An On-Going Tribute
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.