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Three handshakes from President Abraham Lincoln

by Tara Giles
Sports reporter - Coos County Democrat and Berlin Reporter
September 12, 2018
REGION — No one tells a better story than Craig Pursley of Bath. One day, while visiting his art gallery some years ago, Pursley told this writer that he was three handshakes away from President Abraham Lincoln. Intrigued, the questions grew, and the story unfolded.

Pursley explained, "A few years back, a wonderful old gentleman named Howard O'Dell came into the gallery and told me this story. He was 93 years old at the time. When he was a boy of about five, he had an old neighbor lady who was 95 years old. The two apparently became fast friends, even though there were 90 years between them."

O'Dell explained to Pursley that he would go over to her house often. The neighbor, Helen Nicolay, was the daughter of John Nicolay, Lincoln's private secretary.

"He extended his hand and said, 'you're three handshakes away from Lincoln,'" said Pursley.

John Nicolay worked to write an official biography of Lincoln. Nicolay said to Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, "We hold that your father was something more than a mere make-weight in the cabinet. We want to show that he formed a cabinet of strong and great men, rarely equaled in any historical era and that he held, guided, controlled, curbed and dismissed not only them but other high officers civilian and military, at will, with perfect knowledge of men."

During his visit with Pursley, O'Dell went on to tell Pursley that during Lincoln's term a very old man who had served under George Washington in the American Revolution as a boy appeared at the White House to introduce himself to Lincoln.

"That means you're six handshakes away from Washington," O'Dell said.

Pursley deduced that had that old man been 15 while serving under Washington late in the war he would have been born around 1765 and would have been 96 years old early in Lincoln's first term.

Of the old man visiting Lincoln, Pursley said, "In those days, even as late as Teddy Roosevelt or later, one could walk into the White House and meet the President. Hard to imagine today."

Pursley added, "Here's a note to tell you about O'Dell's personality, the last time he came in, he brought an old woman with him and introduced her to me. 'Craig, I'd like to have you meet a very old friend of mine.' She piped in, 'Old?' "He seemed flustered and started over saying, 'Oh, oh I'm sorry this is my very dear friend, Eleanor who just happens to be ancient!' "Then he laughed and laughed. I did too."

So for Howard O'Dell, the entire history of the nation was condensed down to four handshakes. So for anyone who has shaken hands with Mr. Pursley or this writer, you are four handshakes away from President Lincoln and seven away from George Washington.

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