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Orange County Focus

CORONA DEL MAR : Civil War Expert Has a Devoted Following

March 26, 1994|BOB ELSTON

Julian Scherer comes from a town in Illinois where you can start a fight by publicly disparaging the President.

Not President Clinton, but Abraham Lincoln.

Scherer, a 77-year-old retired university professor and Civil War buff, takes this partisanship into the weekly verbal shootouts at the OASIS Senior Center in Corona del Mar, where he leads about a dozen seniors through detailed and sometimes raised-voice discussions of the American Civil War.

"They do not always believe what I say," Scherer said of his seniors-only audience. "They are the foremost experts on the Civil War if they can ever agree on anything."

Scherer has led such sessions nearly every week since 1984. He started it as an accredited history course at Coastline College, but because the senior audience was so devoted, he decided to hold the sessions for free at the OASIS Senior Center.

Recently, Scherer began with the discussion of the battle of Pea Ridge, Ark., by handing out a sketched map of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri and detailing the weather and soil conditions that affected troop movements in 1862.

Most of the men in the discussion have served in the military and were particularly interested in weaponry and siege tactics.

"I have known Julian a long time," said Janusz Zaleski, a 71-year-old resident of Corona del Mar who fought in the Polish army and later under British command in World War II. "He is tremendously knowledgeable."

Over the past 10 years, he said, the group has discussed the battle of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam and the siege of Vicksburg many times, but has yet to cover the entire war.

"We have 6,200 battles to choose from," Scherer said, adding that typically one major battle requires two to three weeks for discussion.

Props also are allowed.

At his talk about Pea Ridge, Scherer brought a bag of hardtack, a common food for soldiers, and a Civil War-era rifle and pistol.

"He is the best I have ever heard," said Richard Preston. "If I had him in college, I'd have been a history major instead of an engineer."

Scherer said his class mushroomed in size in 1990 after the broadcast of Ken Burn's 11-hour documentary "The Civil War" on public television. Now that he has a captive audience, he keeps them coming back.

"They can't leave," he said, "or we'll talk about them."

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