Theodore Roosevelt: A Brief Biography

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”
Theodore Roosevelt to Albert Vollweiler, November 8, 1918

Theodore Roosevelt at his desk during his tenure as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Although Theodore Roosevelt is the poster child for the “strenuous life,” he was born a frail and asthmatic child. Inspired by his father to “make your body,” he transformed himself by hard discipline into an uncompromising man of action. The four years he ranched in the badlands of western North Dakota marked the turning point in his life. He came to Dakota a New York dude and he left ready to take on the world.

As an adult, Roosevelt threw himself unhesitatingly into every arena of existence. His energies, his passions, his utterances, his opinions, and his appetites were all larger than life.

When he wasn’t seeking manly (and sometimes reckless) adventures, Roosevelt gave his life to public service. He served three terms in the New York State Assembly. He ran unsuccessfully for the office of mayor of New York City. He served six years as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner. He was the Police Commissioner of New York City. He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. That was just the beginning!

Roosevelt said the great day of his life was July 1, 1898, when he led the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, one of the most colorful events of the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt’s courage in Cuba (and his capacity to write brilliantly about his exploits) made him a national hero and launched him first into the Governorship of New York, then into the Vice Presidency, and finally into the Presidency.

Roosevelt was a successful author, big game hunter, and global adventurer. He read more – and wrote more – than any other President of the United States. His friend and critic Henry Adams said Roosevelt reminded him of the God of the scholastic philosophers: “pure act.”

When Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, his son Archie cabled family members with the message, “The old lion is dead.” 

TR and Victor Hugo Stickney

“I am myself at heart as much a westerner as an easterner; I am proud indeed to be considered one of yourselves.”
--- Theodore Roosevelt in Dickinson, North Dakota, July 1886

Theodore Roosevelt in the buckskin outfit he ordered from Mrs. Maddox, a hearty western woman in the Badlands.One of TR’s adventures in the West involved the capture of three ruffians who had stolen his boat. Traveling by river, and then on foot for more than 40 miles, Roosevelt apprehended the thieves and turned them in to the sheriff in Dickinson. On leaving the courthouse after filing his complaint against the men, TR was both physically and mentally exhausted, and his feet were badly bruised and blistered from the long march and repeated drenchings. He chanced upon Dr. Victor Hugo Stickney on the streets of Dickinson. Stickney did what he could for Roosevelt and sent him on his way. In his famous account of their meeting, Stickney provided a superb portrait of TR at the end of the boat thieves adventure. “[H]e was scratched, bruised, and hungry, but gritty and determined as a bulldog... When I went home to lunch, an hour later, I told my wife that I had met the most peculiar and at the same time the most wonderful man I ever came to know.”

Stickney and Roosevelt became good friends. Later that year, Stickney invited Roosevelt to give the Independence Day address in Dickinson. That speech in July 1886 was one of TR’s first great national speeches. In it he famously said, “Like all Americans, I like big things: big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat-fields, railroads, and herds of cattle too, big factories, steamboats, and everything else. But we must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue.”

Stickney is memorialized at Dickinson State University in the naming of one of its first buildings, Stickney Hall, constructed in 1921. Stickney’s daughter Dorothy was a Vaudeville and Broadway singer, dancer, and actress. Stickney Auditorium, the University’s main performance auditorium, is named after her. 

Dickinson State University and TR

“[A]mong those men whom I have known the love of books and the love of outdoors, in their highest expressions, have usually gone hand in hand.”
--- Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography, 1913

Students and others from around the country visit Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch as part of the annual symposium.Since the early 2000s, Dickinson State University has encouraged students to learn from Roosevelt’s “strenuous life” – both the life of action and the life of the mind. The Theodore Roosevelt Honors Leadership Program recruits high-achieving young adults who, in addition to studies in their chosen academic discipline, examine Roosevelt’s life and legacy, and participate in a rigorous leadership and service program.

The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University sponsors an annual symposium on some theme related to TR:  conservation, America’s place in the world, political campaigning, and American culture and the arts. The first such symposium actually took place in 1958, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt’s birth. Future President John F. Kennedy spoke in Dickinson on “The Moral and Spiritual Imperatives of Free Government” as part of that event.

Since 2009, the Theodore Roosevelt Center has been working to digitize all that represents TR:  correspondence, diaries, photographs, political cartoons, films, audio clips, and other media. As the Center adds material to the digital library – now comprising nearly 40,000 items – scholars and average citizens alike have increasingly come to use the resource for their research and enjoyment.

The success of the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s work inspired the North Dakota State Legislature, during the 2013 legislative session, to appropriate $12 million for the construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. The appropriation required that $3 million be raised from non-state sources, and in June 2014, the city of Dickinson committed funds to meet the challenge. A new independent nonprofit organization, the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation (TRPLF), was formed to bring the project to fruition. Dickinson State University’s President and the DSU Heritage Foundation Board President serve on the TRPLF board, ensuring DSU’s full partnership in the development of the Presidential Library.