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Orville Browning

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You have very likely never heard of Orville Hickman Browning of Quincy, Illinois, but I'm sure you have read excerpts of his diary back in fourth or fifth grade.Browning moved to Quincy from Kentucky in 1836 to practice law. His polished manner of speech and dress soon gave him a reputation as a dandy, but it also got him immediately elected to Illinois Senate at Vandalia. Here, he developed one of those strange intimate friendships people sometimes develop with exact opposites: a crude backwoodsman named Abraham Lincoln. Browning sometimes opposed Lincoln on the Senate floor, but differences were soon forgotten in the evening get-togethers.

Browning's wife, Eliza, was especially fond of hearing Lincoln tell stories, and often kept him going late into the night entertaining a large crowd of Vandalians. Lincoln did not need much encouragement. He loved to make people laugh and was good at it. His humor was droll and warm.

That's how the Brownings knew that the sober, unsmiling President Lincoln portrayed in the news from Washington after 1860 was not the real Lincoln. A kind, warm, funny, awkward friend had been covered over by the awful responsibilities of a wartime presidency. Lincoln, an unhappy man? A lonely, haunted, unsmiling face? Vandalians could not believe it.

Lincoln's assassination merely added to America's image of a haunted, fated, unhappy Lincoln. A hero, yes, a great man, but not the kind of portrait suitable for the grade school edition of The Weekly Reader.

Fortunately, historians soon discovered Orville Hickman Browning's diary. All during his friendship with Lincoln, Browning had been in the habit of keeping a detailed diary, and there, faithfully recorded, was Lincoln, the storyteller, and his funny stories. Here was the Abraham Lincoln his Illinois colleagues remembered, a human being, not a myth—the Lincoln we all still meet and love as we pass through fourth grade on our way to the Civil War in middle school.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.