The Design Committee for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library was in Oregon last weekend for a meeting. We were hosted by new board member, Stephen Dow Beckham, at his home on the coast. During a break we walked out onto a small, stormy beach to have a look at the ocean Theodore Roosevelt first saw in 1903.
There on the sand was a large seal. We approached it carefully because at first we did not know it was dead. When we finally got close enough to inspect it, we discovered that it had a deep gash on one side near the flipper-like hind legs. That must have been what killed it. The seal was majestic—eight feet long, with a beautiful pelt, and sharp white whiskers.
We had been talking about young Theodore Roosevelt at our meeting. And here was a seal right before us! When TR was a boy of seven, he came upon a dead seal in front of a New York City shop. “I was walking up Broadway,” he later wrote, “and as I passed the market to which I used sometimes to be sent before breakfast to get strawberries, I suddenly saw a dead seal laid out on a slab of wood. That seal filled me with every possible feeling of romance and adventure.”
Young TR made inquiries about the seal, measured it repeatedly with a pocket rule, wrote down the results, and returned to gaze at it as often as possible before it finally disappeared. “As long as that seal remained there I haunted the neighborhood of the market day after day.”
Somehow the seal represented the vast universe of outdoor adventure TR had imagined and read about in the books of Mayne Reid. It inspired him to begin a zoological journal, and to create, at home with his cousins, “what we ambitiously called the ‘Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.’”
TR was able to obtain the seal skull for his collection. The boyhood adventure remained in his memory all of the rest of his life. He devoted several long paragraphs to it in his 1913 Autobiography. There, amidst much weightier reflections, he wrote, “My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this, as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help to develop me.”
Roosevelt’s encounter with the seal marked “the first day that I started on my career as a zoologist.”
As we stood on the beach in western Oregon, we were immediately struck by the coincidence of finding a dead seal at precisely the time when we were discussing how to create exhibits that did justice to TR’s curiosity, boyish enthusiasm, and love of the outdoors. We took it as a propitious sign.
Once we overcame our initial fear, we touched and then caressed the seal, examined what we could without attempting to turn it over, and took photographs from every angle. Reluctantly, we went back inside to resume our planning meeting. We were all many decades beyond seven years old, but that seal filled us with wonder, too, and gave us insight into the mental development of a frail but intellectually precocious child of New York. We saw the seal in its natural environment. Imagine coming upon it on the streets of America’s most densely populated city in 1865.
When we returned to the beach before departing the next morning, the seal had washed back out to sea.