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Crossing History

Ron Rinaldi became history’s answer to American Idol last September when he won a contest to play Gen. George Washington in the annual Christmas Day reenactment of the crossing of the Delaware. The crossing, which first took place in the predawn hours on Dec. 25, 1776, led to a Continental Army victory in the Battle of Trenton—considered the turning point of the American Revolution.

In rain, sleet, or snow, Ron Rinaldi, BA ’84, (center) hasn’t missed a single Christmas Day reenactment of the crossing of the Delaware in 32 years. This year, he was honored to play the part of Gen. George Washington, with his son accompanying him.

“Three men played General Washington for more than 50 years of reenactments before they decided to hold a contest in 1997 to select the next Washington to serve a two-year term,” says Rinaldi, BA ’84. “We answered a panel’s questions about Washington and the Revolution and recited passages from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis. I entered that first contest, which was won by an actor, but I decided to try again last year to show my 10-year-old son and the people who helped me through the years that you don’t give up just because you don’t win the first time.”

Rinaldi, who lives in Branchburg, N.J.—about a 30-minute drive from Washington Crossing, Pa.—is a former historian who left teaching to pursue a career in law enforcement. A crime scene investigator for the Prosecutor’s Office in Middlesex County, he collects evidence on ballistics, blood splatter, and motor vehicle fatalities. He has even been part of a dive team that recovered two bodies.

Rinaldi winning the role of Washington is much like the former batboy who grows up to become an all-star. He took part in his first reenactment at the age of 14 in 1976 when his mother, Ann Rinaldi—a columnist for The Trentonian newspaper—was assigned to cover the bicentennial reenactment of the crossing. That started the Rinaldi family on a seven-year stint of reenactments that occupied their weekends. They traveled to Savannah, Ga., Canada, and to parts of the Midwest, performing historic roles.

His mother went on to become a successful author of American history books for young people while Rinaldi headed to GW to study American history and work part time cataloguing artifacts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum. At GW, he won a Gelman Library-sponsored contest for having the best collection of books on the American Revolution. His summers were spent working as a tour guide at Valley Forge and at the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton. He received his master’s degree in military history at Duke University but decided not to pursue his doctorate, sensing, he says, “that a career as a historian would take the fun out of it.”

The fun means not missing a single Christmas Day reenactment of the crossing in 32 years. Before becoming Washington, he spent several years in the role of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, Washington’s second in command. “There are about one-hundred reenactors and several thousand spectators who line the banks,” Rinaldi says. “Two weeks before the big event, we hold a full dress rehearsal, and just about as many people show up. In five instances, like this past year, the weather was too severe to cross. But I inspected and addressed the troops and conferred with my officers. We loaded the boats and the lead boat went about 30 feet out into the water.”

Rinaldi believes Washington’s greatest gift was his versatility as a statesman, scholar, farmer, economist, diplomat, businessman, and even director of our military’s first spy network. His den is filled with books on Washington, as well as a thick scrapbook and framed 8-by-10-inch photos of past reenactments. “When Washington made the crossing, he was only 44 years old; I turned 45 in October, so I’m the youngest to play him,” he says. “He was an inspiring leader, but not flamboyant—and neither am I.”

And like Washington, he cannot tell a lie, confessing that the first Washington re-enactor, St. John Terrell—the late, legendary impresario who played the father of our country for 25 years—snuck Rinaldi onto his boat as a 15-year-old.

“For insurance purposes, you have to be at least 18 years old to cross,” Rinaldi says. “But no one challenged Terrell at his final reenactment, and I brought my 10-year-old son onto my boat this year.”

His son sat in the same spot where Rinaldi was 30 years ago.

—Bill Glovin, BA ’77

The author is the senior editor of Rutgers Magazine.