GETTYSBURG, Pa.—Larry Clowers came to play Ulysses S. Grant practically by accident—or perhaps fate.
He was working as an extra in Southern California at the time, and the actor playing Ulysses Grant decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.
“So, they looked at me and said, ‘You’re the right height, shape, and most importantly, the clothes fit you,'” Larry said.
Just like that, he was playing the part of America’s 18th president. Then, he was asked to do it again, and again, and he got into it.
“And then, I drafted her,” said Larry with a laugh, referring to his wife Connie. Connie, who had been working in wardrobe, also happened to be the same height as Julia Grant.
Larry and Connie Clowers of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, have been portraying the Grants as living historians full time since their retirement. And though the couple has now performed 7,000 programs combined, it’s anything but a job to them.
“I don’t think anyone has as much fun as us,” Larry told The Epoch Times in a conversation at the Lightner Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast in Gettysburg on June 15.
7,000 Performances, Unscripted
The Clowerses eventually made a decision: This was going to be the one role to play for the rest of their lives, and they were going to do it well and do it right. Of course, they had to wait until they had retired and could move to Gettysburg, from California, to do so full time.
In this historic town, it’s not uncommon to see a person or two just walk down the street in period dress.
The Clowerses have done all manner of performances for guests of all walks of life, from inner-city grade school students in Southern California to group tours in Spain, from military veterans reunions to private conversations with well-known entertainment figures.
The Grants traveled around the world after the Civil War on diplomatic trips, and the Clowerses have followed in their footsteps to those same destinations. They take only enough money to cover their expenses, and volunteer whenever they are able in order to bring history to life.
It’s imperative to the Clowerses that they know the Grants inside and out. They don’t use any sort of script, which allows them to be flexible and tailor their conversations to the people they’re speaking to.
“Between the two of us, we’ve got over 200 books and publications about the Grants,” Larry said. Connie joked that their three children have said that there are more pictures of the Grant children than of them in the house nowadays.
“We got home from a trip one night and there was a voicemail that said, ‘Can you come tomorrow at 12 and do a program for us?'” Larry said. They’d just gotten off the plane and gone straight home after a trip, and it was 1 o’clock in the morning.
They said they could be there.
“And we had a wonderful time,” Larry said.
Ready for Anything
Knowing the Grants deeply enough to be able to handle any situation is something that’s been proven necessary more than once.
Larry remembered a government breakfast event he was invited to, where his contact couldn’t give him any information ahead of time. He showed up, and there were hundreds of people, including a few high-level officials. But he still had no idea what the event was about.
“Just don’t worry about it,” his contact told him again. Larry only found out a moment before he was to give his talk:
“Well, our guest speaker this morning … will be speaking about how we will be able to tie hot lunches for school children with the assets that were available in the Civil War.”
He was speechless.
“I walked up there a little slower than normal,” Larry said.
Connie added, “What I saw during that walk was that glazed look.”
Honestly, Larry still can’t remember what he said. But it was good enough that it earned him three standing ovations and whooping cheers. Several people after the event asked him for a copy of his speech.
“Everything comes from the heart: You take all your experience, you take all this background, and you merge it together,” Larry said. “I know more about Ulysses’s young life than I know about mine, because it’s written. I don’t remember a lot of things I did. But I can [read about his] and speak about it. And you take all this knowledge you’ve gleaned over all the years we’ve been doing this, and it’s amazing what you can do.”
“What’s the point of having all this knowledge if we can’t share it?” Connie said.
Part of what makes being living historians so enjoyable is the fact that the Grants were a couple worth emulating.
There was a bit of a star-crossed lovers’ element, Larry added. The Grants were fierce abolitionists, and the Dents, Julia’s family, were the opposite. The two of them married for love, without family approval, and Ulysses’s family didn’t attend the wedding.
The incredible bond of trust and affection between Julia and Ulysses Grant carried through their entire life.
“She was the rock that kept him going,” Larry said, as Connie nodded. “They had complete trust in each other.”
