He was very real. He was president, but he seemed liked a regular person, with all the pain and suffering and decisions... —Sherri Bell
WASHINGTON — In the reading room overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, Karen Needles mostly works alone — but always in good company.
Five mornings a week, she arrives at the National Archives, often wearing an Abraham Lincoln T-shirt. Beside her laptop with its Lincoln mouse pad, she sometimes stations an Honest Abe bobblehead, seemingly nodding approval.
Here, three blocks from where, 150 years ago this week, Lincoln was killed, Needles works to bring him to life, scanning every original record she can from Lincoln's administration and posting them online.
To Needles, raised in small town Kansas and first in her family to go to college, Lincoln has long been a role model. But we could all use some Lincoln, the former history teacher says, relishing the notion of his statue at the Lincoln Memorial taking today's politicians over his knee.
"Lincoln never dies," she says.
Soon after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the country embarked on a 1,700-mile funeral from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. Day and night, crowds lined the rails in a cathartic outpouring that has never been rivaled.
Today, the commemoration stirs the voices of Lincoln's modern-day admirers, some connecting with him in almost personal terms, while searching anew for his relevance to the republic he left behind.
When tourists queue in front of Ford's Theatre on a recent blustery morning, 9-year-old Luke Ring is near the front, wearing the 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 family from Franklin, Tennessee, to see the theater box, draped in bunting, where Booth drew his pistol.
Lincoln's death elevated him to martyrdom, says Richard Wightman Fox, author of "Lincoln's Body: A Cultural History." Today, he still embodies the American ideal that anyone can reach the pinnacle. But with Lincoln now used to market auto insurance and barbecue sauce, the aura of sainthood has faded.
Instead, for many, he is the approachable president, a "model for what it means to be a leader," Fox says.
"He was very real," says Sherri Bell of Indianapolis, after reading Lincoln's second Inaugural engraved in the memorial's limestone. "He was president, but he seemed liked a regular person, with all the pain and suffering and decisions..."
From Washington, the funeral train traveled to Baltimore, then Philadelphia, where lines to view Lincoln's body stretched three miles from Independence Hall. Then the 9-car procession continued north, retracing much of Lincoln's 1861 route to the White House.
On that first journey, the train made a stop in Peekskill, New York, celebrated by the local Lincoln Society for decades. But the depot, now a museum, also is the spot where, four years later, mourners gathered.
In late April, a replica of Lincoln's walnut coffin 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," says Tony Czarnecki, past president of the society. "We honor that in ways large and small."
The Rev. Duncan Newcomer wrote his divinity school thesis on Lincoln. Leading congregations in Kentucky and Connecticut, he sermonized about him. Later, as a psychotherapist, Newcomer says he found Lincoln a prism for understand people's struggles.
Today, 71 and living in Belfast, Maine, Newcomer remains fascinated by Lincoln 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.
Don Johnson, a trumpeter who played period tunes for the 2012 film "Lincoln," reflects on the long-dead president, watching modern audiences. One listener wept hearing the mournful "Home Sweet Home," long ago played in unison by Union and Confederate troops. Another piece, from a favorite Lincoln opera about war and sacrifice, made Johnson consider the mindset of a president who knew many he sent to battle would not return.
"All you need to do is just look at his face and you can see the kindness in him ...," says Johnson, who lives near Lebanon, Kentucky. "I think we connect every time we have a concert."
Twenty years ago, Dave Kloke watched a documentary about Lincoln's push to build the transcontinental railroad and became intrigued.
So Kloke , owner of a home construction business, built a working replica of a 1860s steam engine. Afterward, he began researching the custom-made train car that carried Lincoln's coffin. The original was destroyed in a 1911 fire.
Over the past five years, Kloke has built an exact copy of the maroon car, with gold leaf and brass fittings. He had hoped to hook it to the locomotive and re-travel the funeral route, but couldn't find financial sponsors. Still, in a workshop in Elgin, Illinois, he is scrambling to finish painting and upholstering, intent on getting the car to Springfield by early May.
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."
The first school bus arrives just after 9, and soon the rotunda of Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum echoes with fifth graders.
Students from nearby Pleasant Plains Elementary study the photo of a 10-year-old soldier. "Holy smoke!" one boy says. A doorway leads to a darkened chamber cradling a replica of Lincoln's coffin.
"It's hard to imagine that it actually happened," fifth grader Nevaeh Ezzo says.
Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the neighboring presidential library, says we're still wrestling with race, state's rights, and self-government. Lincoln still draws people looking for answers.
Robert Davis recalls childhood in Detroit, hearing elders talk of his great grandparents' life after slavery and the family's road north.
Today, Davis, 72 and retired to Springfield, dons a Union uniform to re-enact the role of a runaway slave in the U.S. Colored Troops. This month, he directs a play about abolition.
"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 ... but we're still on that road."
On an overcast afternoon, travelers circle into Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Ryan Harvey, with his parents from Gurnee, Illinois, rubs the nose on a bronze bust of Lincoln.
"I can feel that he's still here, somehow," the 10-year-old says.