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In the presence of the president: Virginia man retires as Woodrow Wilson impersonator

Rebecca Barnabi
Judd Bankert appears as President Woodrow Wilson with the Pierce Arrow in the 2022 Staunton Happy Birthday America parade. Courtesy of Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum.

More than 20 years ago, happenstance changed the course of Judd Bankert’s life when Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum staff spotted him on the Manse’s lawn in the crowd.

They believed that Bankert was nearly the spitting image of the United States’s 28th President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who was born in Staunton in 1856.

“It was just at the right time,” Bankert, who lives in Bluegrass, said. “They were looking for somebody to put in the car.”

The car was and is Wilson’s Pierce-Arrow, in which he rode during his presidency and the car which is preserved and cared for at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum in Staunton. The Pierce- Arrow makes two appearances every year: Staunton’s Happy Birthday America celebration in July and Veterans Day in November.

“That has been a joy,” Bankert said. “There isn’t anything that’s more fun than to go around in the 4th of July parade, especially when we started putting young kids in with me and seeing those faces smiling and waving.”

However, at age 75, Bankert is hanging up his president’s hat for a life of retirement for two reasons. First of all, Wilson died in 1924 and Bankert said he realized last summer that it was time for him to step down as Wilson’s impersonator in 2024. The second reason is that Wilson was 67 when he died, and Bankert has already outlived the ability to resemble a president who did not live past age 67.

“It just seemed like the right time,” Bankert said of retiring.

While he will miss rides in the Pierce-Arrow, impersonating President Wilson has been quite a ride itself. His first appearance as the 28th president was in 2002 at the anniversary of Wilson’s ascension as president of Princeton University. He appeared in a 2014 three-part series on the History Channel called “The World Wars.”

Ironically, Bankert almost did not become a Wilson impersonator. He was running for city treasurer at the time and when he lost the election, he became Wilson.

“It’s been a phenomenal blessing,” he said.

Judd Bankert appears as President Woodrow Wilson before middle school students. Courtesy of WWPL.

Bankert is humble about his ability to embody the 28th president, especially because dyslexia made memorizing and reciting long Wilson speeches a challenge. Wilson was unable to read until he was 10 years old and also battled dyslexia, yet what he had to say in his lifetime was important.

“Wilson was way more than [a gifted speaker] and I was never that,” Bankert said.

He said he will miss spending time at WWPL and watching up close the library and museum’s evolution.

“This is a real gem for the community,” Bankert, whose full-time profession was as a certified public accountant, said.

He will miss Wilson performances, such as when he appeared at middle schools and spoke to students.

Learning Wilson’s speeches, Bankert said, “allowed me to refine what I think was a disordered political mind.”

Wilson’s fight for democracy resonates today with Ukraine’s war against Russia, but foreign countries recognized the Staunton-born president before his death in 1924.

“Wilson is extraordinarily popular in Romania,” Bankert said of the country where he appeared seven times. “The Queen of Romania met with him twice during the treaty negotiations in Versailles and advocated for the reunification of Romania. So, he’s a local hero in Romania.”

According to Bankert, Wilson’s gift as an oral speaker was because he was able to take ideas and “shrink them down” so everyone could understand.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.