by Myra Saturen; photos by Brian Shaud
February 12, 2013
"Bully, bully, bully!" Shouting his famous byword, "Theodore Roosevelt" strode onto the stage at Northampton Community College's Lipkin Theatre on February 12. With an uncanny resemblance to our 26th president, it was easy to see why enactor Joseph Wiegand modeled for the statue of TR at the American Museum of Natural History. Wearing a pince- nez, a frock coat, a bristly mustache, and a ''go-for-it" demeanor, Wiegand could have convinced Roosevelt's own mother that he was the real thing.
With rollicking humor and serious confidence, Roosevelt told the story of his life; his childhood asthma treated with cigars and black coffee; his determination to build his body through calisthenics and boxing; his fearless politics; and his daunting safaris.
Born in 1858, he was tutored at home by his mother and excelled at history and natural science, but not at Greek, mathematics and Latin. He loved natural science so much that he created a "museum" of natural science in his boyhood New York City home. "If someone reached into our icebox, they might pull out a box of snakes," he recalled.
Roosevelt's father taught him honesty and courage, and these traits came in handy when he proposed to his first wife, Alice Lee. Rejected twice, he won her on the third try. "Persistence wins the prize," he crowed. He set the wedding date for his birthday so that he would not forget anniversaries.
When he entered Republican politics, his family was aghast: "Politics is not the business of gentlemen," they said. "It is for saloon-keepers." Off Roosevelt went to Albany, where he won election as representative to the New York Assembly, the youngest ever at the age of 23. As chair of a reform committee, he fought corruption in New York City government.
In 1884, the "light went out of his life," when his mother and his wife died on the same day. He sought comfort as a cattle rancher in the wide-open Dakota Territory, now North Dakota. There, the only cattleman with a watch chain from Tiffany's, he learned about himself and his fellow Americans.
Returning to politics and re-marrying two years later, Roosevelt lived in a household with six rambunctious children. He recalled them careening down the bannisters and dropping snakes onto distinguished visitors from perches on higher steps. The children owned a "zoo," complete with a badger, a rooster and a parrot that uttered "Hurray for Roosevelt!" The president spoke fondly of his eldest daughter, Alice, best known as Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The young woman shocked people by smoking in public, spiking drinks and betting on horses. She had a sofa embroidered with the motto "If you haven't got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me."
Roosevelt recounted being a leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War and coming back as a "war hero," earning him votes as governor of New York, where he pursued the "Square Deal," fighting corruption and a better deal for poor New Yorkers.
In 1900, the Republican Party "sent me to a place from which no one is ever heard from again -- the vice-presidency." Upon President McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt moved to the Executive Mansion, which he renamed the less pretentious "White House," for his first term.
While there, Roosevelt enumerated, he built the Panama Canal and preserved 230 acres of national parks, bird sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, and national monuments. One of the national monuments is the Grand Canyon. He also arbitrated an anthracite workers' strike, marking the first time a strike had not been crushed through violence. He won a Nobel Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War. "The presidency is a bully pulpit," he said.
Roosevelt loved rugged traveling, and he talked about safaris to Africa and ventures down unexplored rivers in South America.
Wiegand portrayed Roosevelt's indestructible spirit: his belief in pulling oneself up after failure and getting back into the "arena." It was Roosevelt who coined the term "arena," a boxing reference, to describe public life.
After his performance, Wiegand stayed in character as he shook hands with schoolchildren in the audience. He called the children "future presidents." Wiegand later visited Liberty High School, where he met with over 100 ninth and tenth graders.
Wiegand visited Northampton as part of programming for "We the People: the American Presidency." Exploration of this topic is being made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, matched by generous donors and community partners that include the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Eastern Monroe Public Library, Bethlehem Area School District, Historic Bethlehem Partnership, and Monroe County Historical Association. Wiegand also performed at NCC's Monroe Campus.
Watch some of the performance in this YouTube video.
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