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A historic reincarnation of T.R. 26th president's alter ego enlivens inauguration renewal at revamped museum

Unlike the grown-ups who seemed slightly cowed by the presence of the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, as portrayed by Joe Wiegand, tiny Sarah Goldsmith was not the least bit unnerved.

When Wiegand, a dead ringer for the 26th president, entered the upstairs room in the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site where the 5-year-old from Toronto was looking up historical trivia on a touch screen, she looked up and flashed a big, gap-toothed grin.

Wiegand, who is returning today for the 108th anniversary of Roosevelt's inauguration in the former Ainsley Wilcox house on Delaware Avenue, bent down until the trademark wire-rimmed spectacles were inches from her face.

"What's your name?" he asked with Teddy's characteristic boldness.

"Sarah," she answered right back. "Very good. My name is Theodore."

When Wiegand took his seat behind the desk bearing the presidential seal, she cozied right up and tried on his black silk top hat.

"Something tells me you look better in that hat than I do," Wiegand chuckled.

Her father, Jay, mentioned Roosevelt's conservationist legacy, prompting Wiegand, a walking glossary of T.R.'s achievements, to again turn to the daughter. "Sarah, do you know that I created millions of acres of national parks?"

Three years ago, Wiegand left a 28-year career as an Illinois political operative to become a leading "repriser" of the Roosevelt story, which first captivated him when he was Sarah's age and, like his hero, suffered from bronchial problems.

Wiegand has toured all 50 states and more than 300 parks, monuments and historic places linked to Roosevelt. He visits what he calls "points of pilgrimage" -- and rates the inaugural site, which recently finished a $2.2 million expansion and renovation, among the 10 best.

His latest pilgrimage was a 22-mile hike Wednesday on Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, where the vice president was vacationing in 1901 when word came that President William McKinley was dying from an assassin's bullet fired at Buffalo's 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

Tracing T.R.'s footsteps "can sometimes be so visceral that it produces a well of feelings for the performances I give," said Wiegand, who at 44 is slightly more than a year older than Roosevelt was when he sped back to Buffalo to take the presidential oath in the Wilcox house.

"He was an inspiration to me," Wiegand said. "My mission is to bring his personality and his words to life. "I hope to do for T.R. what Hal Holbrook did for Mark Twain, and James Whitmore did for Will Rogers."

He is performing during the annual re-enactment of Roosevelt's swearing-in at 10:30 a.m. today, and at a naturalization ceremony for new American citizens immediately afterward on the museum portico.

Wiegand also will appear at tonight's Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site Foundation dinner in Kleinhans Music Hall, honoring University at Buffalo President John B. Simpson and retired State Sen. Mary Lou Rath.

Simpson will receive the Theodore Roosevelt Award for Exemplary Citizenship and Service for "his bold, comprehensive vision" in advancing "UB 2020," the master plan formulated to guide the university's growth. Rath will be given the President's Award for assisting the museum before it became a national historic site in 1971 and during her 30 years in government.

In adding Simpson to its roll of those who reflect Roosevelt's ideals and spirit, the foundation said his leadership "assures UB's tradition of academic excellence while also regenerating the economy of the Buffalo Niagara region."

Rath got involved with the Roosevelt inaugural site in 1969 as a member of the Junior League of Buffalo, which pledged $50,000 to rescue and restore the deteriorating Wilcox mansion at Delaware Avenue and North Street. As a member of the league's Wilcox Committee, she "rolled up her sleeves, reached out to donors" and planned for the site's grand opening in 1971.

In 1996, when the museum sought state support to rebuild the carriage house that once adjoined the mansion, Rath, who retired last fall after 15 years in the State Senate, helped secure a major grant and reconvened the Wilcox Committee to help the $2.2 million project along.

The renovated museum -- featuring new interactive exhibits and carriage house, which has the gift shop, climate-controlled artifact storerooms and meeting space -- opened to the public in June.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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