The Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal was established by the Roosevelt Memorial Association (now the Theodore Roosevelt Association or TRA) in 1923 to honor outstanding service in fields reflecting the work and interests of Theodore Roosevelt. By recognizing contemporary achievements, the TRA seeks to keep alive TR’s spirit of selfless service, strenuous endeavor, patriotic idealism, and practical accomplishment.
People from many walks of life in all sections of the nation, men and women, young and old, black and white, Republicans and Democrats (and “Bull Moose” Progressives), the very famous and some whose work received relatively little public recognition, have been awarded the Medal. As the list of winners shows, medallists represent a broad cross-section of the best in American life. Together they make up a gallery of greatness.
Although the Medal is usually given for a lifetime of service, exceptions have included Medals awarded to Charles Lindbergh (1928) for his flight across the Atlantic, Stephen Vincent Benet (1933) for his poem John Brown’s Body, and Alan Shepard (1961) and John Glenn (1962) for achievements as astronauts. The Medal has been given once to an institution, the American Museum of Natural History (1959), and twice to groups: the members of the Rio Roosevelt Expedition (1992), and the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) (2002).
Medals were awarded posthumously to Anne Sullivan Macy (1936), Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1960), and Stanley Isaacs (1962). Three Presidents, Herbert Hoover (1927), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1946), and George H.W. Bush (1998), and one First Lady, Barbara Bush (1998), have been recipients of the Medal. Many early medallists were TR’s friends and followers, like Leonard Wood (1923), Gifford Pinchot (1925), and William Allen White (1934). Some medallists, like General Frank Ross McCoy (1939), Hermann Hagedorn (1956), and Harold and Sheila Schafer (1983), devoted themselves to preserving TR’s memory. For others, virtually the only TR connection is through achievements in the same fields of endeavor. Like TR, many medallists are remembered for service in several fields.
Some may quarrel with the inclusion of one name or another, and there has often been debate within the TRA about who should receive the Medal. But even with the constant revision of history, on the whole, the list of medallists has withstood the test of time. Even the most carping critic would probably wish to eliminate only one or two names.
The Medal has the same design as the TRA logo, and is the work of sculptor James Earle Fraser, designer of the buffalo nickel, the TR equestrian statue at the American Museum of Natural History, and the bust of TR in the U.S. Capitol. TR posed for Fraser in the White House, and Fraser later did the death mask of the former President. One side of the Medal shows TR’s profile, the other shows a crusader’s flaming sword. The recipient’s name is inscribed on the lip of the Medal.
The first Medals (1923-25) were presented by the President at the White House. For many years thereafter, Medals were awarded on TR’s birthday, October 27, at “Roosevelt House,” the New York City brownstone at 28 East 20th Street, now known as the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. The Medal presentations have been the central feature of many of the Annual Dinners of the Trustees of the TRA.
The “Roosevelt House” dinners, intimate in character, attended by many who had known TR, and graced by the presence of the world-famous, form an important chapter in TRA history. Those who knew TR shared vivid memories with the audience. For over thirty years, Medal citations were written by Hermann Hagedorn, poet, biographer, friend of TR, and first Director of the Association, who was himself awarded the Medal in 1956.
Medals were given annually from 1923-67 (except in 1941 and 1944), and since 1967 have been awarded not every year, but on an occasional basis. After the initial presentations at the White House, Medals were bestowed at Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace from 1926-66, except in 1940. The 1940 Medal was awarded at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, in connection with Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt’s dedication of the James Earle Fraser equestrian statue of TR.
The 1967 Medal was given by the Secretary of the Interior, with addresses by the President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, at the dedication of the TR statue and memorial on Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington, DC. Since 1967 the Medals have been awarded at many significant locations, including Sagamore Hill, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), and the American Museum of Natural History.
The Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal, one of the oldest major awards in the United States, is the highest honor given by the Theodore Roosevelt Association. Although much of the TRA’s work is involved with history, through the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal the TRA promotes Theodore Roosevelt’s ideals in the context of contemporary national life. The TRA believes that greatness, heroism, and significant achievement are found in the present day. No awards were given 2007-2010.