Lewis Hankins, it seems, was fated to become his hero. In a 1984 performance impersonating Samuel Langhorne Clemens — or Mark Twain, to generations of readers — for his fellow law enforcement officers in Ohio, Hankins caught the eye of Russ Varvel, vice president of the Delta Steamboat Company, who was so impressed by Hankins’ work that he offered him a job as a performer with his company on the spot.
Hankins was honored — “Twain would say it bankrupted my vocabulary,” he says now — but wasn’t quite ready to leave his day job. But upon his retirement four years later, Hankins reconnected with Varvel and finally stepped aboard the Mississippi Queen — in his white suit — in January 1989. He spent the next 19 years entertaining and educating passengers. The mustache, he says, was his. “I just wish the hair was,” he says with a laugh. “I had so much fun there. I grew up on the river. I miss it.”
Hankins, a resident of Sun City, was introduced to Twain at early age through his father, a “literary person” who read to the family often. Hankins says he secretly continued the practice on his own — often, he says, at the expense of listening to his teachers.
But his greatest connection to the author came later in life. Hankins lost his 7-year-old son to leukemia, and says that Twain’s words about losing his own young child helped him cope. “I did not have the genius to find the words to describe the loss of my child, but he did,” Hankins says. “Through his tragedies he kept his sense of humor.”
The fascination with Clemens’ life and literature grew over the years. Before long, Hankins’ siblings, who were teachers, began inviting him into their classrooms to talk about the author. “Eventually, I started dressing up,” he says.
But Hankins makes a point that his performances are decidedly casual. “Any of us who don the white suit and go on stage know it’s been done before. I try to make my presentation informal, like I’m sitting in his living room talking to friends about his life and stories,” Hankins says.