A Serendipitous Stumble upon Theodore Roosevelt

Downtown Berkeley, California

“I ask of you the straightforward, earnest performance of duty in all the little things that come up day by day in business, in domestic life, in every way, and then when the opportunity comes, if you have thus done your duty in the lesser things, I know you will rise level to the heroic needs.” — Theodore Roosevelt, University of California in Berkeley, May 14, 1903.

Yesterday morning, on my way to work at the TU California office, I was pleasantly surprised to quite literally stumble upon this engraving on a city sidewalk: “1903 President Teddy Roosevelt Speaks.”

It inspired me to do a little homework: Roosevelt was friends with then UC Berkeley President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and had promised to visit the campus on a whistle-stop speaking tour of western states. After speaking in San Francisco on May 13, Roosevelt crossed the bay to Oakland on a tugboat and, at midday on May 14, 1903, swept into Berkeley on a special train. The San Francisco Chronicle described it this way: “As the President appeared and made his way out under the cloth canopy at the front of the stage, the vast audience rose in a body and sent up mighty cheers which rolled back and resounded through the ravines of the hills.”

Roosevelt with UC Berkeley President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, 1903

The next day Roosevelt met writer and naturalist John Muir in nearby Oakland and they traveled together by train and stagecoach to Yosemite.

“I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him,” Roosevelt wrote of the trip. “The first night we camped in a grove of giant sequoias. It was clear weather, and we lay in the open, the enormous cinnamon-colored trunks rising about us like the columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by any human architect. All next day we traveled through the forest. Then a snow-storm came on, and at night we camped on the edge of the Yosemite, under the branches of a magnificent silver fir, and very warm and comfortable we were, and a very good dinner we had before we rolled up in our tarpaulins and blankets for the night. The following day we went down into the Yosemite and through the valley, camping in the bottom among the timber.”

And they talked, and talked, late into the nights.

Prior to their trip, Roosevelt and Muir didn’t always see eye to eye. Muir, a founder of the Sierra Club, valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities and was more of a preservationist. Roosevelt, an avid hunter, pushed for the sustainable use of natural resources and was more of a conservationist. But both men strongly opposed reckless exploitation. So the two set aside their differences, focused on their common love for the wilds and not only became lifelong friends but, together, became an even more potent force for the protection of wildlife and wild places – including, of course, many of the critical watersheds that sustain the wild trout, salmon and steelhead we love to pursue today.

Roosevelt with John Muir in Yosemite, 1903

We can learn a lot from Roosevelt and Muir.

Right after his trip with Muir, before heading back to D.C., Roosevelt stopped and gave a speech in Sacramento urging the citizens of California to do everything in their power to use forests and streams wisely and “preserve the natural wealth.” He ended with this: “We are not building this country for a day. It is to last through the ages.”

And yesterday morning, On January 25, 2013, after I serendipitously stumbled upon a Berkeley sidewalk, Roosevelt helped renew my enthusiasm for and dedication to my work – to continue doing my small part to help protect and advance this great American conservation legacy.

Sometimes inspiration comes at unexpected times in surprising places.

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