“It was one of respect. It was one of total respect,” Larry said. “You can see it even in this century: If you visit the General Grant National Monument in New York City, they are not buried, they are entombed … Miss Julia wanted, and so did Ulysses, the Grants to be seen as equals, side-by-side for eternity.”
The discovery of this deep respect led to a conscious effort by the Clowerses to bring that element into their own personal, daily lives. Actually, Connie added, a lot of it can be seen in the customs of the time.
The Clowerses are particular about accurately adhering to those customs, which tends to pique curiosity, regardless of the age group of the audience.
“We go through customs: How I would greet you, all the protocols, how a gentleman would escort a lady … a lot of the older people can relate to these because they can remember the courtesies they used to give, wearing a glove, gentlemen opening doors,” Larry said.
“We show ladies the correct way you would offer your hand to a gentleman, the correct way that he would take your hand, we go through a lot of the customs … it was very, very important,” Connie said.
These are small acts meant to show respect.
Grant always took care to pay his respects, and in emulating even just the gestures and words, it sticks with you, Larry said.
“After a while, you start working on this and you get to be that kind of character,” he said. “You emulate this, and it becomes a part of you. And that’s important, because I think it shows that not only do we respect ourselves, but we respect you.”
It’s interesting to note, in their experience, people appear to be more accepting of courtesies and are ready to play along when the Clowerses are in costume. The respect is infectious, and people around them become more polite to total strangers, if only in their presence. In this way, they are able to bring a little piece of the best of the past into the present.
“Surprisingly enough, and I find this so refreshing, the vast majority of young girls who hear that love that idea,” Larry said.
The couple recalled programs they’ve done for middle schoolers and high school students, in which they would explain how young ladies would be escorted, the customs they adhered to, and how they were treated differently—very differently—from the behavior of today. Overwhelmingly, the students were enthusiastic about the values the couple shared.
“We’d like to let them know what we’ve lost as a people,” Larry said. “It doesn’t matter what ethnic background you have, or who you are, how old you are. It’s just respect.”
Bringing History to Life
Some of the most profound experiences the Clowerses have had have been with students. People often say children have no interest in history, but the Clowerses, who have a talent for bringing that to life, feel history merely needs to be brought to young people.
“Let me tell you the best question I’ve ever had,” Larry said, describing one high school he visited. “This boy was unique … he asked me a question which I remember to this day: ‘General Grant, how do you handle those generals who refuse to take orders from you?'”
The insightful question stuck with him. Grant, indeed, had generals who didn’t want to take orders, and Larry told him that Grant would remind them of why they were there: Not for glory, or fame, or to be able to fight in a war, but to fulfill their duty to their country. Reminded of shared ideals, people are able to set aside differences and accomplish bigger things.
In another instance, Larry was shopping for furniture, when he got a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to find a very tall young man.
“He said, ‘You don’t remember me?'” Larry didn’t. “‘You came to my fifth-grade class years ago and you’ve made a difference in my life, and I just wanted to say thank you.’ … I get goosebumps today thinking about that.”
Another time, Larry received a letter from a schoolteacher.
“He said: ‘One of the students was on the verge of committing suicide. She listened to what you had to say, and came around, and now, she’s one of my best students,” Larry said.
What exactly is so inspiring about the program?
“The Grants’ story is really one of the biggest losers in American history—and I start off many of the programs in schools with: How do you go from being completely poor with no prospects, a family with four kids, practically no money—how do you go from being that person and, in four years, commanding the armies of the United States and an eight-year elected president?” Larry said.
“I take them on this journey,” Larry said. “Just because of where you are, your circumstances, doesn’t mean you’re trapped there. You build your life yourself.”
It’s a compelling success story.
The Clowerses have a lot of love for the Grants and strive to represent them with integrity. An experience that Connie had, while reading a letter from Julia to an audience of the Grant descendants, has stayed in her heart. One of them came up to her with tears in his eyes and gave her a big hug, and said, “That’s my great-great-grandmother.”
“That was my moment,” Connie said. “I knew I was doing the right thing.”