|By Carole Deutsch
NEW YORK, N.Y. — History knows him as “Teddy,” a rough-riding, sharp-shooting, robust man with a larger than life persona.
He was a deeply likeable character who, when not busy running the country, might be found hunting big game in the back country. His energetic style and engaging personality made it truly hard to not appreciate Theodore Roosevelt.
“You had to hate the Colonel a whole lot to keep from loving him,” said President Woodrow Wilson.
A French ambassador reminded his audience that President Roosevelt was only about the age of six for his energetic body. In the public eye he is considered as one of life’s all-time winners.
What is lost in the light of his public image as the “swinger of the big stick” is the depth of his keen intelligence, being one of the most literary presidents who has ever lived. He was, in fact, an introspective man, well acquainted with deep sorrow and loss.
Roosevelt lost his wife and mother on the same day in the same house. He dealt with a rebellious daughter, a clinically depressed son, and buried his youngest son. Roosevelt was an avid book reader, and one who was losing his eyesight. No one who knew him actually called him “Teddy” – a name he disliked.
The same man that led the charge up San Juan Hill and found it enjoyable, declaring “The charge itself was great fun.” And, “Oh, but we had a bully fight.” He grappled with life’s personal challenges on a large scale and took each one deeply to heart.
On Feb. 14, 1884 Roosevelt’s wife and mother died in his home, only hours apart. His mother, Mittie, perished from typhoid fever and his wife, Alice Lee, succumbed to Bright’s disease two days after giving birth to their daughter, Alice. They had announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 1880, and four years later to the date she vanished from his life.
The emotionally shattered Roosevelt abandoned politics, left his infant daughter with his sister, and went to live as a rancher and sheriff in the Dakota Badlands. After a blizzard claimed his cattle, he returned to the East and settled in New York in 1886. He then raised Alice and returned to politics.
In a publication of the funeral memorial, In Memory of My Darling Wife, Roosevelt commented, “We spent three years of happiness such as rarely comes to man or woman. ... She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit. ... and when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”
He never mentioned his wife’s name again, not to his daughter, family or friends, or in correspondence or other forms of the written word. He would not allow her to be mentioned in his presence, calling his daughter “Baby Lee” and even omitting his wife’s name from his autobiography, quietly carrying his grief over her loss for the rest of his days.
While shouldering personal tragedy was a cannon ball to the chest for Roosevelt, actual cannon balls had little effect on him. In 1912 he was shot in an assassination attempt while preparing for a speech.
The bullet penetrated his steel eyeglass case, passed through a folded, 50-page copy of his speech and lodged in his chest. Roosevelt did not see the need to cancel the event or go to the hospital as he was not coughing up blood and proceeded to deliver the 90-minute speech with blood seeping into his shirt.
He opened with, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
Afterwards, x-rays revealed that the bullet had penetrated three inches into his chest muscle. Given the location of the bullet it was medically determined that it would be more dangerous to attempt to remove the bullet than to leave it in place. It remained in Roosevelt’s chest for the rest of his life.
He was called “TR” by those who knew him. And those who knew him best knew it was foolhardy to try to penetrate his deep concentration while he was reading a book. As an avid reader on many subjects, including poetry, he was never without a book in his hands.
American poet Robert Frost said of TR, “He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry.” Roosevelt authored numerous books, writing passionately on a wide range of topics, including politics, national parks, foreign policy, religion, science, and ornithology, among many others.
He wrote more than 150,000 letters which took the Library of Congress more than eight years to catalog. To this day, there is no complete bibliography of his written works, and he still does not have a presidential library.
We know him as a bear hunter. In 1902, after an unsuccessful day of hunting bear, his fellow hunters brought a bear cub into camp for the President to shoot. TR refused, saying the bear was defenseless.
Clifford K. Berryman, a Washington Post cartoonist, seized the opportunity to create a cartoon depicting the incident, and the “Teddy Bear” was born. The original 1903 teddy bear was given to the Smithsonian by Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit, and is now in the collections of the National Museum of American History.
Few know him as an ornithologist. As a young man he established himself as a prominent ornithologist who was recognized and respected by authorities in that forum. Most bird watchers know birds by their plumages and social behavior. Roosevelt knew them by their sounds, he listened to their call.
He had diminished eyesight that continued to decline throughout his life and sound identification was his only way of tracking the subjects. Highly regarded in the birding community for his publications of three bird lists, his first published work was considered the definitive work of Adirondack’s ornithology. TR’s love of birds was a driving factor in his efforts to protect the habitat.
As a child he was sickly and asthmatic, which was considered a life-threatening ailment at the time. He was nearsighted, home-schooled by medical necessity and virtually housebound. His father encouraged him to overcome his frailties by developing a rigorous physical exercise program that included boxing, weightlifting and mountain climbing.
Roosevelt’s response to his father’s challenge was, “I will make my body;” and in so doing develop a mindset, which he termed the “strenuous life,” that personified the man and was the key to every door.
His children were a reflection of the strength and vulnerability of their illustrious father. Alice, his first child and only daughter by his first wife, was fiercely independent and a free thinker to the extreme that she toppled society’s expectations of proper protocol.
He had five children by his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow. Theodore Jr., a veteran of two world wars, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Ethel had an indomitable spirit, served as a nurse in World War I in France, championed the Red Cross, and carried the torch of her father’s legacy.
Kermit served as a soldier in two world wars with both the British and U.S. Armies. Archibald (Archie) was a distinguished U.S. Army officer and commander of the U.S. in both World War I and II and the only American in history who was considered twice 100 percent disabled by the Veterans’ Administration. Quentin, a World War I pilot known for his daring, was killed in aerial combat over France on Bastille Day.
In the end, President Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919, was considered an accomplished husband, father, literary scholar, ornithologist and poet, at heart.
“He was the prism through which the light of day took on more colors than could be seen in anybody else’s company,” said William Hard.