DECATUR — Gov. Richard J. Oglesby, looking remarkably spry in this, the 198th year since he was born, paused outside his spectacular downtown Decatur mansion Sunday afternoon to consider an extraordinary life.
“The hardest thing to show is what a marvelous personality he had,” said Oglesby, otherwise known as William Horton; the retired Decatur fifth grade teacher has been portraying Oglesby for some 15 years and can’t help but like his alter ego.
“And he was such a survivor, considering his many life experiences,” added Horton, a mere youngster himself at 74.
Sunday, the circa 1874 mansion was celebrating its illustrious former owner’s birthday a day early (July 25, 1824) by throwing a Garden Party. The sumptuous woodwork of the grand home’s interior was bedecked with balloons and, a first for many visitors, the back garden was thrown open for children’s games and events.
On top of that there was what Jane Rademacher, a member of the home’s board of directors, described as a full birthday spread: sandwiches, cakes, finger foods, punch, lemonade and tea, all served free from 4 to 6 p.m.
Rademacher explained that Oglesby is a man constantly worth celebrating, and the people entrusted with the care of his home want to push the boat out again to mark significant events in his life now that COVID is fading into history.
A brief rundown of Oglesby’s achievements: a lawyer, he fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846-47 and nearly captured Mexican President General Santa Anna, and instead took custody of the general’s wooden leg which he left behind after fleeing. Oglesby would next head west and come back with more than $5,000 in gold from the 1849 California gold rush, which he later spun into a real estate fortune in Decatur.
Richard Oglesby launched Lincoln, served Union and Illinois
A great friend of Abraham Lincoln, he was instrumental in pushing Lincoln’s presidential aspirations and was with him the day he died from an assassin’s bullet, bringing his body back home to Illinois. Oglesby had also served in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Brigadier General, and a 1-ounce bullet he stopped while fighting in Mississippi would, inoperable, stay with him for the rest of his life.
Oglesby also managed to travel the world and fit in three non-consecutive terms as governor of Illinois and serve six years in the U.S. Senate. He would die in 1899 at the age of 74 after having seemed to have lived a dozen lifetimes.
Rademacher, standing beneath a grape arbor in the beautiful backyard full of flowers Oglesby would have been familiar with, said: “Oglesby was important to our community and important to the United States itself; Illinois was the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery while Oglesby was governor.”
Horton, the man who became him once more for Sunday, had an actual entry from Oglesby’s diary he read to younger visitors as part of the celebrations. Oglesby wrote it on July 25, 1890, after he had just turned 67.
“I am devoutly thankful that my wife and children are spared to me to make my old age agreeable and life so enjoyable,” he wrote. “God grant they too may all receive the same indulgence and mercy shown to me. And now, in humility before that mysterious power which presides over all our matters, I enter upon my 67th year and trust to the Lord.”
Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid