With pale blue eyes, a neatly trimmed mustache, circle-rimmed glasses, and a sonorous voice, Mr. Joe Wiegand (C’87) bears an uncanny resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt, a president whose legacy continuously influences his work. Before graduating in 1987, Mr. Wiegand was the quintessential Sewanee student; he was ardently devoted to working hard, playing hard, and forming tight-knit relationships with Sewanee students and residents. While majoring in politics, Mr. Wiegand wrote for the Sewanee Purple and served as the president of the student government. After graduating from Sewanee, he dove head-first into a political career that left him disillusioned. Unbeknownst to him, this dissatisfaction would soon give way to delight after discovering his current talent—impersonating Theodore Roosevelt.
Mr. Wiegand has always been a captivating speaker. In high school, he starred in various theater shows and won several awards for extemporaneous speaking. He was also passionate about American history. “Ever since I was a little boy, I loved studying the American presidency and military history. I was precocious for my age…I read Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe when I was 12,” said Mr. Wiegand. His broad specialties equipped him with the skills necessary to foray into the world of impersonation. While still in Illinois politics, Mr. Wiegand portrayed Father Giuseppe Republicano, a fictional character, and Father Guido Saraducci, a Saturday Night Live character, during Lincoln Day dinners. Being able to make people laugh using his comedic performances signified that impersonation would soon become very important to Mr. Wiegand. He narrowed his focus to Roosevelt in an unexpected way. “In 2001, my sister-in-law gave me the book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, just months after the September 11 attacks. When I read that book, I thought, if I could bring this man to life on stage, maybe that’s my way to serve the country because his messages were of patriotism and civic duty.” And so began Mr. Wiegand’s career as an impersonator of Theodore Roosevelt.
There are often-overlooked aspects of Roosevelt’s life that Mr. Wiegand reveals through his portrayals. According to Mr. Wiegand, “The story of young Theodore Roosevelt that we don’t necessarily know is that when he was a young boy, he had asthma so bad that they thought he might die when he was four or five years old. When he was 19, his dad died from stomach cancer at 46. He writes in his diary to his siblings that he thinks he might go insane from sadness. When he was 25, his wife and mother died on the same day of two different diseases.” As much as Mr. Wiegand loves enlightening people about Roosevelt’s life, he acknowledges the difficulties of portraying emotionally charged scenes that often bring tears to his eyes when he puts himself in Roosevelt’s shoes or calls upon the memories of his personal struggles. After losing his mother while in Sewanee, Mr. Wiegand greatly understands Roosevelt’s pain.
Though performing in the White House was an incredible opportunity for Mr. Wiegand, he was more affected by his presentation for some high schoolers in Virginia, which shook him to his core. A young girl came to the library and sat with her back facing Mr. Wiegand. He saw the back of her t-shirt, emblazoned with the photo of a young African-American man. Assuming that the man on the girl’s hoodie was a rapper who had passed away, Mr. Wiegand asked, “Pardon me, Miss. Is that a recording artist on the back of your sweatshirt?” She looked at him with gray eyes and said, “No, it’s my brother.” Shocked by her revelation, Mr. Wiegand apologized and tried to encourage her. Though she was not receptive to his words then, she grew attentive when he began telling the story of Roosevelt losing his father, wife, and mother. When Mr. Wiegand returned the following year, he was surprised when the same young lady asked to meet him. She’d graduated, was working, and was in a much better place than when he first met her. Though many factors may have influenced her improvement, Mr. Wiegand is moved, to this day, at the thought of playing a role, no matter how small, in encouraging her to keep going. It is no wonder why this performance resonates with him immensely.
Even in light of the success of his career, Mr. Wiegand is far from arrogant or proud. He treats everyone he meets with humility and geniality. He said, “It’s not about me, my fame, or my name in lights. We’re here to serve others. We’re only here for so long. Do we leave the world a better place for having been here?” Furthermore, his passion for change might lead him back to the political sphere. Although Mr. Wiegand is enjoying the reprieve from the harrowing world of politics, he believes it is important to re-enter the battlefield to ensure that he provokes change while he has the chance. “I think I will probably need to get off the sidelines and get back into the arena. I would be doing my alma mater—which I believe was my other mother—a disservice if I didn’t do my best with the gifts that God has given me and the skills that I learned here at Sewanee. So, time to get back into the arena,” remarked Mr. Wiegand.
In closing, Mr. Wiegand revealed that “many Sewanee people made it possible for Theodore Roosevelt to be as effective as he was in his presidency.” Roosevelt’s military aide was Archibald Butt, who is remembered as a graduate of the college and our military chapel. He died on the Titanic. What’s more, William Crawford Gorgas—the son of Josiah Gorgas, after whom Gorgas Hall is named—was the military officer who eliminated yellow fever from the Canal Zone. Mr. Wiegand believes Sewanee graduates are “called upon to make the world a better place.” He finished by citing Roosevelt’s letter to Sewanee on its 50th anniversary. Mr. Wiegand said, “[Roosevelt] wrote that ‘they call it the University of the South, but it’s a national university; no other university has done more for the benefit of the country than Sewanee.’ And I believe that’s still true today.”