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Scholar brings Thomas Jefferson to life

Humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson portrayed former president Thomas Jefferson on the Bicknell stage as part of a live recording of National Public Radio’s “Thomas Jefferson Hour.” 

The program, recorded Saturday, Sept. 15, began the partnership between The Bicknell Family Center for the Arts and KRPS 89.9 to provide programming directly from the Bicknell on the public radio service. 

“It’s a nice thing to begin a partnership with the Bicknell Center,” Dustin Treiber, program director at KRPS, said. “That’s a very cool thing.” 

Treiber represented the NPR affiliate and acted as host of the show, asking Jefferson questions pertaining to his life and the time he lived in.  

“This is the first time someone from KRPS has got to go up on stage and present somebody, or in my case get to interview the third President of the United States,” Treiber said.  

Treiber started with questions about the Louisiana Purchase, an event Jefferson described as “not having much to do with.” 

“I’m not sure who picked out the topic, but the topic was the Louisiana Purchase, something I haven’t seriously studied since high school,” Treiber said. “I spent weeks reading up, watching YouTube videos, looking up information on Wikipedia. I looked for background on Thomas Jefferson. I even met with some historians on campus, some of the history professors.” 

Treiber and Jenkinson met for a “practice round” earlier in the day to run through the interview process. 

“He started talking about John Brown and Bleeding Kansas, and I sure wasn’t prepared for that,” Treiber said. 

“We had no idea that this nation would become the empire of liberty it did,” Jenkinson said, in-character, on the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. 

“It’s about education, it’s about entertainment, and it’s about the world we live in,” Jenkison said, out-of-character. “I just love it.” 

The scholar portrays other historical figures in addition to Jefferson, including Theodore Roosevelt, Meriwether Lewis, Robert Oppenheimer, and Sir Francis Bacon. 

“Jefferson is my favorite because I want to live in his world,” Jenkinson said. “I want to live in a rational, scientifically-based, sensible, enlightened world.”  

While Jefferson is his favorite to portray, Jenkinson said Jefferson’s life is not necessarily his favorite period of history. 

“My favorite period of history is England in the Renaissance,” he said. ‘The world of Shakespeare, and John Donne, and Sir Francis Bacon. However, the Enlightenment, the world of Thomas Jefferson, is a fabulous world. He’s one of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment. He’s America’s greatest Enlightenment figure, along with Benjamin Franklin. It gives me great pleasure.”  

Jenkinson also commented on how Jefferson would act and live out his life in the modern age. 

“We’re living in a time of no enlightenment,” he said. “It’s just chaos and it shows. We have a deeply divided nation and we have a very controversial president, and a lot of anxiety. We have a paralyzed congress and people angry all the time. Jefferson stood in a world that was much more rational and thoughtful and tolerant, and I love what that represents. We need more of that world and we just don’t happen to have it.” 

“The Thomas Jefferson Hour” is broadcast on KRPS 89.9 Saturday afternoons at 3 p.m. 


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