Jefferson's Descendant Becomes a Living Memorial

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Roberts Coles III was a man with a secret—though nothing truly weighty. You see, Coles, 34, is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States. Coles, who grew up on his grandmother's Virginia estate, just six miles from Jefferson's Monticello, always knew he was kin to Jefferson (through Tom's daughter, Martha). But even at the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, Rob says, "I didn't tell anyone but my roommate, and I made him promise not to tell. We were all having fun; there seemed no reason to bring it up."

And it might never have come up, except for what Coles calls "a stroke of luck." He had dropped out of U.Va. ("I kept changing my major") and was working in a Charlottesville, Va. tree and plant nursery when Ron Grow, an actor visiting from California, heard of his resemblance to Jefferson. In fact, Coles is a remarkable throwback to his ancestor. Both share red hair, a 6'2" figure, broad brow and aquiline features. Grow proposed they work up a two-man skit for California public schools. Coles would play Jefferson in costume; Grow would be the modern interviewer asking historical questions.

"I was bad at first," Coles admits. "I had never done any acting, even in a school play. But it was a good format. The more I studied the character, the more I improved." After three years on the road, Coles decided eight years ago to go solo. His show, Meet Thomas Jefferson, which stresses the high points of Jefferson's career, proved a hit. It has now played in 40 states and brings Coles a fee of $1,000 a performance. In fact he is now so accustomed to his 18th-century costume that, he says, "I feel like it's the real thing." On occasion he will show up at Monticello (his own 1820s house is less than a mile away). "The likeness is uncanny," says Daniel Jordan, director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. "And it leaves an almost eerie feeling in the beholder."

Coles gets a specially warm welcome back at U.Va. Explains assistant professor Robert Kemp: "We have dinners for special groups in the Rotunda, which Jefferson built, and then Mr. Coles gives his presentation." One Shell Oil vice-president who witnessed Coles's performance declared it "a religious experience."

Coles himself has become more impressed with Jefferson: "He was a scientist, a farmer, an educator, an architect, a politician. Just to have written 20,000 letters was remarkable." Rob insists that the family doesn't mind his cashing in on his forefather. Grandmother Charlotte Nelson Randolph Rafferty, 98, says she for one enjoys his "stunt." And Coles feels his act is worthwhile. "For some audiences, it's hard to accept Thomas Jefferson as a person," he notes. "For them he's just a myth. So I'm trying to show some of his family feelings, the fact that he was a domestic individual, that he had friends, a wife, enemies. But I'm not giving a lecture. I am Thomas Jefferson."

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