As I prepare to follow Theodore Roosevelt’s footsteps and paddle strokes down the Rio Roosevelt in a few weeks I am amazed by impact that Roosevelt had as a Champion of Wildlands and Wildlife. Theodore Roosevelt, America’s greatest conservation president, provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres, a land area equivalent to that of all of the eastern states from Maine to Florida. He succeeded in the face of public apathy and strong congressional opposition. With the American land grab in full surge, he knew that if he didn’t protect our nation’s precious wild places, they would be gone forever. His convictions stemmed from a lifetime love affair with the outdoors, natural history & adventure.
Consider these fun facts:
At age 24, when his passion with the Wild West was launched following buffalo hunts in the Dakota Territories, his adventure bug got bumped to a new level. For the next 4 decades, even during his White House years, Roosevelt averaged 30 days per year sleeping out under the stars. He’d slip out of the executive mansion alone to park his bedroll in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park and was known to skinny dip in the Potomac – in the winter!
Born severely asthmatic and with a weak heart, he was advised to remain sedentary or risk a short life. His response, “If I have to live that way, I don’t care how short my life is.” Health issues later left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.
How tough was he? In 1912 while he campaigned in Milwaukee a crazed man shot him point blank in the chest. He shouted to the crowd, “It will take more than that to kill a bull moose!” & he finished his hour-long speech before heading to the hospital.
How gentle was he? While hunting in Mississippi, his hosts sought to ensure his success by treeing a small, young bear and summoning him to shoot it. No way, he said, would he engage in such unsporting cruelty. When the story went national, a toy maker asked if he could attach the president’s first name to a stuffed bear he was making. “Sure,” responded Roosevelt, “but I can’t image my name will be of much benefit to the bear business.” (In a similar vein, when a waiter asked how Roosevelt liked the new brand of Maxwell House coffee he was drinking, he said, “Why, that cup was good to the last drop!” Sound familiar?)
Roosevelt was the first president to
- travel outside the US (to oversee construction of the Panama Canal)
- fly (in a Wright brothers’ airplane)
- win a Nobel Peace Prize (for ending the Russo-Japanese War)
- host a black man at a White House dinner and appoint a Jewish cabinet member
Roosevelt was a staunch proponent of
- women’s right to vote and women’s right to equal work for equal pay
- separation of church & state (he refused to swear on the Bible at his 1901 inauguration and in 1907 he insisted that the phrase “In God We Trust” be removed from a new gold coin being minted)
Tough as he was, the rigors of the 1914 River of Doubt expedition left his health debilitated & shaved years off his life. In 1919 he died in his sleep at age 60. The nation was shocked. “Death had to take him sleeping for if Roosevelt had been taken awake, there would have been a fight,” commented Vice President Thomas Marshall in his condolences to Roosevelt’s family.
At Roosevelt’s request, his funeral was a private family affair with no fanfare and no eulogy. Yet on that day, life in New York City was briefly suspended. Just before 2 p.m. as Roosevelt’s flag-draped coffin was lowered into the ground, the city traction company turned off the power grid for a full minute. Streetcars & subways ground to a halt. Lights dimmed as men & women across the nation’s largest city stood with bowed heads for a moment of reverent silence.
No one else of his generation accomplished so much along so many different lines: 2-term US president, governor of New York, war hero, cattle rancher, deputy sheriff, lawyer, police commissioner, father of 6, historian & biographer, author of 38 books, architect of the “Square Deal,” renowned naturalist & explorer. By his own reckoning, written in a letter a month before he died, “Nobody ever packed more varieties of fun & interest in….60 years!”
Oh, and regarding that photo of Roosevelt riding a moose, did we mention that he invented Photoshop? Actually, during the 1912 presidential campaign with Roosevelt as the founding father of the independent Bull Moose Party, a photo firm associated with the campaign cut & pasted a portrait of him riding a horse onto a swimming moose photo – just for fun.
Then there’s Mt. Rushmore. Here he is in 60-feet of granite next to the father of our country, the author of the Declaration of Independence and Honest Abe. How cool is that?