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Graduates ‘sent up mighty cheer’ for T.R.
Republican president wowed a crowd of 8,000 at commencement a century ago

| 07 May 2003


roosevelt illustration

In this May 15, 1903, illustration from the San Francisco Chronicle, a photo of Teddy Roosevelt standing at the prior day’s UC Berkeley Commencement like a Roman emperor is flanked by idealized drawings of male and female matriculates.

A century ago the Berkeley campus was brimming with an expanded enrollment, new academic programs, and plans for new buildings and benefactions. In the midst of this enthusiastic era, President Theodore Roosevelt dropped in to deliver the 1903 commencement address at the new Greek Theatre.

University President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, a friend from the days when Roosevelt was governor of New York and Wheeler taught at Cornell University, had secured a promise of a prestigious campus visit from T.R., who was on a whistle-stop speaking tour of the western states.

After elaborate festivities in San Francisco on May 13, followed by an early-morning speech dedicating the Dewey Monument in Union Square, Roosevelt crossed the bay to Oakland on a tugboat and, at midday on May 14, 1903, swept into Berkeley on a special train.

Met by a throng of admiring citizens at the downtown railroad station (which stood at Center St. and Shattuck Ave., just north of where the BART station is located today), T.R. rode to the campus along a Center St. decorated with greenery and red, white, blue, and gold bunting, and lined with crowds of Berkeley schoolchildren bearing chains of flowers.

Wrote the San Francisco Chronicle (the source for much of the reportage quoted herein): “They gave lusty welcome to the President and he showered them with smiles and cheery words as he passed. The whole way was crowded with people whose repeated cheers warned those in the amphitheater that the President was approaching.”

His carriage drove through the oak groves of the campus, accompanied by a troop of African-American cavalrymen. (The military was racially segregated at the time, but Roosevelt had chosen the contingent for his escort.)

Some 3,000 students (including 600 graduates) and nearly 5,000 faculty, alumni, and citizens awaited him in the first major event to be held at the still-unfinished Greek Theatre. The commencement program had already begun with an orchestral performance, a rousing “Oski” cheer, and a prayer delivered by the oldest living graduate of the College of California, the university’s predecessor institution. President Wheeler read out a list of recent gifts to the university, following which three graduating seniors orated. (One of them, Jesse Steinhart, would later serve as a UC Regent; another, Robert Sibley, would become manager of the California Alumni Association and namesake of nearby Sibley Volcanic Preserve.)

Oratory under an ‘azureous sky’
Roosevelt arrived triumphantly in the middle of the ceremonies. “As the President appeared and made his way out under the cloth canopy at the front of the stage, the vast audience rose in a body and sent up mighty cheers which rolled back and resounded through the ravines of the hills,” the Chronicle enthused.

“In a great walled amphitheater such as has scarcely existed in the world since the memory days of Greece, one whose only roof was a perfect sky, azureous as that above Athens, President Roosevelt delivered the most striking and interesting address of his series of speeches in California.

“In the strong, intelligent young faces turned toward his own during an expressive hour yesterday he must have read much to back up his faith in the virtual realization of those destinies which he so firmly believes lie in the horoscope of the awakening West.”

Appropriately gowned, and hooded with the regalia of an honorary UC degree, Roosevelt addressed the crowd as “Fellow-members of the University of California” and told the students, “I don’t ask of you men and women here today good citizenship as a favor to the state. I demand it of you as a right, and hold you recreant to your duty if you fail to give it.”

Roosevelt spoke extensively about the civic responsibilities of college graduates, holding up as models the American administrators of Cuba and the Philippines, acquired in the Spanish-American War.

The crowd gave Roosevelt prolonged applause as he left for lunch at the Wheeler home on Scenic Ave. Dining there with Phoebe Hearst, Jane Sather, and others, he was said to have “appreciated the grand opportunity for architectural effect on Berkeley’s sloping hills and commented in a pleasant manner on the ambition of the State of California to establish an even greater seat of learning there.”

On to Yosemite
Next day the president traveled to Yosemite. He slept outdoors beneath the towering Mariposa Grove redwoods and through a snowstorm near Glacier Point, camped and communed with John Muir, and reinforced his conviction that there was a role for the federal government in the conservation of nature.

President Wheeler went along on the mountain excursion and, when the party arrived at Inspiration Point, generously conceded that the spectacular Yosemite Valley was “equal to anything around his university campus.”

Wheeler must have been in good spirits. Roosevelt, having told the commencement crowd that Wheeler was “an old and valued friend” and a wise adviser in political affairs, added, “I can conceive of no happier life for any man to lead, to whom life means what it should mean, than the life of the president of this great university.”

So it must have seemed in those days, when American, Californian, and university optimism overflowed and a Republican President could be assured of a warm welcome at Berkeley.

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