Fans Hunt for Hints of Teddy Roosevelt

Posted November 24, 2009 at 3:34pm

Theodore Roosevelt was famous for certain stunts. One of them involved dragging reluctant participants on “point-to-point walks— — hikes through Rock Creek Park that involved walking in a straight line, regardless of the obstacles in the way. “Over or through, never around,— Roosevelt would say. A river in the way had to be forded, while a rock had to be climbed.

That’s the ideal Theodore Roosevelt tour, says Genna Rollins, president of the D.C. chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. Unfortunately, there are concerns about physical fitness involved in dragging groups of Roosevelt enthusiasts through the streams and hills of Rock Creek Park.

So veteran Theodore Roosevelt Association member Jim Carr had to go with Plan B for the Smithsonian-sponsored tour he was to lead: a combination walking-driving tour of all the T.R. sites in the Washington area.

The pickings are slim. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who put his stamp on D.C., with his alphabet agencies and his expansion of the federal government — not to mention the huge FDR Memorial along the Potomac. Much of Theodore’s lasting legacy was diplomacy (such as his Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end to the Russo-Japanese War), trust-busting and conservation — accomplishments that didn’t necessarily leave a physical mark on the city.

So Carr went with the more obscure — the Rough Rider Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, the serene Theodore Roosevelt Island that was once actually owned by the association, and the boxy Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building, headquarters of the Office of Personnel and Management.

Eschewing the famous D.C. tourist traps, Carr and the Smithsonian were nevertheless able to draw a sizable crowd of true believers, with potential participants actually spilling onto a waiting list. And on a recent cold, windy and rainy November day, about 40 people braved the weather and boarded a Smithsonian-chartered bus for Carr’s tour.

Almost all of them seemed to be federal workers, and all were Roosevelt — or “T.R.— — devotees.

“I thought he was somewhat of a character — but in a good sense,— said Joyce Gilardi, a Smithsonian member who traveled from Boston, adding that she “pretty much— came to D.C. just for the tour.

“I’ve loved Theodore Roosevelt since I was a little kid,— said Joyce Oates, an Arlington, Va., resident. “Just the story — the little weakling who somehow overcame.—

Indeed, a theme emerges among T.R. fans: One of the most persistent explanations for being inspired by Roosevelt is his perseverance in the face of adversity. Beginning life as a small, sickly child plagued by asthma and poor health, Roosevelt built himself into the robust, larger-than-life adventurer best remembered for hunting trips along the frontier, safaris in Africa and leading the cavalry charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba.

“It’s a long story,— Carr said, explaining his interest in T.R. “But I’ve had — since I was quite young — T.R. moments,— During this childhood, Carr said, he was struck by a concrete mixer truck and fractured his skull. “I remembered how T.R. built himself up when he suffered from asthma.—

Carr, a recent military retiree, attained the rank of colonel in the Army — like Roosevelt. He even served briefly as a U.S. military attaché to the president of Panama, a country where T.R. is best known for advancing the canal project that linked the Atlantic with the Pacific.

Others had less tangible connections to Roosevelt.

Susan Lemke came to her passion for Roosevelt by a somewhat circular route. “I work at Fort McNair. We have the National War College. In that building, the cornerstone was laid by Theodore Roosevelt,— Lemke said. That simple fact led to a collection that includes T.R. campaign memorabilia, a T.R. doll and other collectibles.

At a lunch break in the tour (at Bullfeathers on Capitol Hill, of course), Carr talked with National Review political reporter John Miller, who had joined as part of a book project on Roosevelt.

“How did you find the Office of Personnel Management?— Carr asked, referring to a tour stop at the organization’s building that is named after Roosevelt.

“Could have skipped that,— Miller said. “It’s good to have done, I suppose. I can say I went into the building and looked at [his] desk.—

“Yeah, they have something he actually signed,— Carr said. “I think it should be protected with an alarm and be in some special case.—