An On-Go­ing Trib­ute

RSWLiving - - Features - Me­lanie Pa­gan is the as­sign­ment edi­tor and so­cial me­dia co­or­di­na­tor at TOTI Me­dia, Inc. Fol­low us on our Face­book, Twit­ter and Pin­ter­est pages, and at blog.to­ti­me­dia.com.

Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt’s spirit is alive and well thanks to Joe Wie­gand and his Teddy Roo­sevelt Tour shows that keep the le­gacy of the 26th pres­i­dent of the United States in the lime­light.

It may be dif­fi­cult for the av­er­age Amer­i­can to re­cite the names of the 44 pres­i­dents who have served the coun­try. Even if one can­not list them all, there are a se­lect few men who are com­monly re­mem­bered. Theodore Roo­sevelt is one of them. Roo­sevelt, the 26th pres­i­dent of the United States, has been suc­ceeded by many oth­ers in the White House, but his le­gacy, in re­gard to con­ser­va­tion­ism, the power of the pres­i­dency in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, for­eign af­fairs and more, re­mains un­par­al­leled in the eyes of many. His in­trepid na­ture led him to ex­plore and pre­serve parts of the world both near and far, and depend­ing on which his­tory book you read, there’s usu­ally a story to be told about a city or state in which Roo­sevelt left his mark. South­west Florida is just one of the places brim­ming with soil upon which Roo­sevelt once stood. Be­cause Roo­sevelt was al­ways in search of adventure, ac­cu­rately track­ing all of the Rough Rider’s where­abouts and range of in­ter­ests can be a nearly im­pos­si­ble task. That is, un­less you are Joe Wie­gand, the world’s lead­ing Theodore Roo­sevelt “reprisor.”

BY ME­LANIE PA­GAN

IF THE SHOE FITS

NEARLY HALF A DOZEN OF THE AR­EAS ROO­SEVELT DES­IG­NATED FOR WILDLIFE ARE LO­CATED IN FLORIDA, IN­CLUD­ING POR­TIONS OF THE POPULAR BIRD-WATCH­ING SANC­TU­ARY ON SANI­BEL IS­LAND NOW KNOWN AS J.N. “DING” DAR­LING NA­TIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, WHICH HE ES­TAB­LISHED AS A BREED­ING GROUND FOR NA­TIVE BIRDS IN 1908.

A Chicago na­tive, Wie­gand spent the ma­jor­ity of his life im­mersed in Amer­i­can his­tory and gov­ern­men­tal af­fairs. His pas­sion for pol­i­tics earned him ti­tles such as elected county com­mis­sioner, cam­paign and public pol­icy pro­fes­sional, and board mem­ber of sev­eral not­for-profit busi­nesses. His true call­ing, how­ever, would come a few years later in the form of some­thing a bit more the­atri­cal.

While at­tend­ing a se­ries of less-than-lively Lin­coln Day Din­ner events in Illi­nois, Wie­gand, son of an as­pir­ing co­me­dian, won­dered how he could add some en­ter­tain­ment to those po­lit­i­cal gath­er­ings.

“I would think ‘boy, what a waste of an op­por­tu­nity to have a fun time,’” Wie­gand re­calls. And so he took one good look in the mir­ror, chan­neled his in­ner Amer­i­can leader, and de­cided to reprise the role of Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt, telling first-hand tales dur­ing the so­phis­ti­cated din­ner par­ties, about the man who pre­vi­ously served the coun­try.

Phys­i­cally, Roo­sevelt fits like hand and glove to Wie­gand. Stand­ing 5 feet 8 inches tall at about 220 pounds with a stocky, ath­letic build, salt-and-pep­per hair and a match­ing thick mus­tache rest­ing be­low his saga­cious eyes, it seems as though Wie­gand was born to play this role.

But traits Wie­gand shares with the late pres­i­dent run deeper than the sur­face. And per­haps most im­por­tantly, it’s the mes­sage Roo­sevelt strived to teach and the per­son that he set out to be that orig­i­nally made Wie­gand want to share Roo­sevelt’s story with the public, both in and out­side of the po­lit­i­cal world. So in 2008, he and his fam­ily packed up an RV and trav­eled across the na­tion, stag­ing one-man per­for­mances of Wie­gand as Roo­sevelt.

It was a spe­cial time, be­ing the fi­nal cen­ten­nial year of Roo­sevelt’s pres­i­dency, as well as his 150th birth­day. It was a year marked with Wie­gand’s visit to the White House to per­form in front of then Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, and a year that made him re­al­ize: “This is what I want to do, pro­fes­sion­ally, year af­ter year.” Since then, he hasn’t looked back.

