Theodore Roosevelt died 100 years ago; here’s what he means to San Luis Obispo

Teddy Roosevelt with John Muir overlooking Yosemite Valley at Glacier Point in 1903.
Teddy Roosevelt with John Muir overlooking Yosemite Valley at Glacier Point in 1903.

On Dec. 5, the nation observed the funeral for our 41st President, the late George H.W. Bush. In his moving eulogy to his father, our 43rd President George W. Bush included the following reference:

“In his Inaugural Address, the 41st president of the United States said this: “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.”

As I reflected on this eulogy, it occurred to me that history was repeating itself — it was almost the same theme that Theodore Roosevelt used in his speech on May 9, 1903, in San Luis Obispo:

“Our aim must be to hand over to our children not an impoverished but an improved heritage. That is the part of wisdom for our people. We wish to hand over our country to our children in better shape, not in worse shape, than we ourselves got it.”

One hundred years ago — Jan. 6, 1919 — Theodore Roosevelt succumbed in his sleep to a fatal embolism. He was a mere 60 years old, but his health had been deteriorating for years, ever since a close brush with death in 1914 while exploring the “River of Doubt” in Brazil. To compound his anxieties, just a few months earlier Roosevelt had learned that his son Quentin had been shot down in aerial combat over German lines; he took this blow very hard.

Vice President Thomas Marshall remarked, upon hearing the news that TR had simply gone to sleep and never awoke: “Death had to take him in his sleep, for if he was awake there’d have been a fight.”

Indeed, as a young man, Roosevelt had quite literally “remade” his body from that of a weak youth afflicted with severe asthma to become a skilled boxer who trained rigorously and challenged many fighters far better than himself. He could not defeat death, however, which came to him like a thief in the night.

Roosevelt was known for many distinguishing traits, any one of which would have earned him great distinction among men: president and statesman; war hero (posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor); winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; “trust-busting” reformer and friend of the working man; devoted husband and father of five children; author of dozens of books and numerous articles; world traveler and intrepid explorer; extraordinary speaker and skilled lecturer.

But it is Roosevelt’s status as a naturalist, a scientist and a passionate conservationist that commends TR to us here in San Luis Obispo. His advocacy for conservation of natural resources is the stuff of legends — and his actions speak louder than words: As president, Theodore Roosevelt established five new National Parks; created or enlarged 150 National Forests (including Los Padres National Forest); and set aside 55 Wildlife Refuges. After signing the Antiquities Act into law, he designated 18 national monuments. Altogether, Roosevelt is credited with protecting almost 300 million acres of land. Truly, TR “handed over our country to our children in better shape… than we ourselves got it.”

For the last few years, a small group of local residents has been working with ARTS Obispo to create a monument to Theodore Roosevelt and his conservation legacy in San Luis Obispo’s Mitchell Park. TR’s 1903 speech in SLO provides a glimpse of the “Big Bang” origins of the conservation movement that grew to such an extraordinary degree here on the Central Coast in the century that followed. In that brief hour of Roosevelt’s visit in 1903, he lit the spark for the fierce spirit of environmentalism that has infused every battle to protect our unique landscape here in SLO County.

Generations to come would follow in Roosevelt’s path as we preserved landmarks like Montana de Oro, Morro Rock, the Nipomo Dunes, and the Carrizo Plains.

The proposed monument will center on a seated Roosevelt, attired as he was in Yosemite with John Muir, and revealing him as the charismatic naturalist that he was. The chosen site is a grove of redwood trees near the Senior Center.

The artist for this project is Paula Zima, a sculptor with deep roots in San Luis Obispo. After studying at Cal Poly, Paula created numerous several public sculptures in the region including Mission Plaza’s iconic Bear and Child. Now based in New Mexico, Paula has presented a “maquette” concept for the monument as shown above. The project will be subject to review and approval by the city of San Luis Obispo. The life-size bronze sculpture will be cast in Paso Robles, and all project elements will be designed and fabricated to emphasize local materials.

Conceptual site plans for the project will be reviewed by the SLO City Parks Commission on Feb. 6. To date, over $50,000 has been raised for this project; it’s estimated that we’ll need about $100,000 more to complete it. Donations for the project should be directed to ARTS Obispo through this web site: For more information, please contact the author at 805-550-7713 or by emailing

John Ashbaugh is a former San Luis Obispo City Council member. He teaches U.S. History and Global Studies at Hancock College in Santa Maria.