It doesn’t seem like a decade has passed since my then 4-year-old daughter, Grace, announced that her luck had run out—and something needed to be done.
“Daddy, I rubbed Mr. Lincoln’s nose for good luck two weeks ago, but now my luck is all gone. We need to go to Mr. Lincoln’s tomb right away,” she told me with more than a bit of desperation in her voice.
With Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, I got to thinking about that long-ago trip to Springfield’s shrine to Illinois’ martyred saint.
Going to the tomb and rubbing the nose of the Abraham Lincoln statue for luck is one of the more unusual of Illinois’ customs.
Sightseers in the state capital notice that the nose of Lincoln is shiny from visitors’ touches. In fact, it’s touched so often that a metalsmith periodically is dispatched to fix the nose when a hole is rubbed through.
The statue was created by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who also shaped Mt. Rushmore.
When you are born in Illinois on Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, as I was, you quickly become immersed in Lincoln lore.
When I was a kid, I read every Lincoln biography in the school library, had a picture of Honest Abe that I’d cut out of the Farm Journal tacked to my bedroom bulletin board and could rattle off Lincoln trivia the way other boys could recite baseball statistics.
When I was 8, I wanted to go to Gettysburg—not Disney World.
Other states have nicknamed themselves after their crops, heritage or natural attributes. Illinois, on the other hand, is the only one that has chosen a person as a symbol of state identity—thanks to state Sen. Fred Hart, of Streator, Ill., who in 1955 sponsored legislation designating the state as the “Land of Lincoln.”
Illinois is a wonderful place to live, but it lacks a strong sense of identity. Lincoln seems to be the stitch in the fabric that holds the state together. School children are taught at an early age to revere Lincoln. My second-grade teacher told my class how Lincoln walked five miles to return 6 cents to a friend, and that is how he came to be known as “Honest Abe.”
Being a cynical journalist, I’m more than a bit skeptical of such tales. But, there is no denying that myths are part of what unites a state.
When my daughter asked to be taken to Lincoln’s Tomb on a chilly Sunday a decade ago, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. That tomb just plain creeps me out.
Maybe it’s not an idol, but, it’s certainly a graven image that many in the Prairie State revere.
Folks travel to the tomb to lay Lincoln pennies on the headstone of the original burial place of the Great Emancipator.
Despite my misgivings, my daughter continued to pester me to take her to see Lincoln’s tomb.
So, we drove to Oak Ridge Cemetery, which is just a few minutes from our house. Grace scampered to that statue and said, “Lift me up, Daddy. Lift me.”
After she gave Lincoln’s nose a vigorous rub, she hit me up for three pennies.
She left one at the tomb—and kept two for herself.
Maybe the nose-rubbing tourists weren’t the most gullible to visit the cemetery on that day.
Editor’s note: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.