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Opinion

Teddy Roosevelt deserves museum

Theodore Roosevelt campaigns on Long Island for president

Theodore Roosevelt campaigns on Long Island for president in 1912. Photo Credit: Joseph Burt

Christmas at Sagamore Hill in 1918 was a subdued affair. Theodore Roosevelt was back from the hospital in New York, seriously ill, still grieving. Within weeks, he would die in his sleep, of a broken heart.

So says Edmund Morris in "Colonel Roosevelt," the last book of his magisterial three-volume biography. In his final months, Morris notes, the former president would bury his face in the mane of his son's horse, sobbing over the loss of Quentin, shot down in action during World War I.

Morris' new volume is the most recent of a remarkable series of histories and biographies produced by Roosevelt scholars - a body of work that helps us see more clearly than ever what an important president he was.

That's why it's such a tragedy that plans for a Roosevelt museum in Oyster Bay were abandoned by the Theodore Roosevelt Association last year. But now we hear that some individuals are working privately to realize much of the original vision, albeit on a more modest scale, in keeping with concerns of the community.

We certainly hope somebody's plan comes to fruition. Long Island's own president deserves a suitable new museum, and the people of Long Island need one to become fully reacquainted with him.

The timing couldn't be more auspicious. In this day of global warming and disillusionment with big business, Roosevelt's accomplishments as a conservationist and a trust-buster speak loudly to us across the ages. Barack Obama, after all, was not the first president to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Cultivating Roosevelt's legacy has been a labor of love for many of his fans. In this pursuit, the Theodore Roosevelt Association has no rival - especially during the years when late John Gable headed the organization.

 

Founded shortly after Roosevelt's death, the association has donated Roosevelt family homes to the National Park Service, including TR's Manhattan birthplace and his home at Sagamore Hill. The association also donated another Roosevelt family home that became the Old Orchard Museum at Sagamore Hill.

This small but lively museum focuses on Roosevelt's presidency. One display shows the Rough Rider in full uniform. Another display lets visitors play a campaign recording of TR's voice. In perhaps the association's most notable feat, Gable led a successful effort to persuade Congress to award Roosevelt a Medal of Honor for his heroics in the Spanish-American War, a medal that complements the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded for bringing an end to the war between Russia and Japan in 1905.

Roosevelt's last years at Sagamore Hill - vividly rendered by Morris, Kathleen Dalton and other biographers - speak to some of his most controversial and productive years, the decade he spent speaking, writing, exploring, hunting and advocating preparedness and progressive causes after leaving the White House in 1909.

What's missing from the preservation of Roosevelt's legacy, regrettably, is the vision of the much grander Theodore Roosevelt museum that the association planned to establish, a plan that some labeled as overly large and disruptive to the hamlet of Oyster Bay, and which ultimately proved financially unfeasible.

What is being considered now, however, is reportedly a smaller-scale museum that would focus on Roosevelt's intimate involvement with Oyster Bay itself. Such a center could make Oyster Bay a destination, while guiding tourists to the local landmarks so familiar to Roosevelt and his family.

 

Oyster Bay, after all, boasts several Roosevelt points of interest. Thanks to volunteers, a statue of TR as the Rough Rider was moved and rededicated on South Street in November, cast from molds of Alexander Proctor's famed bronze of Roosevelt in Portland, Ore. Town historian John Hammond has written a guidebook that points to the library on East Main Street where Roosevelt helped lay the cornerstone; to Christ Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church of Oyster Bay, where he worshiped; and to the band shell where he spoke on the Fourth of July.

And, of course, there's Snouder's Corner Drug Store, where the Roosevelt family received phone calls during his governorship, in the days when a phone was a rare thing. Sadly, Snouder's recently closed its doors. But a foundation has just been established to raise $3 million to purchase and restore it, including the soda fountain. Good luck to them.

Preserving local landmarks is wonderful , but in this case it takes on additional meaning through their relevance to Roosevelt's life. It was a life of trials, including disabling childhood asthma and poor vision. And tragedies: the loss of his mother and first wife on the same terrible night. And then again, triumphs: as a crusading police commissioner, and as the heroic Rough Rider, all leading to his election as governor of New York.

And then, of course, there was TR's whirlwind presidency a century ago (1901-09), marked by trust-busting, park-building, canal-digging, peacemaking - and the Great White Fleet, symbol of America's new global might.

Through it all, home was Oyster Bay. That's one reason a new Roosevelt museum there would be such a good idea. It would put the community on the map as TR's hometown, drawing visitors from far and wide to learn more of Roosevelt's remarkable life and legacy.

Plans are vague right now, but about the general idea we can only echo what the president himself might have said: Bully!hN

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