Theodore Roosevelt “Repriser” Brings History to Life at CCHS

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Theodore Roosevelt “Repriser” Brings History to Life at CCHS

Roosevelt repriser Joe Wiegand with US History teacher Jennifer Tinnell.

Roosevelt repriser Joe Wiegand with US History teacher Jennifer Tinnell.

Photo by Ashley Veazey.

Roosevelt repriser Joe Wiegand with US History teacher Jennifer Tinnell.

Photo by Ashley Veazey.

Photo by Ashley Veazey.

Roosevelt repriser Joe Wiegand with US History teacher Jennifer Tinnell.

Maya Torres and Ashley Veazey

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Earlier this month, CCHS students may have seen a man dressed in early 20th century attire, roaming around the third floor with a mug full of coffee and a spring in his step. Although an unusual sight to some, the well-dressed man was actually a returning guest: none other than former president Theodore Roosevelt.

Well, not actually Roosevelt, who has been dead for 100 years, but the next closest thing: Roosevelt “repriser” Joe Wiegand.

“I am the world’s leading repriser of Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t call myself a reenactor or impersonator. I made up my own word,” said Wiegand, the man bringing Roosevelt to life. “Repriser comes from the United States Constitution, Article One: ‘The enumerated powers of Congress: Congress can issue letters of marque and reprisal.’”

Wiegand first came to Chamblee many years ago when a PTSA parent was searching for cultural activities to benefit students.

“[The PTSA] had done a couple of different things; they had people come in and perform African rituals for Black History Month and they had a speaker come in and speak about women for Women’s History Month,” said United States history teacher Jennifer Tinnell. “One year, Joe Wiegand came in to portray Teddy Roosevelt. After we saw him that first time we said ‘This is what we’re doing every year’ because the kids loved it the most and we decided that juniors [taking] U.S. history would enjoy it.”

Photo by Ashley Veazey.
Wiegand performing for a group of CCHS students.

Tinnell especially enjoys Wiegand’s annual performances, as Roosevelt is her favorite of the 45 presidents.

“I’ve always loved Teddy Roosevelt because of what he stood for as a president and what he did as far as his reforms,” she said. “He fought monopolies and corruption, he was in favor of child labor laws…I loved the fact that he wanted to serve our country.”

She believes that, through his various achievements as president, he left an invaluable impact on the nation.

“I feel like he took advantage of his opportunities by traveling the world, bringing back artifacts that are now in the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and volunteering as a Rough Rider in Cuba,” said Tinnell. “He built the Panama Canal, won the Nobel Peace Prize…I’m just so impressed by him, and I love his charisma.”

Wiegand himself has been reprising the role of Theodore Roosevelt for fourteen years. He has performed at the White House, in all 50 states, in foreign countries such as Panama, Cuba, England, France, and Canada, and on some TV and film.

“[I’ve] been making a good living touring the country,” said Wiegand. “I’ve never had more fun in my life, and it saved me from a 25 year career in Illinois Republican politics.”

Wiegand, the son of two devout liberals from Los Angeles, California, saw no other way to be a rebellious teenager than to become a full fledged conservative Republican, volunteering for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and joining the NRA and Christian Coalition. This was where his current career took root.

“When I began in politics in Illinois, there were these events called Lincoln Day dinners, and I decided that these Lincoln Day banquets’ audiences deserved good entertainment, even comedy,” said Wiegand, “so I began doing a comedic character called Father Giuseppe Republicano [where] I would do a copy of Guido Sarducci [a character from Saturday Night Live].”

As he continued comedy, somewhere along the way, Wiegand’s characters became somewhat less fictitious.

“When I decided to start doing Theodore Roosevelt, it became less silly and more serious, but with [his] amazing personality, [Roosevelt] knew how to tell a good humorous story,” he said. “His daughter Alice said of her father: ‘Father wanted to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every Christening.’ As a performer, there was a great deal of license that comes from these and other descriptions of Theodore Roosevelt, but they tell you that when he came into a room, he took it over.”

Roosevelt’s extraordinary personality, however, wasn’t the defining reason for Wiegand’s career change.

“Books change people’s lives, and there’s a book that’s very central to my story. [For] Christmas 2001, I was given ‘The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt’ by Edmund Morris, and that tells the story of young Theodore Roosevelt from his birth on up to becoming Vice President of the United States,” said Wiegand. “That book was given to me [after] the September 11th attacks, [and] I was thinking ‘How can I help my country at this time?’ I determined that the best way I could help my country was maybe to bring to life this great American who still had things to say to the American people that maybe we’d forgotten to remember or to highlight.”

As Wiegand’s portrayal of Roosevelt took shape, he began performing at schools and historical societies. However, he decided one year that he was going to take a risk and completely immerse himself in this new career.

“Sometimes you can’t wait for an opportunity– you have the create the opportunities,” said Wiegand. “Knowing that it was going to be Teddy’s 150th birthday in 2008, my family got into an RV with our daughter and my dog, and I decided on my own that we were going to go to all 48 continental states. Anywhere there was a significant legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, I was going to go there, learn what I could, [and] perform if I could; by the end of that big leap of faith, the Navy had flown me to Hawaii to perform for the Centennial Great White Fleet.”

Once Wiegand had checked Hawaii off of his list, he flew to Alaska to perform in his 50th and final state. At this point, he received a call asking him to present his reenactment to the family of President George W. Bush at the White House.

“That leap of faith was rewarded with this wonderful and magical opportunity that has been paying dividends for 14 years since,” said Wiegand.

Since his first performance at Chamblee, Tinnell believes Wiegand has provided an opportunity to learn history is an engaging way.

“[Wiegand] really makes Teddy Roosevelt come alive for his audience, and it sounds kind of cheesy but he really does make history come alive as well,” she said. “[Sometimes] he comes dressed in his coattails with his hat and he makes jokes about his times as the president, and other times he’ll come in and dress as a rough rider ‘Colonel Roosevelt’, and he always brings a teddy bear, which is endearing. I hope that it is a memorable experience for the students.”

For the foreseeable future, Wiegand plans to continue to inspire students in the way that Theodore Roosevelt inspired him.

“[Roosevelt once] said ‘Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground. Believe you can, and you’re halfway there. Do what you can with what you have with where you are,’” said Wiegand. “It’s words like that that are why I come to this school.”