COM­ING TO CAP­TIVA

Early on, Wie­gand made it a point to add Florida, specif­i­cally Cap­tiva Is­land, to his tour sched­ule. Each year, he re­turns to the is­land to retell the story of what Wie­gand refers to as one of Roo­sevelt’s most im­por­tant quests: set­ting sail in the hunt of devil­fish.

“Not only is the Cap­tiva hunt sig­nif­i­cant for the fact that it oc­curs right be­fore the war, but it was Teddy’s last hunt­ing adventure,”

says Wie­gand, who af­fec­tion­ately refers to the past pres­i­dent on a nick­name ba­sis. “I think he would have sensed that be­tween age and health, it would have been a sense of ex­hil­a­ra­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to Wie­gand, and Roo­sevelt’s self-au­thored ac­count of the jour­ney pub­lished in Scrib­ner’s Mag­a­zine on March 25, 1917, Roo­sevelt trav­eled by train to Punta Gorda and boarded a steam­boat to the Cap­tiva coast, trav­el­ing what is now known as the Roo­sevelt Chan­nel, to hunt and har­poon devil­fish (also called devil rays) with a man named Rus­sell J. Coles.

It was Roo­sevelt’s first time meet­ing Coles, a burly, Vir­gini­abased fish­er­man and tobacco dealer, whom he had only cor­re­sponded with briefly be­fore. The first time was in 1908, when Coles had writ­ten a let­ter ad­dressed di­rectly to the pres­i­dent, ex­press­ing his frus­tra­tions with the poor state of life­guard sta­tions. The com­plaint, which Coles had ex­pected to fall on deaf ears, tram­pled by the weight of the pres­i­dent’s other obligation­s, in­stead re­sulted in Roo­sevelt im­prov­ing con­di­tions of sta­tions and equip­ment within 60 days.

Years later, Roo­sevelt reached out to Coles—inc­og­nizant of the fact that he was the same man he’d helped once be­fore—in re­sponse to an ar­ti­cle Coles had writ­ten and pub­lished about har­poon­ing a mighty devil ray. Coles im­me­di­ately re­mem­bered the na­ture in which Roo­sevelt had han­dled his past com­plaint and re­sponded to Roo­sevelt by invit­ing him to come along on his next hunt in South­west Florida.

Roo­sevelt had spent much of his life as an ac­tive man, but when he took Coles up on the of­fer, he was just shy of his 59th birth­day and in de­clin­ing health af­ter re­turn­ing from a com­pro­mis­ing visit to the Ama­zon Jun­gle.

“He was not much of a fish­er­man in the tra­di­tional sense,” Wie­gand says. “But he was get­ting too seden­tary.” Surely, bal­anc­ing in­side of a mov­ing steam­boat while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pierc­ing the body of a meaty devil­fish with the steel head of an 8-foot-long wooden har­poon would sat­isfy Roo­sevelt’s crav­ing for ex­cite­ment.

He spent a week on the boat with Coles and four other fish­er­men av­er­ag­ing 50 years in age, whom Roo­sevelt de­scribed in his writ­ten ac­count as “weather-beaten” and “ut­terly fear­less.” Each of them was elec­tric with an­tic­i­pa­tion and un­cer­tainty, and be­sides them­selves, wildlife and re­flec­tions in the wa­ter served as their only ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

Though he was weary of it ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, Roo­sevelt did suc­cess­fully har­poon a devil­fish by the end of the jour­ney, just as Coles had pre­dicted he would, but not be­fore the beastly crea­ture towed the boaters half a mile across the sea.

ROO­SEVELT: THE CON­SER­VA­TION­IST

In Roo­sevelt’s penned tes­ti­mony of his epic jour­ney on Cap­tiva, he also de­scribed wildlife he spot­ted as he me­an­dered through man­groves, stat­ing: “The num­bers and tame­ness of the big birds showed what pro­tec­tion has done for the bird life of Florida of re­cent years.”

The pro­tec­tion Roo­sevelt was re­fer­ring to were fed­eral bird reser­va­tions, now de­vel­oped into and known as wildlife refuges. Be­fore Roo­sevelt, such ar­eas didn’t ex­ist, but dur­ing his time served, the pres­i­dent ded­i­cated a to­tal of 55 bird reser­va­tions and des­ig­nated lands for wildlife.

Wie­gand says to tell a story about Roo­sevelt’s in­volve­ment in Florida with­out men­tion­ing his preser­va­tion ef­forts would be un­just. He cel­e­brates the pres­i­dent’s en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism each year with a stop at Pel­i­can Is­land in Se­bas­tian, Fla.—the first fed­eral bird reser­va­tion as de­clared by Roo­sevelt in 1903, just two years af­ter he was elected.

