a free and independent country. I would argue ... that no one did more for the cause of independence than he did." He called Franklin "the most important founding father" -- or at least, "he's definitely in the top two or three."
Another advantage of Franklin's relatively advanced age at his death? "I can do (the impersonation) for awhile," Nousen said with a laugh. "I'm not tall enough to be Thomas Jefferson, and (Franklin) was bald and overweight, so I fit the bill in a couple of ways."
Nousen said Franklin was "a hale fellow well-met.' Everyone who knew him loved him, and he drew people to him. In any group or at a tavern, people were drawn to him and liked him.
"Unlike (John) Adams, Franklin was not a good speaker, but he wrote extraordinarily well and was a fabulous storyteller."
OLLI OPPORTUNITY
Since his retirement, Nousen said he has probably done more reading than he has ever done before, and much of it is about Franklin.
"His life is like an onion, layers on layers, and you peel them away."
As part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute summer program, Nousen will offer a lecture as Franklin on July 1. In his talk, Nousen said he will "describe myself as a time-traveler," and focus somewhat on Franklin's relationship to South Carolina. When discussing the time when the former British colonies became a free and independent nation, he will "weave in the significant role Franklin had in founding the first newspaper in South Carolina, Charleston's South Carolina Gazette in 1732."
While he tells some particulars relating Franklin to our state, his lectures are "more a 'life and times of Ben Franklin.' Audiences enjoy the (question-and-answer) session as much as anything. We're really able to have a conversation, a dialogue." He said audiences seem most interested in "probing into what Franklin did that relates to us in the 21st century."
When he's not impersonating Ben Franklin, Nousen is a golfer who said he "loves the golf opportunities in the Beaufort and Hilton Head area." He said his post-retirement plan is "really just kind of relaxing and trying to find my calling. I thought my calling was going to be golf, but it turned into my passion for Franklin."
He admits people try to stump him sometimes, and occasionally they succeed. Not long ago he spoke to the Sons of the American Revolution on Hilton Head, and "someone asked me about an aspect of Franklin's work in Paris, and I had no idea what they meant," but by "playing Franklin as an old man, I can conveniently forget some things."