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Teddy Roosevelt Comes to Life for Grand Canyon Celebrations

Bill and Susan Ahearn first visited the Grand Canyon as a couple in 1971. Nearly five decades later, they continue to explore the place that they say never disappoints.

“We visit several times a year,” said Bill. “It is so big compared to us and physically challenging. It puts you in your place physically and mentally; yet, it can be so intimate with its side canyons, hanging gardens, waterfalls and big horn sheep.”

Active as volunteers, hikers, researchers, financial supporters and protectors of public lands and dark skies, the Ahearns are participating in celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Grand Canyon’s induction into the National Park system.

As part of the effort, the couple is bringing President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt to Arizonans so they can get to know the man who is credited with protecting the canyon for generations to enjoy.

“He was the right man at the right time,” said Susan.

Actor Derek Evans agrees. In his one-man performances, Evans embodies the spirit, zeal and energy of the man he describes as belligerent, limitless, entertaining and beyond genius. “This is a guy who did in real life what John Wayne did in the movies.”

For 15 years, Evans has embraced Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality, sharing the historic character with people of all ages. He portrays the former president in his retirement, reflecting on the full and varied life that included being an avid outdoorsman, a prolific writer and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt had also served as Undersecretary of the Navy and a Rough Rider – a mounted soldier in the Spanish American War – who played a significant role in driving the Spanish out of Cuba.

“School children are enamored by his outrageous behavior, chasing bad guys across South Dakota’s Badlands, playing with kids and injuring himself as a boxer, too,” said Evans. “Audiences appreciate how much fun this guy was and how in debt we are to him for establishing the American agenda. Today, we’re still talking about the proper role of government in American life. And, he was among those who introduced conservation into the American consciousness. He was a terribly important world figure, up there with Lincoln, Gandhi and Churchill.”

Evans says Roosevelt was really good at getting people’s attention. “He was the first president who had a press office in the White House. Reporters loved writing about him because he was such an interesting character. Teddy Roosevelt let them in the briefing room every day, but if a reporter wrote something he didn’t like, he’d put him in the ‘Ananias Club’ [named after a Biblical character who was said to be a liar] and they would get no more stories.”

As a writer himself, Roosevelt produced more than 30 books. “He had a beautiful way of writing about things, especially nature. He described the Little Missouri River as ‘molten lead pouring out of a foundry.’”

Evans describes Roosevelt as a voracious reader, too, curious about everything. “Roosevelt was interesting because he was interested. He understood seven languages. At age 55, he decided to learn Portuguese. He would have a book in his lap while dictating government papers.  He could be discussing philology [the study of the structure of languages] with Harvard scientists or talking with little kids about their bug collections.”

In world affairs, Evans calls Roosevelt a man of strength and restraint. “The more power he had, the more cautious he was about its use. He was a wonderful negotiator and always careful to leave a way out for the other guy to save face.”

In 1903, Roosevelt made his first trip to Arizona. “At the time, public lands were being claimed for mining, grazing and tourism,” said Bill Ahearn. “The only thing that saved the Grand Canyon from development was the distance. It was hard to get to.”

Even so, Ahearn explains that a “prospector,”  who had staked a mining claim at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, was charging $1 per person for hikers to use it. “That was 100 years ago! Imagine what it would be today!”

Roosevelt spent only one day at the Grand Canyon, but while there, he delivered a powerful speech, captured by the Coconino Sun and often quoted by historians. Regarding the Canyon, he said, “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

In 1908, Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon as a National Monument through the Antiquities Act, which allows a president to set aside public lands. It later went into the National Park system, and on February 26, 1919, Congress created the Grand Canyon National Park.

The Ahearns say the centennial celebrations are an opportunity for Arizonans and all Americans to appreciate what Roosevelt did and what the country has as a result of his actions.

“The Grand Canyon is a treasure, a natural wonder that feeds your soul,” said Susan. “There are so many layers to explore with Native American history, pioneer history and science. Botanists are still finding new species in the Canyon. And, it’s so important to have some kind of connection with the natural world. This one is so immense and diverse, it hits you in the face.”

Evans will be performing his two-hour solo theater show, “Teddy Roosevelt the Man in the Arena,” at the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson. The Flagstaff performance is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Sunday, February 24, at the Coconino Center for the Arts. Tickets are $15 per person. For tickets or more information, visit flagartscouncil.org. FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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