“It was a pretty mon­u­men­tal change be­hind mak­ing the first fed­eral bird reser­va­tion,” Wie­gand says. Nearly half a dozen of the ar­eas Roo­sevelt des­ig­nated for wildlife are lo­cated in Florida, in­clud­ing por­tions of the popular bird-watch­ing sanc­tu­ary on Sani­bel Is­land now known as J.N. “Ding” Dar­ling Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, which he es­tab­lished as a breed­ing ground for na­tive birds in 1908.

Fol­low­ing his death in 1919, Roo­sevelt left be­hind a strong con­ser­va­tion ethic that many could ad­mire and use to strengthen nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments there­after. Jay Nor­wood “Ding” Dar­ling, car­toon­ist and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, was just one of the lives af­fected by the loss of Roo­sevelt. Dar­ling

“ROO­SEVELT HAD EX­PEC­TA­TIONS FOR CIT­I­ZENS TO DO THEIR DUTY, AND THAT VERY OF­TEN MEANT CAR­ING ABOUT THE COM­MU­NITY ONCE YOU WERE ABLE TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR FAM­ILY’S NEEDS.”

—JOE WIE­GAND, THEODORE ROO­SEVELT “REPRISOR”

com­mem­o­rated his spirit by cre­at­ing a sketch of the pres­i­dent on horse­back, wav­ing his hand in the air, with moun­tains fad­ing be­hind him. The ren­der­ing has since been pro­duced by artists of other medi­ums, and, ac­cord­ing to Wie­gand, the piece has be­come an iconic sym­bol­iza­tion of Roo­sevelt’s death and loss to the coun­try.

INTO THE FU­TURE

When Wie­gand is not per­form­ing at Pel­i­can Is­land, he is re­turn­ing to other places in Florida, such as ’Tween Wa­ters Inn, which sits pleas­antly along the Roo­sevelt Chan­nel on Cap­tiva.

Jeff Shuff, ’Tween Wa­ters CFO, says it’s been a plea­sure to see the spirit of Roo­sevelt come alive through Wie­gand year af­ter year.

“He has some re­ally good sto­ries on Theodore Roo­sevelt; a lot of which you don’t read about in the books. He’s a great sto­ry­teller and gets right into his char­ac­ter,” says Shuff, adding that Wie­gand com­pletely em­bod­ies Roo­sevelt on stage, from top hat to toe.

And while guests can hear tales about Roo­sevelt’s devil­fish adventure, con­ser­va­tion­ism and his re­la­tion­ship to Dar­ling, Wie­gand says be­ing able to share tidbits that re­late to au­di­ence mem­bers vis­it­ing from out of state is one of the great things about per­form­ing in an in­ti­mate space like at ’Tween Wa­ters.

As far as other things guests might ex­pect to learn about from the Roo­sevelt reprisor? “Some­one al­ways asks about how the teddy bear got its name, or sto­ries of the battle on San Juan Hill,” Wie­gand laughs.

Though no per­for­mance is com­pletely alike, the one thing Wie­gand strives to re­it­er­ate dur­ing ev­ery show is the late pres­i­dent’s hopes for hu­man­ity.

“Roo­sevelt had ex­pec­ta­tions for cit­i­zens to do their duty, and that very of­ten meant car­ing about the com­mu­nity once you were able to take care of your fam­ily’s needs,” Wie­gand says. “I feel com­pelled to leave the au­di­ence determined to do some­thing a lit­tle ex­tra.”

When Wie­gand throws on his sig­na­ture black coat and an­tique bi­fo­cals, and struts over to a crowd of guests with his chest out, proud and ready to em­body the man who he be­lieves did a wealth of good for the coun­try, he is con­tent.

“I get away with that won­der­ful thing [Roo­sevelt] was able to do,” he says, “in­spire and en­ter­tain, but also leave peo­ple with a mes­sage that re­ally has value and im­por­tance.”

Be­fore his ap­pear­ance as Theodore Roo­sevelt, Joe Wie­gand poses in front of the Roo­sevelt Cottage at ’Tween Wa­ters Inn, where he per­forms each year.

Ed­i­to­rial car­toon­ist J.N. “Ding” Dar­ling’s con­ser­va­tion sketches (above) and car­toons (be­low); Sani­bel Is­land’s wildlife refuge was named for him. Be­low left: This statue of Theodore Roo­sevelt stands tall as a me­mo­rial to the pres­i­dent on Roo­sevelt...

Con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and ed­u­ca­tion that started with Theodore Roo­sevelt more than 100 years ago con­tinue with high-tech of­fer­ings like the Dis­cov­ery Ding app at the J.N. “Ding” Dar­ling Wildlife Refuge.

Cap­tiva Is­land’s ’Tween Wa­ters Inn sits on the Roo­sevelt Chan­nel, which was named af­ter the 26th pres­i­dent.

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