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A vision realized
Dedication gives thousands a day they'll remember

Although many of the thousands gathered Tuesday had waited hours to watch President Bush dedicate the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, they lingered afterward as if not wanting to leave.

It was a day to remember.

There were no protesters in Union Square Park. The speeches were generous but brief. Children and parents played hooky from school and work.

If there were any problems, perhaps the sun was too bright.

The president, who with first lady Laura Bush toured the museum before his address, equated Lincoln's allegiance to the Declaration of Independence with his own vision for spreading democracy around the world.

"Every generation strives to define the lessons of Abraham Lincoln, and that is part of our tribute to the man," Bush said.

Mihan Lee, an 11th-grader from Potomac, Md., who won a C-SPAN contest for writing the best contemporary Gettysburg Address, told how her regard for freedom of expression traced back to her great-grandfather, who was arrested by the Japanese for working on the first Korean dictionary.

Other speeches by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood and U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert offered different angles of praise for Lincoln, while sometimes referring to the 16th president's darker aspects.

There were lighter moments, too.

Blagojevich encouraged Lee to think she could be president, mentioning that he had become governor despite having scored a meager 18 on his ACT college-entrance exam years ago. Dozens of Abe impersonators got frisked as they entered the highly secured, metal-detector-equipped dedication area. One Springfield radio crew covered the event dressed as Lincolns.

The presenters referred to the $145 million presidential museum and library behind them as institutions worthy of promoting Lincoln's legacy.

Crowds started lining up in front of the security checkpoint at Fifth and Mason streets early in the morning, long before anyone was let in at about 7 a.m. Museum officials prepared for 15,000 people to attend, and it appeared they were close, though not all the dedication seats were occupied.

Gary Schwab, a Springfield attorney, brought his brother Bill from Peoria to the dedication. Schwab's office is on the fifth floor of the National City Bank building just south of Union Square Park. He noticed security officials standing on the roof of the building just above his office.

He routinely took calls on his cell phone - he's in the middle of working on an insurance case, he said. Like some other downtown businesses, Schwab's law firm closed for the day. At one point, however, he was talking to someone from his office who decided to show up for work anyway. Schwab waved so the co-worker could see him from inside his office.

Museum officials sent all Springfield schools nine tickets each to the dedication, and dozens of school groups patiently waited for the ceremony, which began at 11 a.m., after an hourlong concert by the 312th Army Band from Lawrence, Kan.

Card games, books and people-watching were popular diversions for the thousands who showed up hours before the 312th started playing.

The ceremony itself lasted a little more than an hour. The Rev. Gordon McLean of First Presbyterian Church - where the Lincolns once rented a pew - gave the invocation and benediction.

The Four Sopranos, a Springfield-based gospel quartet, provided a musical interlude, singing a lively rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" called "Swing Down Chariot." Later in the ceremony, after Bush's speech, they sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with the crowd.

Noticeably absent from the stage was former Gov. George Ryan, whose name is etched onto the wall of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Ryan and his wife, Lura Lynn, attended the event but sat a few rows in front of the stage. Although a couple of the officials who spoke at the ceremony credited Ryan's involvement in the library and museum, many have accused his administration of politicizing the project.

Some attendees complained that the speaker system faded in and out, making several moments of some speeches, including the president's, inaudible. Others found other distractions, including one who answered his cell phone to the news of a new pope.

But for most, it was a day for Lincoln. Elected officials mingled with the crowd. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn posed with an Abe and Mary as people snapped photos. Even Ryan signed a few autographs.

Afterward, the museum opened with free admission for the day. A line several people thick extended across Sixth Street waiting to enter. Starbucks Coffee employees passed out free bottled water and root beer.

Bob Rogers, whose firm BRC Imagination Arts designed the museum's exhibits, wondered whether John Y. Simon, the Southern Illinois University professor whose criticisms of the museum as Disneyesque have been widely quoted, was planning to come. Rogers said he wanted to give Simon a big hug.

Pete Sherman can be contacted at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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