History teacher Jack Sherry of West Nyack has taken his passion to educate a step further than the rest. He doesn’t just lecture about unforgettable American figures or memorable events, he lives what he teaches.
What started out as a hobby, taking part in Revolutionary War-era battle reenactments, has evolved into a career as an impersonator of one of American history’s most recognizable figures: Benjamin Franklin.
The 56-year-old grew up in Ramsey, NJ. Even as a young boy Sherry had a keen interest in the how’s and why’s of American history – an interest sparked by his college professor father. “When I was 8 or 9 years old, he said let’s go visit this place in the Catskills where there’s a train tunnel.
I was always fascinated with tracing old railroad beds and canal beds – where do they go, what are they there for?” It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Sherry was caught up in a new fascination – one that would later alter his career path.
He recalls how in 1978, Time Magazine ran an article on the Battle of Monmouth (NJ) and the reenactment held to commemorate its 200th anniversary. “I said, ‘Wow! That looks cool!” He searched for local Revolutionary period reenactment events, but found nothing. Two years later, however, Sherry and his wife, Celeste, attended a battle reenactment being staged in Katonah – and he was hooked.
With that, Sherry and his wife both joined the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, a Bergen-based unit dedicated to “maintaining strict goals of authenticity” in representing the 18th century soldiers and civilians they portray.
Becoming Benjamin Franklin
Now, nearly 30 years later, he has transformed himself from a Loyalist soldier to a Revolutionary period hero. Sherry recalls how a colleague at Paramus Catholic High School in Paramus, NJ, where he’s been teaching history for eleven years, made a remark that inspired a change in costume and character. “He said, ‘You know, when you turn your head a certain way, you remind me of Benjamin Franklin,’” says Sherry.
It was like a light bulb turned on. “I’ll never forget it,” Sherry says. “That’s where it started.”
He let his hair grow. He attended open houses at Paramus Catholic dressed as Franklin. He wowed the crowd with his full Franklin regalia at a fundraiser thrown by the dance group he and his wife belong to. “They ate it up,” Sherry says.
His eighteenth century Ben Franklin costume includes period spectacles and custom-made suits. “You certainly attract attention. I once drove in kit [costume] to an event, and on the way I went into the men’s room at a rest stop. If you think I didn’t get some looks … but, even strangers know who I am.”
Sherry’s first paid gig as Franklin was at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, in 2006, the year of the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. “A lot of times when you’re doing this, you can’t wait ’til you’re ready. You’ll never be ready. You’ve got to just do it,” says Sherry.
Acting the part of one of our country’s Founding Fathers doesn’t end with an uncanny resemblance. Sherry has researched Franklin extensively over the years to perfect his impersonation, from his gentleman’s stance to his prolific use of puns, which Franklin was known for.
In early September, Sherry had just returned from a visit to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. “The more I learn [about Franklin], the more in awe of him I become,” he says.
Sherry explains that during events, he never breaks character and draws from his vast knowledge about Franklin and the period in which he lived. “There are even certain ways of standing – it’s like ballet,” he explains. “Eighteenth century people, particularly the upper end, knew these positions. My wife keeps kicking me because I sometimes forget to maintain the pose.”
Reinventing himself through the years
This isn’t the first time Jack Sherry has reinvented himself. He graduated from Pace University in 1976, intending to teach high school history. Unfortunately, jobs for history teachers were scarce that year, and Sherry fell into a series of unrelated positions: doing everything from selling insurance to working in a paint store.
Finally, after twenty years, his sister-in-law asked why he wasn’t teaching. He returned to Pace, got his Master’s degree, and landed his current position at Paramus Catholic High School. Both husband and wife are now teachers.
Celeste is in her second year of teaching English at St. Catherine’s Catholic High School in the Bronx. “She got into teaching because I was teaching. She said, ‘Boy, you’re having fun, maybe I should try it’ – although I tell people she got tired of crawling over me to get out of bed in the morning during the summer, because she would have to work and I didn’t,” he jokes.
A lifelong passion to educate
“I always wanted to teach,” says Sherry. “I wanted to be in front of a group of kids and make a difference. I had one girl who was a real struggler. I kept telling her, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
With his encouragement, the student not only passed his course, but, says Sherry, “she wrote a letter saying, ‘You made a difference. I was inspired to become a teacher.’ That’s one of the reasons why people become teachers, to make a positive difference in a child’s life.”
Yet Sherry says he’s never satisfied. “I’m always looking for ways to improve my teaching.” This academic year, he plans to have students put together comic books based on historical events, like the old ‘Classics Illustrated’ series.
He uses humor in the classroom, too. “I am the King of Corn. I inflict it on the kids.”
Sherry says his plan is to teach for ten more years, and then expand his work as an historical impersonator – “but I may retire early to do it,” he adds. He says that when he retires, he could perhaps make more money playing Franklin than he does teaching.
What Sherry enjoys most about being a historical impersonator is having the opportunity to educate the public about Ben Franklin. “I’ve always viewed myself as an educator – even in sales or insurance I was educating. Now I’m educating about Ben Franklin. “I don’t want to do weddings or bar mitzvahs,” he laughs.
“Mostly I speak at libraries and historical societies, but I would like to do corporate speeches.” He is constantly studying Franklin the man, hence his recent trip to Philadelphia. “Just like with my teaching, I try to get better. For most of my career, I used to educate customers. I’m good at explaining stuff. That's the way I teach. When I do Franklin, I explain his life.”
Cheryl Rice is a freelance writer living in Ulster County.