Remembering T.R.

The other day I was walking in downtown Rockford and stopped to study the architecture of Memorial Hall. As I was gazing at this classic structure, I was suddenly taken back in time, some 100 years ago, to June 3, 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt stood on the dais and dedicated the building to the men and women who had served this country in past wars. I seemed to hear the high-pitched voice of the 43-year-old president as he looked at the adoring crowd, through his strong, pince-nez glasses, and reminded them of the many reasons they had to be proud to be Americans. He was born on Oct. 27, 1858, and when he assumed the office of President he was, and is, the youngest man ever to hold that position. He ascended to the Presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, and was elected on his own in 1904. T. R. died in 1918 at the age of 61, but during his relatively short life he left behind a legacy that must not ever be forgotten. He was born in New York City into a socially prominent and wealthy family and was educated at Harvard where he excelled in his undergraduate studies, including the biological sciences. He first planned a career in law, but turned to history, writing, natural history, and politics. His first book, the widely acclaimed The Naval War of 1812, was published when he was only 24 years of age. He was emotionally devastated in 1883 when his beloved wife and mother died on the same day in residences not a city block apart in New York.. These tragedies led him to flee the city to live and work on a ranch he had purchased in the then Dakota Territory. When he first arrived in the “Wild West,” clad in Abercrombie and Fitch tailored outdoor wear, he was the subject of ridicule by the rough and tough frontiersmen. But, his hecklers quickly learned that the bespectacled dude from the East, who had been a boxing champion at Harvard, was not to be underestimated. For the next several years, he spent his time adapting to the life of a wilderness rancher, hunter, and naturalist while recuperating from his devastating losses. Out of this period of his life, there developed an intensification of his long-time interest in the outdoors and the conservation of our natural resources. After returning to New York, he entered politics more or less by chance, and his rise to the Presidency was legendary. His service in the Spanish-American war as the organizer and leader of the Rough Riders enhanced his political career. Roosevelt felt he had a moral debt to pay to the country because his father had hired a replacement to serve for him in the Civil War. Many years after his death, T.R. was posthumously awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics at the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. During his lifetime, he was a revered statesman (he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War), soldier, true cowboy, naturalist, prolific writer, and intrepid explorer. But, perhaps, more than any of these he should be remembered for his contributions to the preservation of our natural resources. As President, he gave conservation his full attention, and he left us a legacy of national parks, forests, and wilderness areas that has been unsurpassed. As a writer he fired bitter barrages at self-appointed naturalists and the romantic nature writers of the time and did much to put an end to the sentimental, anthropomorphic drivel that flowed from their pens. Though not specifically trained as a biologist, he continued to write on various aspects of life until his death. T.R. endeared himself to the common man—the plain folks—because he was so very human, with an irrepressible sense of humor, and so intensely American. They gave him the nickname of Teddy, The Rough Rider, and their champion, who carried a big stick to be used on perceived enemies of the United States, both foreign and domestic. Like all of us, T. R. had his shortcomings, one of which was his insatiable desire to be always in the limelight. It has been said, “He was the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” Many of us “plain folks” today are unhappy with the way our natural resources, especially in the Rock River Valley, are being exploited by insensitive politicians and go-go developers. I find myself frequently wishing we had a modern day leader in the image of Theodore Roosevelt to swing a big stick and strike a blow for the interests of the common man. Happy birthday, T. R., wherever you are. We miss you. Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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