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March 24, 2012

George Peabody returns to city next week

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.

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