Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as one of the most athletic U.S. presidents. When he was a child, Theodore’s father worried about his son’s health. From the day he was born in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt, nicknamed “Teedie” or Teddy, suffered from asthma attacks. Since Theodore’s mother Mittie was often ill, his father Theodore Roosevelt Senior walked up and down the halls of the family’s house as the boy struggled to breathe. Other times, Theodore’s father ordered a horse and carriage in the middle of the night so Theodore could get some fresh air. Theodore Roosevelt later wrote that “I could breathe, I could sleep, when he had me in his arms.”
Since Theodore and his three siblings all had health problems, their father arranged for them to have private tutoring. Their father did his best to make learning fun by creating plays for them and reading stories. Theodore liked stories about men fighting in battles and stories about animals.
When the family went on vacation at Oyster Bay in Long Island, New York, Theodore noticed birds he had never seen before. He began to study their colors and the sounds they made. Theodore’s father had a professional taxidermist teach the boy how to stuff and mount dead birds for his natural history collection. Other family member and friends were less enthusiastic about Theodore’s collection, but his father thought anything that helped his son learn about the world was worthwhile.
Since the Roosevelt children didn’t attend school, their parents included a lot of field trips and traveling in their education. Theodore’s father helped establish the American Museum of Natural History and the Children’s Aid Society for poor children. He took his children with him when he visited children’s hospitals. By the time he went to college, Theodore toured many European countries and also went to the Middle East. During the Middle East tour, he loved finding exotic animals that didn’t live in the U.S.
Theodore’s father also encouraged his son to make his body as strong as his mind. He told Theodore, “You have the mind, but…you must make your body.” After two boys picked a fight with him and he lost, Theodore realized that his father was right. A gym was set up in the family home for Theodore to practice weight lifting and gymnastics. He also took up boxing. It took a long time, but Theodore eventually became more athletic.
In college Theodore continued his exercise program and his interest in animals. When Theodore’s father died, he decided to change his major from natural history to history and government. He wanted to honor his father’s memory by doing something useful. Though not everyone in his family supported his decision, Theodore thought a career in politics would allow him to help the most people.
Further Reading: The Theodore Roosevelt Center: http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ch. 2