BLOOMINGTON — Leonard Swett, who met Abraham Lincoln as a young circuit-riding lawyer in Central Illinois, is referred to as the president’s “forgotten friend.”
He might have remained largely “forgotten” if not for a book by former Illinois Wesleyan University President Robert Eckley and the efforts of Eckley’s children to help their father finish the book as he slowly succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Eckley’s children were visiting about the time Southern Illinois University Press notified Eckley that it was interested in his work, but the book needed editing and rewriting.
They had noticed some health problems but didn’t know what was wrong at that time. What they did know was he needed help to finish this final project.
“I think it would have been a real tragedy for him to have worked on this book for 10 or 15 years and not get published,” said his eldest daughter, Jane Lennon, a lawyer in California.
So she and her eldest brother, Robert George, who does not use the family’s last name, decided to team up with their father.
“It was challenging because we’re not writers or editors,” said George, a professional photographer. “We were there at the 11th hour just trying to get across the finish line.”
It took two years to complete the necessary changes. “He still had that same brilliant mental capacity that he always had,” Lennon said, but he didn’t have the stamina needed.
“At a certain point, he couldn’t sit up at his computer long enough to make the changes,” she said, so their brother Paul, who lives in Bloomington, printed out the pages for their father to read. Their youngest sister, Rebecca Melchert of Wisconsin, also was supportive.
“It was kind of a family effort,” George said. “My mother (Nell) was a saint through the whole process,” Lennon added.
“Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett” was published in November — more than six months after Eckley’s death.
“He never got to hold the book in his hand,” George said, but he did see the cover design and page proofs.
“We got it finished and I think it helped him make it to his end,” Lennon said.
Tuesday, a panel of Lincoln scholars will discuss Eckley’s book at 7 p.m. at IWU’s Hansen Student Center, 300 Beecher St., Bloomington.
“I would have loved for him to have been able to attend things like this,” Lennon said of the panel discussion.
Robert Bray, IWU professor of American literature, thinks Eckley’s book helps present a fuller picture of Lincoln’s life.
Bray, author of “Reading with Lincoln” and member of the panel, read Eckley’s manuscript before publication and provided feedback.
Speaking in Ames Library, Bray said, “If there was a building as big as this building that is the history that is Lincoln, this (book) is part of a wall. It’s more than one brick.”
Also participating on the panel will be Guy Fraker, author of “Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit”; Robert Lenz, president of the Abraham Lincoln Association; and William Shepherd, member of the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
Bray thinks Eckley’s book is a good companion volume to Fraker’s.
Lincoln and Swett rode together on the Eighth Circuit, often facing each other, including a notable case in which Swett used the insanity defense to get his client acquitted — “one of the first instances where that defense was offered in the West,” Bray said.
The two men were similar in stature but Swett was 16 years younger.
“I think what Lincoln saw was a mind as keen as his own,” Bray said.