POWAY — Eight years ago, Annette Hubbell took a trip to Gettysburg that changed her life.
In 2007, the Poway resident retired from her job as a general manager for the Rincon del Diablo water district and wondered what she’d do with the rest of her life. The answer arrived unexpectedly at an out-of-the way bed-and-breakfast near the famed Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania. During dinner each night, costumed storytellers and Civil War re-enactors would regale the guests with stories of the epic battles and their aftermath. Hubbell and her husband, Monte, sat spellbound.
“It was so exciting. This isn’t fiction, it’s real life and it was unfolding right before our eyes,” she said.
The next morning, she woke up determined to find a way to take her experience home to share with local schoolchildren — even though she’d never written a play, never acted and knew virtually nothing about the Civil War.
“What was I doing? I didn’t know anything about history and I didn’t even like war. But I figured that if I could get this excited, then maybe I could get kids excited about history, too,” she said. “I completely reinvented myself. It was a real leap of faith.”
After a year of research, Hubbell finished her one-woman play. “Witness to Gettysburg” is the fictional story of Hattie Turner, a young Lancaster bride who follows her new husband, an enlistee in the Union Army, to Gettysburg, where he dies on the first day of the three-day battle. Hattie stays through the epic confrontation and its aftermath to hear President Abraham Lincoln’s famed address at the city’s military cemetery five months later.
Hubbell, 66, based her character on a real-life Gettysburg war widow named Hattie Unangst, but most of the plot is historical fiction inspired by her research.
Her first audience was a class of North County eighth-graders. The performance went very well, but Hubbell said she wasn’t prepared for some of the detailed questions that students asked afterward, like what sort of weapons the soldier used, so she had to go back to her books. The play eventually grew from 45 to 70 minutes, and before long there wasn’t a Civil War trivia question that could stump her.
She knows what soldiers ate, how many layers of clothing women wore and how they went to the bathroom, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s battle strategy and how the town of Gettysburg was forever changed by the battle — the war’s epic turning point that left more than 51,000 soldiers from both armies dead or wounded.
She has since performed the play more than 130 times at schools, women’s clubs, churches, community and senior centers and clubs for genealogy, history and quilting.
“Usually teachers will ask me if I can make my play shorter, then afterward they say ‘what did you do with my kids?’ ” she said.
Jolene Quinn with Maranatha Christian Schools in Rancho Bernardo has seen Hubbell’s performances several times.
She said the school’s eighth-graders especially enjoy the details about the battle and what went on in the Gettysburg hospital and elements of history that aren’t usually found in history books.
“They really enjoyed learning about ... how the food was contaminated from the latrine being emptied in the river where the cooks pulled the water to make dinner, how the people did not know about germs, how communication was done with music, how long it took a soldier to heal,” Quinn said. “They liked having the differences between how it was then and now pointed out to them.”
About three years ago, a women’s group asked if Hubbell would consider creating another play about Eleanor Roosevelt. With a script written by Poway playwright Sherrie Colbourn, Hubbell now performs “Tea with Mrs. Roosevelt,” a one-act where she plays the former first lady giving a wide-ranging interview to journalist Lorena Hickok. She has performed that 50-minute play about 20 times.
Hubbell is asked to perform her plays about once or twice a month. On Wednesday, she presented the Roosevelt play for a women’s club in Rancho Bernardo. On Tuesday, she will do the Gettysburg play at Mount Miguel Covenant Village in Spring Valley.
In between performances, she’s developing another vocation that she never imagined. She’s writing two religious-themed books, one on how heroes and celebrities celebrate their faith and another that offers 365 days of grace blessings and scripture for the family dinner table.
“I used to be a big believer in making plans and goals, but I learned that there are other exciting things God has planned for me that I could never have imagined,” she said. “Never in a million years did I ever imagine when I retired that I’d be doing what I am now. But I find it fascinating.”
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