image of a young Teedie, (c) Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library
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Presidential Library and Museum
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born into an influential family in New York City during a fall evening in 1858. At its head was Theodore Roosevelt Sr., whom Teddy would remember fondly as “the best man I ever knew.” His doting mother came from a Southern family, which caused more than a few tense moments during the Civil War as mother and father sided with their regional roots.
From the outset, Teedie, as he was known by his family, was plagued by illnesses including severe asthma attacks that threatened his life. His father often nursed him and gave him the advice that would drive the studious child the rest of his life – “You have the mind, but….you must make your body.” So began Teedie’s lifelong dedication to exercise – wrestling, boxing, swimming, hiking, lifting weights – to make his body strong.
Teedie loved nature. From the moment he saw a dead seal at a marketplace, he became obsessed with collecting and studying animal specimens, especially birds that he tagged and categorized. This passion fit well with his love of the outdoors and hunting.
The second of four siblings, Teedie was very attached to his sisters Anna (affectionately known as Bamie), Corrine and brother Elliot. He traveled with his family to England, Germany, Italy, France, the Middle East and a trip down the Nile. At each venue, TR collected bird specimens and skins, keeping thorough notes on all as well as noting in his diary the day’s exploits. On these trips the home-schooled Teedie learned to speak several languages including German, French and some Italian.
Teddy entered Harvard in 1876, where he excelled in such subjects as German, history and rhetoric. During his sophomore year, TR experienced his first tragic loss when his father died of cancer. The heartbroken student wrote, “Father had always been so much with me that it seems as if part of my life had been taken away.” But with a resolve that so characterized his life, TR became the man of the house, looking after his mother’s well being as well as making decisions for his siblings.