By day, Mike Wilson is the administrator of the Trumbull Soil and Water Conservation District. By night (or afternoon), he is President William McKinley.
Wilson is an official "presidential presenter" who portrays the former president for education and entertainment.
Wilson was first introduced to the world of presidential presentation in Marion, when he lived near a man who presented as Warren G. Harding at the Harding home. Much later, he found himself standing next to the statue of McKinley at the Niles McKinley Birthplace Memorial when a young boy asked him, "Is that you, mister?" When Wilson asked if they looked alike, the child replied, "You're fat like him."
Hugh Mullen Jr. of Niles, left, portrays Sgt. Smith Stimnel, presidential guard for Abraham Lincoln, while Mike Wilson of Champion presents President William McKinley. Wilson said at a Trumbull Retired Teachers Association meeting Tuesday that leaders did not smile for photographs in McKinley’s time.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Bob Coupland
And thus began Wilson's journey into presenting. He approached the staff at the memorial with the idea and hasn't looked back. Twenty years later, Wilson has made a name for himself as an established McKinley presenter, approved by the Historical Actors Guild. He became "official" after being graded by the Historical Actors Guild. The group heard about what he was doing, asked to watch a performance and then gave him their approval.
Wilson makes himself look like McKinley with a combination of makeup, clothing and attitude. Normally jovial, Wilson puts on a serious face when he is the president.
"At the time, our leaders didn't even smile for photos," Wilson said.
Wilson has portrayed McKinley at memorials, reenactments and schools. Much of the time, he gives shortened versions of McKinley's actual speeches - the original speeches were hours long. He also interacts with the crowd, answering questions and telling stories about McKinley's life.
When speaking to children, Wilson likes to tell stories, such as how McKinley's favorite flower, the carnation, became Ohio's state flower after his assassination. One popular story is about the "cussing parrot" McKinley got from a commodore - the parrot had to be covered with a sheet whenever guests visited to keep him from whistling at the ladies.
Wilson also does press conferences for students and once made a surprise appearance as the president for a fourth grader's oral presentation on McKinley.
William McKinley, born in Niles, was president from March 1897 until his assassination in 1901. The National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Library and Museum stands near a re-creation of his birthplace and is the site where Wilson does many of his gigs. This memorial is one of many McKinley memorials across the nation.
"When [McKinley] was assassinated he was very popular with the people probably more popular than Lincoln at the time," Wilson said, explaining the abundance of statues and other memorials. Wilson has traveled to speak at memorials as far away as Adams, Mass.
Pat Finan, the director of the McKinley Memorial Library, calls McKinley "the first of the modern presidents." According to Finan, McKinley took control back from Congress, giving the presidency the power that it has today. He was also the first imperialistic president, gaining the United States land in the Spanish-American war.
Wilson said that the United States first became a world power under McKinley.
Wilson said that we need to learn from the past to make decisions for the future, which explains his passion for educating others about a little-understood period in history. McKinley himself was a far thinker:
"He kind of predicted what the world would be like in 2001," Wilson says, referring to one of McKinley's speeches. "He was predicting the computer, transportation, the folks in the media "
When Wilson started dressing up as McKinley 20 years ago, adding age with makeup, his wife asked him if this is what he would look like in the future. Now he knows that he has more hair than McKinley did at his age, but has to watch his girth.
"My wife tells me to watch how much I eat or I'll outgrow the part and become William Howard Taft," Wilson said.
Despite not being an exact look-alike, Wilson plays the part well.
"He's very authentic," Finan said. "We enjoy him and people enjoy him."