Editor’s Note: This post is from Heidi Voller, an intern here at the TR Center who has been working with us since this summer. We wanted her to share with you some of her experiences and discoveries while working on a unique collection for our digital library.
Theodore Roosevelt was a quintessential American in what some would argue was a much simpler time. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Theodore Roosevelt, but over the course of the last six months I have been one of the privileged few to work on a project digitizing materials by and about him. I have read his stories and seen his handwriting. I have been on a journey that has taken me from knowing about his legacies to now having insight into his essence as a person.
The specific collection I worked with is The Theodore Roosevelt Centennial Symposium Collection, a compilation of pamphlets, newspaper articles, letters, and other random documents collected from the coordination and execution of the Theodore Roosevelt Centennial Symposium hosted by Dickinson State Teacher’s College (now Dickinson State University) in 1958. I would love to take you piece by piece through this collection but I will spare you and present just three of my favorites.
This piece, a letter from Hermann Hagedorn to Mrs. Harry J. Wienbergen, is similar to much of the correspondence in the collection regarding the planning of the symposium. [Editor's note: This letter is currently unavailable in the digital library due to copyright restrictions] At first glance it seems to be a simple letter with little significance. However, in the last line the writer says that his wife, Mrs. Hagedorn, feels North Dakota is the “authentic America.” This is a beautiful way to describe North Dakota, and I believe that is how Theodore Roosevelt felt about the area as well. Roosevelt is often quoted saying that he would never have been president without the experiences he had while living in North Dakota. Every time I read this line in the letter, I also think it is too bad Mrs. Hagedorn was not more entrepreneurial, because the phrase she coined would have made a great bumper sticker. The second reason I selected this letter is because of the reference to “a room in the State College’s new library that is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt.” To me, it seems that the TR Center as it is today, including the room I have worked in over the past months, was being dreamt of back in 1958. It is truly awesome to see how an idea of dedicating a room to Roosevelt would evolve into coordinating the digitization of several Theodore Roosevelt collections in one universal location to make them accessible to everyone.
One of my favorite documents is this copy of a handwritten autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt (see first page above). I love that Roosevelt so casually recorded his history in eight handwritten pages. A current of historical events flows through the words as he recounts his life in defining moments that he feels belong on the pages. This is one of the most personal pieces of Theodore Roosevelt in this collection and I have found it an honor to have been able to work with documents such as this one.
Lastly, I wanted to highlight a photo, and this is one, of Theodore Roosevelt at his desk, that has remained vivid in my mind because I find it a little comical. I have heard many quotes analyzing the true meaning of a messy desk, from my personal favorite, “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” to a less philosophical explanation: “A messy desk is only a sign of a messy desk.” I have never heard anyone explain what it means when you have a mess on the floor surrounding your desk. This picture reminds me that powerful people are still regular people and they have flaws, too. In images such as these, when you look beyond what is being posed for the camera, you can see someone’s true character; their habits, their life. Roosevelt’s reality is pictorially documented in thousands of images, but photos like this one let you see into Theodore Roosevelt as a person, not just a political persona.
As you can tell, this is not an historical analysis of these documents. I just wanted to highlight some that I have felt drawn to and to also share what I have gained from this project. This project has changed how I felt about Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and about the Theodore Roosevelt Center in general. I went from thinking I knew who Roosevelt was to being enamored with his character. Flaws and all, he is definitely a person worth knowing. Through this project, I also came to see the bigger picture about what my task was at the TR Center: I am bringing Theodore Roosevelt’s essence to everyone. Although I am a novice, and I understand that many of these items hold a deeper importance than I have come to know, I am thankful for this opportunity, and I am excited for these images to become available to everyone.
Heidi Voller earned her Master’s Degree in Museum Studies in May 2010 from The University of Oklahoma. She currently works for North Dakota State University Extension Service for the Family Nutrition Program and also is a nutrition instructor for Bismarck State College.