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Teacher brings history to life

Karl Reisner '75G, in character as President James O. Buchanan.

Most Americans would be hard-pressed to recall anything about our 15th president, James O. Buchanan. And those who could would probably bring up the Civil War.

“Buchanan isn’t a popular president, because he is often blamed for the Civil War. So I put myself in his shoes and defend him against his critics,” says Karl Reisner ’75G, who is the star of his own one-man-show celebrating Buchanan’s achievements as a historical figure.

Reisner is now a noted expert on the life of Buchanan, the only U.S. president from Pennsylvania. But he didn’t set out to be. “It was a total accident,” Reisner says.

Reisner first performed his Buchanan show in 1991 to mark the former president’s 200th birthday. (He was born in 1791 and elected president in 1856.) Because Buchanan is originally from Mercersburg, Pa., the town hosted a week-long festival celebrating his life.

“I was asked to be involved in the city’s celebration,” says Reisner, “and I didn’t think it would go over well to give a speech so I decided to do a performance.”

Inspired by Frakes

He came up with a one-hour show that highlights Buchanan’s life. While Reisner didn’t have exceptional knowledge of Buchanan when he initially agreed to participate in the festival, he found himself deeply involved in his research.

“My opinion changed from negative to positive on his presidency,” he says. “Buchanan’s presidency marked the end of the ‘old school’ presidents because he was 65 years old when he was elected. He was older, so his political attitudes were different than the public’s. I don’t think that he could have prevented the Civil War any more.”

The show was an instant hit. “I kept getting call after call to do this show!” Reisner exclaims.

His success has even led him to C-SPAN for a two-hour live show where viewers call in and ask questions to be answered on the spot. “I have done the show and/or talks on Buchanan over 300 times, the vast majority of which were in South Central Pennsylvania—Gettysburg, Harrisburg, and Carlisle,” he says.

Reisner’s passion for Buchanan should come as no surprise, however, because he was already a history buff. A teacher at Mercersburg Academy, he has taught advanced placement (AP) U.S. and European history classes for almost 30 years.

“I really strive to relate information to my students,” he says.

While teaching is his main passion, Reisner also coaches youth football and baseball. In addition, he is an avid golfer and plans to cultivate his skills in the sport after his retirement in 10 years.

Reisner received his master's degree in education from Lehigh, and credits the late James Frakes, an English professor who taught a summer course on women in literature, as his inspiration to become a teacher.

“At first I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but Dr. Frakes inspired me to teach,” Reisner recalls. “He was just exceptional. He really wanted to relate to the students, and was always knowledgeable of topics. He is the kind of teacher I try to be.”

--Heidi Schwartz

Posted on Monday, October 11, 2004

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