Alumni Profile: The Bearded Teacher Who Ran for President

February 22, 2017

Education. Democracy. Change. Inspiring the next generation of active citizens

By Nicole Geary

The 2016 presidential election was intense. It seemed like the whole world was focused on the two candidates from the two major political parties and what victory would mean for either side.

But what about the third parties, the write-ins? And what would happen if none of the candidates actually earned enough electoral votes?

Most people have no idea. And they didn’t hear about Ben Hartnell, a guy who gained thousands of followers and received more than 720 popular votes with just a $300 budget. He is the official write-in candidate from Westerville, Ohio who ran for all Americans, and would have been the first bearded president since Benjamin Harrison in 1893.

It was an unexpected campaign that started as a teachable moment and became a grassroots movement.

While many Americans were feeling disengaged by negativity and hostility during the election, Hartnell’s high school students—and many people in the community—were being enthralled by learning about the process and seeing the power of their fellow citizens firsthand.

But talking about American democracy has never been a passive act for Hartnell, a 2001 graduate of the Michigan State University Teacher Preparation Program. He takes history seriously.

Ben Hartnell dons one of the many animated costumes he wears while teaching. Most, though not this one, are related to historical events or time periods covered in the curriculum.

Passion and polyester

Hartnell was in fifth grade the moment a student teacher told him the Battle of Bunker Hill was actually fought on Breed’s Hill. Just like that, he decided to become a teacher. One who would help tell the truth.

And have fun doing it.

At Westerville North High School outside Columbus, where he’s been working for 16 years, he wears a costume almost every day. He starts each class by projecting custom “This Day in History” slides on his wall with accompanying music and he runs elaborate re-enactment activities annually, from the former Civil War Water Balloon Battle to the “horrific medieval torture lecture.”

A giant classroom wall serves as the screen for Ben Hartnell’s This Day in History slides, shown at the start of each class.

“History wasn’t my favorite subject but if I had a teacher like him, I might have fallen in love with it the way so many of our kids do,” said Principal Kurt Yancey. “He brings history alive and forms great relationships with them—that is really the key to a quality education for these young people.”

The colorful theatrics are just the bait, Hartnell says, to capture the imagination of teenagers.

At Hartnell University—the current theme for all his classes, complete with a football team—they receive grades from Dr. ­­Hartnell based on proving, often in creative ways, that they fully understand what they are learning. The standards-based grading system he developed and studied while earning his doctorate is now being adopted by colleagues throughout the 1,500-student school.

“The goal is not just to get them pumped up about history but to show them, whatever you end up doing in life, be passionate about it and come to work ready to do it,” said Hartnell. He borrowed his class motto, Chase It, from the Spartan football team and some of his classroom antics, like building the “lecturn of knowledge” from his former MSU mentor teacher at Holt High School, Jerry Gillett.

“I also try to show my students that everything is a very powerful story, and that their story in high school creates one big fabric that is the American story.”

Just a corner of teacher Ben Hartnell’s class, featuring the large wooden “lecturn of knowledge.”

A platform for learning

Hartnell didn’t realize that, for many Westerville kids, that story would include their teacher running for president. For real.

When he turned 35, he told his students he was now eligible for the job. That was in 2012, and it was a mock campaign, a way to sell T-shirts for the Caring and Sharing charity in their community.

But four years later, the seniors were serious: They wanted to learn what it really takes to run for president. So Hartnell took up the challenge, and shared every step with them.

He became an official write-in candidate, not only in Ohio but in 24 other states.

He got a running mate (his cousin Dave Marshall), a slogan (“Elect the Beard”), social media accounts (forcing him to upgrade his flip phone) and a website. He used the site to post public polls on a variety of issues, then used the results to create his platform—and to foster class discussions.

Spartan alumnus Ben Hartnell with his wife, Molly, and son, Fraser.

Support for the bearded teacher swelled as word spread through local news stories and social media sharing that crossed state borders. Fellow educators at many other schools, especially the elementary his 6-year-old son Fraser attends, used his campaign to start dialogue in their classes.

Hartnell couldn’t take a personal stand on political topics while teaching, and he didn’t want to. He wanted to help students sort through the rhetoric they were hearing out in public. He wanted to tie the process to our history, to the intentions of our Founding Fathers.

“I never understood the Electoral College; now I do,” said Katie Moc, a student at Westerville North. “Many students are voting so the things the presidents do are starting to affect us. Being able to have open-minded discussions with him really put into perspective how intense elections are.”

Hartnell hopes the experience will inspire some of the students to go into public office, or at least show them that everyone—not just those at the top of the two major parties—can make an impact.

“At what point did we stop believing that a local person could run for president?” he said. And why do some states continue to prohibit write-in candidates, he has asked. The question spurred a Hartnell supporter in one of those states, South Carolina, to rally her local lawmakers. And now the judiciary committee there is going to begin the process of repealing the 50-year-old law.

A classroom campaign and a single supporter could overturn a state law, Hartnell wrote on his website. Think about that, he tells his students.

“Your voice does matter. You are the next wave to become politically active,” he said. “If we want things to change, it has to start with you.”

For her part, Moc plans to go into psychology not politics. But when she graduates, she plans to have Dr. Hartnell present her diploma.

“Because he is the best teacher that I could have asked for,” she said. “He not only cares about his job but about you.”

About the candidate

Ben Hartnell

Home: Born in Lansing, Mich.; raised and now resides in Westerville, Ohio

Occupation: History teacher, Westerville North High School (his own alma mater)

Education: B.A. ’00, History (Secondary Education), MSU; M.A.T. ’05, Marygrove College; Ed.D. ’11, Walden University; M.A.E. ’16, Otterbein University

Honors: Master Teacher, Ohio Department of Education, 2013; Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award, Northwestern University, 2016