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Living history is specialty of Hampton interpreters
Some people study history, and some people live it.
Longtime Hampton residents Richard Askew and T.J. Savage are historic interpreters who travel around the Peninsula, providing personal history lessons.
Askew presents his portrayals at the Hampton History Museum and before other groups that focus on history. Savage works for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation as a costumed interpreter at the Yorktown Victory Center.
"The idea behind historical interpreters is to involve all the senses and stress the hands-on to fully understand how people lived when we were getting started," said Savage, standing tall as a sergeant from the American Revolution.
Dressed as Edmund Pendleton, a friend of President George Washington's, Askew maintains a colonial gentleman's mannerisms.
It is nearly 80 degrees on a June afternoon, and both men are wearing authentic period clothing made primarily from wool.
Askew completes his ensemble with a cane, because Pendleton walked with a limp.
"Pendleton is a distant relative of mine," said the Hampton resident. "Pendleton became a judge and helped rewrite the law of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson thought the laws he rewrote were still too British."
Pendleton is not the only character Askew portrays. He is also well known as Edgar Allen Poe. "I have to grow a mustache to be him," he notes.
Most recently, Askew portrayed Gov. Alexander Spotswood (1676-1740) in Hampton's Blackbeard Festival. He has also acted as Jean Laffite, a gentleman pirate, and Gov. John Murray Dunmore.
As a young adult, Askew said, he became interested in theater and studied theater design. He received his master's degree in fine arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. While still in Richmond, Askew taught classes on the history of apparel and the history of the American house at the university. He has also taught courses in antique appreciation.
The love of the area's past is a prime motivator for his portrayals, he said.
"I enjoying reading about history, but I also enjoy experiencing it."
History is so important to Askew that he serves on the board for the Hampton Historical Society and as president of the Hampton Heritage Foundation.
For the city's Blackbeard Festival each June, Askew serves as the historian, or haberdasher, said Karen Glass, festival committee member.
"He is our expert on period clothing, mannerisms, language and equipment of the 18th century," she said.
Savage played Lt. Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy for the Blackbeard Festival. He has performed the role since the festival's inception in 2000.
"Maynard was Blackbeard's nemesis and the man who led the expedition to find and kill Blackbeard," Glass said.
"They are two of the most talented actors, who provide a tremendous amount of skill as historical interpreters," said John Glass, another committee member.
Last year, Savage even portrayed Maynard for an episode of "Weird U.S." on the History Channel.
Savage began his career with the foundation as a satellite outreach teacher after teaching elementary school for 14 years in Hampton. He traveled to schools throughout the state, presenting artifacts from Jamestown and Yorktown.
"T.J. has a lot of enthusiasm in his work. That is something that cannot be taught," said Homer Lanier, site program manager with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
His skills include being well-versed in 18th-century medicine; he is also adept in the use of firelocks and caplocks, and swordplay.
Savage is talented musically as well, and performs sea chanteys and ballads of the 18th and 19th centuries. "I also play the penny whistle," he said.
For the documentary film, "Fort Wool, Hampton Roads' Silent Sentry," he played the instrument for the opening credits.
Historical interpreters do more than teach about history. They allow people to get personally involved with it, Lanier said.
"It is important that we know our history and know where we come from and not just significant events," he said. "Historic interpreters allow us to learn about social history and how tasks were done."
They also encourage families to learn about history together, Lanier added. "Because people are able to have a conversation with them, they get a chance to get their minds thinking critically about what happened. They are able to ask better questions."
Both Askew and Savage are asked plenty of questions while in character.
"The question I get asked the most," Savage said, "is, 'Is that costume hot?'" «