Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Man Who Would Be Teddy Roosevelt, and Is

Article as featured in the New York Times, highlighting Oyster Bay personality James Foote...

A Man Who Would Be Teddy Roosevelt, and Is
Published: July 27, 2008

WHEN James Foote opens his closet, he has lots to choose from: a Spanish-American War uniform, hunting attire, a frock coat, a pith helmet, a Rough Rider campaign hat, a Panama hat, and top hats, both silk and beaver.

Mr. Foote, 59, who lives in Sea Cliff, needs it all, as he logs 20,000 miles a year portraying Theodore Roosevelt in speeches and interviews. He has been playing T. R. for more than 30 years, from Huntington High School to a White House Easter Egg Roll.

Recently, Mr. Foote took part in a National League of Cities event at Mount Rushmore, where he saw his friends “the Rushmore Boys,” as he calls them — re-enactors who play Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington, the presidents whose faces are carved on Mount Rushmore along with Roosevelt’s. “Jefferson,” Mr. Foote said, “is one of my best friends.”

Mr. Foote has also been seen on the History Channel, C-Span and “The Colbert Report,” on which, as Mr. Foote recalls it, Stephen Colbert asked him if the Spanish-American War was a great imperialist war or the greatest and if Roosevelt had anything to apologize for. “I have nothing to apologize for,” Mr. Foote said firmly.

The life and legacy of Roosevelt, the 26th president and New York’s 33rd governor, are being remembered this year, the 150th anniversary of his birth. Mr. Foote will be busy at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Roosevelt’s longtime home here, helping to celebrate. The culmination begins on Oct. 25 and ends on Oct. 27, Roosevelt’s birthday.

On July 4, Mr. Foote gave speeches both at Sagamore Hill and in downtown Oyster Bay.
“By Jove, isn’t it a bully day for a celebration of the birth of this nation?” he declaimed from the bunting-draped Derby-Hall Bandstand here, his pince-nez glinting in the sun.

Afterward, to the strains of the “Sagamore Hill March,” he strode into the crowd shaking hands, patting children on the head and having his picture taken.

“We almost feel as if he is Teddy Roosevelt, he’s been doing this so many years,” said Ann Wulff of East Norwich, who has seen Mr. Foote at many community celebrations.

He looks very much like Roosevelt, who died in 1919. Mr. Foote, who likes to visit Sagamore Hill, occasionally startles people when he shows up on the porch.

“People might think they have seen a ghost, he has such a physical resemblance,” said Charles Markis, Sagamore Hill’s chief of interpretation. “They’re sitting on chairs and he comes out, and they get this expression on their face.”

Once during a speech he was giving, an elderly lady asked Mr. Foote when he was going to give women the vote.

Mr. Foote grew up in Glenwood Landing. Two weeks after graduating from North Shore High
School in 1968, he was in the Navy. He returned home in 1972 and became a machinist.

It was the alchemy of a mustache and new glasses in 1975 that unexpectedly transformed him into a dead ringer for Roosevelt. Mr. Foote, who had a love of history but no particular interest in Roosevelt, was asked to march in a parade as the president, and his life as a re-enactor began.

It included working and volunteering at Sagamore Hill, which he still does occasionally. He studied Roosevelt and committed scores of his speeches, letters and writings to memory.

Playing a larger-than-life man has not swelled Mr. Foote’s head. “You can’t help feeling inadequate,” he said. But he and his muse share similar interests: “I keep active. I like to hike. I’m kind of a big kid too.”

Mr. Foote draws on his repertory of speeches and other writings with great accuracy, said John Hammond, Oyster Bay’s town historian. “One thing people really don’t realize is how much of a Theodore Roosevelt scholar Jim is,” Mr. Hammond said.

He called Mr. Foote’s effect on children “enormous.”

“It’s like a teacher in a school,” Mr. Hammond said. “They don’t know the impact they have. You’re planting a seed.”

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