PEABODY — Although Merrill Kohlhofer admits he's shorter and has a bit more hair, the historian and actor does a pretty good George Peabody impersonation.
Kohlhofer is an American history aficionado, a preacher and a storyteller, who has been speaking publicly for 50 years. He currently works for the National Park Service in Boston, giving tours and serving as a first-person interpreter, acting and lecturing as a famous individual from history.
Kohlhofer will appear — in full 1800s garb — as George Peabody on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Peabody Institute Library to share his views on civic responsibility and the poor.
George Peabody, the city's namesake, was the world's first modern philanthropist, spending millions of dollars on education, libraries, housing for the poor and other endeavors.
His visit is part of a series of events related to the library's exhibit, "Because He Gave: The 150th Anniversary of George Peabody's Gift to the Poor of London," which opens Monday.
We managed to score an exclusive interview with George Peabody in advance of his visit.
Q: How did your childhood influence your philanthropy later in life?
I was only 16 when my father passed away, and we could no longer manage to live here (in South Danvers) and had to leave. ... I left education at the age of 11 to work for my family. I always felt the pinch of poverty. ...
It influenced it in many different ways. Having that experience of growing up poor, the experience of losing our house through no fault of our own, and also the experience of people helping me — not just a handout, but really giving me a chance to prove myself. That's what I am doing with this philanthropy. It's not just a handout that will help for a week, but is meant to give people a platform to serve as the basis to learn and grow.
Q: You gave so much to so many places, from Massachusetts to London, to Baltimore to the South. Why did you spread your money around so much?
I'm trying to benefit a lot of causes that I feel deeply connected to. I live in London and feel, in a sense, that that is my adopted home. I was born in what was then South Danvers and grew up here. Even with the struggles and lack of education, there were many people here who taught me important lessons and who believed, even though I wasn't bound for college, I could make something out of myself. Baltimore is where I met my business partner and where I became more established and learned as a young man what it is I could do. Almost everything I've done, as much as possible, is almost always connected to the idea of education and learning.
Q: Why did you give so much?
I have no children to pass my money or business on to, and you can't take it with you, so you might as well make it work for others. I feel I owe so much because there are so many people who taught me. I owe it to pass that on to other people. They may not ever meet me or see me, but I can still help them.
Q: What is a career highlight?
One of the things I'm proudest of is the letter and medal I received from the Queen of England. That a poor boy from the South of Danvers has risen to that level — getting a letter from the queen!
GEORGE PEABODY RETURNS
What: A living history performance by Merrill Kohlhofer
When: Tuesday, March 27, 7 p.m.
Where: Peabody Institute Library, 82 Main St., Peabody
Related exhibit: "Because He Gave," exploring George Peabody's historic gift to the London poor, on first floor of library, during regular library hours