This column was published in the Contra Costa Times newspapers on May 27, 2010.
A man will grow a mustache for many reasons, but to look like a dead president? That’s what Orinda’s Fred Rutledge did last week to bring to life Theodore Roosevelt in an evening lecture series sponsored by Pleasanton’s Museum on Main.
Dressed as Roosevelt and standing at a lectern draped with an American flag, Rutledge told about 100 attendees at a Pleasanton church earlier this month that he’d just returned from spending four days with John Muir.
Working from historical documents, Rutledge took the audience back to May 1903, some two years into Roosevelt's presidency and the day he emerged from his historic Yosemite trip where the president and Muir eluded secret service and the press corps: “Just the two of us,” said Rutledge as Roosevelt, “by the campfire underneath the oldest living trees stretching high above into the starry night sky, talking, laughing, story-telling.”
Employing a mid-Atlantic accent, Rutledge filled his talk with historical tidbits, including the revelation that Roosevelt’s often-quoted “Speak softly and carry a big stick” comes from an African proverb.
Rutledge also illuminated Roosevelt’s shifting view of nature as a source of national raw materials to a source of beauty in need of protection: “I am still sort of a hunter,” said Rutledge as Roosevelt, “although a lover of nature first. When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel as if all the works of some great writer had perished.”
Rutledge, 53, fell in love with history thanks to his parents who often sat around the kitchen table in their Piedmont home talking about historical topics. He attended San Francisco State University and St. Mary’s College. Having served as an Army Reservist, he’s now in the California State Military Reserve.
“Like Roosevelt, I’m a full colonel,” said Rutledge, who is also the Chief of Staff of the California Center for Military History.
His first portrayal of Roosevelt occurred in April 1999 after meeting Muir impersonator Steve Pauley at the Muir House in Martinez. Pauley had been looking for someone to portray Roosevelt to recreate scenes from that 1903 Yosemite camping trip. At the time, Rutledge had been participating in an educational program for schools where he would dress in Civil War and other uniforms to share what it was like to be a soldier in times past, so it was a natural step for Rutledge to portray Roosevelt.
The 1903 camping trip presentation was such a success that the two were invited to do the same dialogue for the Contra Costa County Mayors' Dinner a few months later in July 1999.
“I remember saying to the group after they applauded how nice it was to see such a large group of Republicans,” said Rutledge, referring to Roosevelt’s political party. “That almost got a universal laugh,” he said.
Rutledge has since gone on to appear several times as Roosevelt, including as the keynote speaker a few years ago at a July 4 picnic in Pleasanton. His efforts earned him an Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal by the Army in 2004.
In his professional life, Rutledge oversees educational programs at Santa Rita Jail for the Tri-Valley Regional Occupational Program. He said he enjoys portraying Roosevelt because it offers others a glimpse of the past, just as holding a book or historic postcard connects us to those who came before us.
“I love history,” said Rutledge. “It keeps us in touch with our ancestors and gives us a sense of direction.”
For more about the Pleasanton lecture series and upcoming speakers and events, visitwww.museumonmain.org.