Theodore Roosevelt’s Influence: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 23

When the virile figure of Theodore Roosevelt swung down the national highway, Bok was one of thousands of young men who felt strongly the attraction of his personality. Colonel Roosevelt was only five years the senior of the editor; he spoke, therefore, as one of his own years. The energy with which he said and did things appealed to Bok. He made Americanism something more real, more stirring than Bok had ever felt it; he explained national questions in a way that caught Bok’s fancy and came within his comprehension. Bok’s lines had been cast with many of the great men of the day, but he felt that there was something distinctive about the personality of this man: his method of doing things and his way of saying things. Bok observed everything Colonel Roosevelt did and read everything he wrote.

The editor now sought an opportunity to know personally the man whom he admired. It came at a dinner at the University Club, and Colonel Roosevelt suggested that they meet there the following day for a “talk-fest.” For three hours the two talked together. The fact that Colonel Roosevelt was of Dutch ancestry interested Bok; that Bok was actually of Dutch birth made a strong appeal to the colonel. With his tremendous breadth of interests, Roosevelt, Bok found, had followed him quite closely in his work, and was familiar with “its high points,” as he called them. “We must work for the same ends,” said the colonel, “you in your way, I in mine. But our lines are bound to cross. You and I can each become good Americans by giving our best to make America better. With the Dutch stock there is in both of us, there’s no limit to what we can do. Let’s go to it.” Naturally that talk left the two firm friends.

Bok felt somehow that he had been given a new draft of Americanism: the word took on a new meaning for him; it stood for something different, something deeper and finer than before. And every subsequent talk with Roosevelt deepened the feeling and stirred Bok’s deepest ambitions. “Go to it, you Dutchman,” Roosevelt would say, and Bok would go to it. A talk with Roosevelt always left him feeling as if mountains were the easiest things in the world to move.

One of Theodore Roosevelt’s arguments which made a deep impression upon Bok was that no man had a right to devote his entire life to the making of money. “You are in a peculiar position,” said the man of Oyster Bay one day to Bok; “you are in that happy position where you can make money and do good at the same time. A man wields a tremendous power for good or for evil who is welcomed into a million homes and read with confidence. That’s fine, and is all right so far as it goes, and in your case it goes very far. Still, there remains more for you to do. The public has built up for you a personality: now give that personality to whatever interests you in contact with your immediate fellow-men: something in your neighborhood, your city, or your State. With one hand work and write to your national audience: let no fads sway you. Hew close to the line. But, with the other hand, swing into the life immediately around you. Think it over.”

Bok did think it over. He was now realizing the dream of his life for which he had worked: his means were sufficient to give his mother every comfort; to install her in the most comfortable surroundings wherever she chose to live; to make it possible for her to spend the winters in the United States and the summers in the Netherlands, and thus to keep in touch with her family and friends in both countries. He had for years toiled unceasingly to reach this point: he felt he had now achieved at least one goal.

He had now turned instinctively to the making of a home for himself. After an engagement of four years he had been married, on October 22, 1896, to Mary Louise Curtis, the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus H. K. Curtis; two sons had been born to them; he had built and was occupying a house at Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb six miles from the Philadelphia City Hall. When she was in this country his mother lived with him, and also his brother, and, with a strong belief in life insurance, he had seen to it that his family was provided for in case of personal incapacity or of his demise. In other words, he felt that he had put his own house in order; he had carried out what he felt is every man’s duty: to be, first of all, a careful and adequate provider for his family. He was now at the point where he could begin to work for another goal, the goal that he felt so few American men saw: the point in his life where he could retire from the call of duty and follow the call of inclination.

At the age of forty he tried to look ahead and plan out his life as far as he could. Barring unforeseen obstacles, he determined to retire from active business when he reached his fiftieth year, and give the remainder of his life over to those interests and influences which he assumed now as part of his life, and which, at fifty, should seem to him best worth while. He realized that in order to do this he must do two things: he must husband his financial resources and he must begin to accumulate a mental reserve.

The wide public acceptance of the periodical which he edited naturally brought a share of financial success to him. He had experienced poverty, and as he subsequently wrote, in an article called “Why I Believe in Poverty,” he was deeply grateful for his experience. He had known what it was to be poor; he had seen others dear to him suffer for the bare necessities; there was, in fact, not a single step on that hard road that he had not travelled. He could, therefore, sympathize with the fullest understanding with those similarly situated, could help as one who knew from practice and not from theory. He realized what a marvellous blessing poverty can be; but as a condition to experience, to derive from it poignant lessons, and then to get out of; not as a condition to stay in.

Of course many said to Bok when he wrote the article in which he expressed these beliefs: “That’s all very well; easy enough to say, but how can you get out of it?” Bok realized that he could not definitely show any one the way. No one had shown him. No two persons can find the same way out. Bok determined to lift himself out of poverty because his mother was not born in it, did not belong in it, and could not stand it. That gave him the first essential: a purpose. Then he backed up the purpose with effort and an ever-ready willingness to work, and to work at anything that came his way, no matter what it was, so long as it meant “the way out.” He did not pick and choose; he took what came, and did it in the best way he knew how; and when he did not like what he was doing he still did it as well as he could while he was doing it, but always with an eye single to the purpose not to do it any longer than was strictly necessary. He used every rung in the ladder as a rung to the one above. He always gave more than his particular position or salary asked for. He never worked by the clock; always by the job; and saw that it was well done regardless of the time it took to do it. This meant effort, of course, untiring, ceaseless, unsparing; and it meant work, hard as nails.

He was particularly careful never to live up to his income; and as his income increased he increased not the percentage of expenditure but the percentage of saving. Thrift was, of course, inborn with him as a Dutchman, but the necessity for it as a prime factor in life was burned into him by his experience with poverty. But he interpreted thrift not as a trait of niggardliness, but as Theodore Roosevelt interpreted it: common sense applied to spending.

At forty, therefore, he felt he had learned the first essential to carrying out his idea of retirement at fifty.

The second essential—varied interests outside of his business upon which he could rely on relinquishing his duties—he had not cultivated. He had quite naturally, in line with his belief that concentration means success, immersed himself in his business to the exclusion of almost everything else. He felt that he could now spare a certain percentage of his time to follow Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas and let the breezes of other worlds blow over him. In that way he could do as Roosevelt suggested and as Bok now firmly believed was right: he could develop himself along broader lines, albeit the lines of his daily work were broadening in and of themselves, and he could so develop a new set of inner resources upon which he could draw when the time came to relinquish his editorial position.

He saw, on every side, the pathetic figures of men who could not let go after their greatest usefulness was past; of other men who dropped before they realized their arrival at the end of the road; and, most pathetic of all, of men who having retired, but because of lack of inner resources did not know what to do with themselves, had become a trial to themselves, their families, and their communities.

Bok decided that, given health and mental freshness, he would say good-by to his public before his public might decide to say good-by to him. So, at forty, he candidly faced the facts of life and began to prepare himself for his retirement at fifty under circumstances that would be of his own making and not those of others.

And thereby Edward Bok proved that he was still, by instinct, a Dutchman, and had not in his thirty-four years of residence in the United States become so thoroughly Americanized as he believed.

However, it was an American, albeit of Dutch extraction, one whom he believed to be the greatest American in his own day, who had set him thinking and shown him the way.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 22

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