October 18, 2021

Dryden man a dead ringer for Twain

Provided by SUNY Cortland

Ralph Shortell of Dryden poses on the stairs of Moffett Center on the SUNY Cortland Campus dressed as Samuel Clemens. The college alum won a contest for his impersonations.

Contributing Writer

People tell Ralph Shortell he looks a lot like Mark Twain.

Shortell responds from beneath a flowing white mustache: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Shortell doesn’t have to channel familiar quotes or adopt the manner of the 19th century author and humorist to make people think of Mark Twain. He just has to show up. But he wants to do more.

He recalls when he and his family stopped at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira to visit the grave of Samuel Langhorne Clemens — who was better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.

“We walked out from behind a monument and people gasped, they thought it was the reincarnation of Mark Twain,” said Shortell of Dryden, a retired director of student activities and the student center at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Clemens, most famous for works such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” lived from 1835 to 1910. Today, Shortell takes pride in the striking similarity between the two: dressing in Twain’s trademark ivory suit and delivering his famous quotes, all while continuing to learn about Twain’s life.

Shortell won the first ever Mark Twain look-alike contest last fall hosted by the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. He competed against two other Twain look-alikes, dressing up and delivering an attributed Mark Twain quote.

Who knew that Shortell — who graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and received his master’s in guidance and personnel service from SUNY Brockport in 1971 — would find an enduring pastime in historical reenactment?

In fact he now is working to become a first-person interpreter for Twain, teaching about the author’s life rather than just impersonating him.

“What an impersonator does is what I do now; simply standing around, looking good and talking to people,” Shortell said. “As first-person interpreter you have a much better understanding of the individual, their writings, characteristics and so on.”

The Mark Twain House and Museum is working with Shortell to portray Twain at future events, such as the “Tom Sawyer Days” in June.

Shortell recalls when he first became a Twain fan.

“In fifth grade we were required to read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” but then my interest waned for a few years,” he said.

In 1965, as a SUNY Cortland student, he recalls the college hosted “Mark Twain Tonight,” Hal Holbrook’s famous one-man show where the well-known actor portrayed and recited Twain’s work.

When Shortell finally met Holbrook at Holbrook’s 90th birthday party, the actor drew a comparison between the two. Holbrook said he had to spend three hours in makeup to portray Twain. Shortell merely had to fluff his hair.

“I’m glad the real Mark Twain could attend my 90th birthday,” Holbrook later told him.

Beeler is a writing intern with the SUNY Cortland communications office.

What he said

• “Always respect your superiors; if you have any.”
• “There is no sadder thing than a young pessimist‚ except an old optimist.”
• “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
• “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
• “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
• “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”
• “I was born modest‚ but it didn’t last.”
• “All good things arrive unto them that wait and don’t die in the meantime.”
• “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
• “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.”
• “If you tell truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
• “There is nothing in the world like persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus.”

Source: The Mark Twain House and Museum