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Lees take seat at California University Civil War Roundtable

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Frank Orlando, 64, portrays Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, while his wife, Bonnie, 62, will be by his side as the general’s wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee.

Visitors who attend the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable on Thursday may be questioning their vision and asking for a serious dose of eye drops before the night is over … perhaps as soon as their evening begins.

While standard roundtable practice has featured speakers offering their expertise on any and everything Civil War, from military figures to battles to strategies, Thursday's presenter will be there in the flesh, directly from the war itself.

Welcome Gen. (and Mrs.) Robert E. Lee.

Well, not really, but Civil War enthusiasts will be at a loss for words to separate reality from fiction.

Standing in place of Gen. Lee will be Frank Orlando, 64, while his wife, Bonnie, 62, will be by his side as the general's wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee. As Orlando evolved from a living historian portraying a captain with the 1st Virginia Stonewall Brigade, the couple “moved to Gettysburg because of our passion for Civil War history,” he said, chuckling, “but after I started turning gray all of the CSA re-enactors started referring to me as General Lee. That was the impetus for us to research Gen. Lee and his wife and I realized that I truly respected his Christianity, his gentlemanly ways, and his devotion to education. I went from being a living historian to taking on the persona of Robert E. Lee, who lived from 1807-70, and the more research I did the more I discovered his dedication to duty and honor, duty and honor that led him to reject command of the U.S. Army. For him it would have been dishonorable to turn his back on his native Virginia.”

After Frank's 34-year career in public education as English teacher, high school principal, and assistant to the superintendent, the Orlandos settled in one of, if not the most hallowed of Civil War sites, Gettysburg. Five years ago Orlando, after extensive research, began appearing as Lee at Civil War-related venues, corporate gatherings, and in front of leadership groups, school groups, veterans and community organizations, reenactment and encampment activities, and group tours. Orlando's wife, a high school German teacher by trade, became involved as Lee's wife 18 months later.

“We speak as husband and wife, as the general and his wife,” Orlando said. “We talk about the war, about conditions after the war. What we offer is a touching presentation. We speak as a team and speak as them, as they spoke. We treat Lee and his wife as actual people, not merely historical figures. Our objective is to inform and educate people about Robert E. Lee, the human being, rather than from specifically the military standpoint. We look at Lee through his mind. What were his thoughts when he served in the U.S. Army; his decision to go with the Confederacy or remain in the U.S. Army; when he entered Gettysburg; his feelings about the war. We delight in educating people and keeping the Lees visible.”

With an academic background that included a concentration in 19th century American literature, Orlando combines his English background with his fascination with Lee in the simplest of terms.

“You have to understand the history of the times and understand how history impacted those times,” he said. “That period, not just the Civil War, was obviously an important time in our history. It included the Industrial Revolution and it had a huge impact how the Civil War unfolded.”

Delving into Lee's persona, Orlando generally reads a minimum of two books each day about Lee, and admits that his perspective has “changed dramatically” about the Confederate leader. “Initially, I thought of Lee as someone who turned his back on his country,” Orlando explained, “but then I discovered he was all about valor, honor and courage. I see him as a simple man, but a hero.”

At the same time, Orlando has seen a similar attitude reversal among many of those who have heard his programs.

“Many people come up to us after our presentations and say, ‘I didn't know that,'” Orlando noted, adding that he and his wife may do several presentations per day, in addition to horseback rides as Lee on the Gettysburg Battlefield. “While Lee may often be vilified by historians for turning his back on the union, it's refreshing to hear what observers say once they learn the real story about Lee.”

But it's more than just Orlando, he reflected. Although they both attended Kutztown (Pa.) State College, now Kutztown University, the pair did not meet until their teaching days when Orlando taught English and his wife German at Mount Penn Junior/Senior High School, where he eventually became the principal.

“My wife is the same,” he added. “She knows much more about Mary Anna Custis Lee. When we appear at a program such as a Roundtable, we go into character. After hearing what we have to say, people leave thinking they have heard Lee and his wife. People often admit they cannot differentiate us from the Lees. We speak in their own words and all we say is predicated on correspondence between Lee, his family, and his subordinates. Men and women of the magnitude of Robert E. Lee and his wife are rare in history. They come but once in a century and the Orlandos take great pleasure in being able to bring this great couple, their family and the times in which they lived to life.”

As the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg campaign rapidly approaches, Orlando has a busy summer schedule lined up for the General and Mrs. Lee. From June 28 through July 1 he will be conducting a program, “Prelude to Gettysburg,” and he is coordinating living historians for various speaking engagements in and around the town. Once the anniversary festivities end, Orlando's programs will continue until the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in November.

In true-to-form character, Orlando answers phone calls to the name Gen. Lee. “Since we moved here five years ago, everyone calls me General or Gen. Lee,” he laughed.

But when asked if anyone calls him Frank, he paused prior to answering. “Former acquaintances,” he chuckled.

April's Roundtable will be held in room 206/207 in the Natali Student Center. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. meeting. Questions regarding the Roundtable or directions should be forwarded to or by calling 724-258-3406.

Les Harvath is a freelance writer.

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