SPOTLIGHT: Former teacher takes on civil war roles

By Chris Dettro

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken March 7, 2012, Betty Kay portrays Mother Bickerdyke, a volunteer from northern Illinois who only hoped to accompany supplies from Galesburg to the ailing soldiers from her hometown during the Civil War but stayed for five years within the military organizing union hospitals and attending to the needs of wounded and sick soldiers, at the Petersburg Women's club in Petersburg, Ill. It is part of her three-in-one-woman show, “Three Illinois Women in the Civil War.”

The State Journal-Register, Jason Johnson, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Betty Kay never has to worry about losing her identity. If she misplaces one, she always can turn to another of the factual Lincoln-era characters she has developed and now presents to groups all around Illinois.

Kay was in Jerseyville, Petersburg and Williamsville earlier this month, doing her three-in-one-woman show, "Three Illinois Women in the Civil War."

Donning a blue Union jacket, she becomes Albert Cashier, who was born Jennie Hodgers in Ireland but came to the U.S. and enlisted in the Union Army as a man to fight in more than 40 battles and skirmishes. A skirt and bonnet transform Kay into Mother Bickerdyke, a Galesburg woman who left her home to help ailing hometown soldiers mustered at Cairo but stayed on to travel with Gens. Grant and Sherman to give aid to soldiers elsewhere.

Finally, she is Julia Dent Grant, wife of the general, who during a victory parade in May 1865 talks about life with her husband.

Kay, who lives in Jacksonville, began her characterizations soon after she retired from a career as a first-grade teacher in the Springfield School District in 2004. She taught at various times at Lincoln, Matheny, Pleasant Hill and Wilcox schools.

"I've been on the road ever since," Kay said.

Before she retired, she had started writing books for elementary school readers and afterward spoke at schools about how to write.

"But I found that boring," she said. "You start out with an idea, and it all flows from there."

She also discovered that if all you do is write the book, "you're just one in a million."

Her various personas came about as a way to promote her books.

"I started out as Mrs. Mary Rutledge, Ann's mother," she said. "It goes along with my books."

Her 11 books include the five-book "Americans of Character" series (including Abraham Lincoln) for grades 1 to 3, and three books that are aimed at junior high age but also appeal to adults: "Illinois From A to Z," ''The Lincolns From A to Z," and most recently, "The Civil War From A to Z: Two Points of View."

She did "The Lincolns From A to Z" as she looked ahead to the Lincoln Bicentennial in 2009.

"I got pictures from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, where I was a volunteer, at a really good price," she said. "I started doing Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Mary Lincoln's older sister and wife of Ninian W. Edwards, to go along with that."

She said the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library has a file with some of the letters of Elizabeth Todd Edwards that she used to enhance her performance. She has been Mrs. Edwards before more than 250 audiences.

"I still do that one," she said.

"Then we were hot on the heels of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War," Kay said. "I decided to follow the same format with 'The Civil From War A to Z.'"

"One of my favorite places to volunteer at the museum was in the War Gallery with all the photographs," she said. "I always was charmed by the picture of Albert Cashier.

"He was illiterate, so there were no journals, no letters," she said. "I got information from the Quincy Veterans Home, where he lived after his leg was broken when he was struck by a car in his home of Saunemin in Livingston County in 1910. "

More than 300 women are thought to have served as men — on both sides — during the Civil War.

"I then decided I should do another one, and picked Mother Bickerdyke," Kay said. "There was a book written about her, so it was easy to get information."

To complete her triumvirate, Kay added Julia Grant and placed her waving a flag at a victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on May 23-24, 1865.

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