TR's Biggest Fan

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous biographers were Edmund Morris and David McCullough, but when they needed insight into their subject’s life and career, they invariably turned to an obscure yet dependable source: John A. Gable. Widely considered the world’s leading authority on the twenty-sixth president, Gable, who died of cancer February 18, was executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA) in Oyster Bay, New York, for more than thirty years.

Gable was a lifelong enthusiast of all things Teddy Roosevelt. He was a teenager when he first joined the TRA, which was founded in 1919 and chartered by Congress in 1920. Later, while at Brown, Gable wrote his thesis on Roosevelt’s creation of the Bull Moose Party and his unsuccessful 1912 presidential run. Gable’s thesis became the 1978 book The Bull Moose Years: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, which remains “the definitive word” on the subject, according to Gable’s colleague Edward Renehan, author of The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War.

Gable briefly was an instructor at Brown before becoming executive director of the TRA in 1974. “When John came into the organization,” says Renehan, who has taken over the post, “it was really on a respirator. It had a hefty budget and bankroll, but it didn’t have an energized leader.” Gable quickly founded and began editing the
quarterly Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal and boosted the group’s membership to more than 2,000. “He liked to brag that it was the only organization he knew of that could boast both Karl Rove and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as card-carrying members,” Renehan says.

Historians used Gable as a fact-checker, Renehan explains, preferring to hear his critique of their books before publication rather than after. “He had this astonishing range of information on TR at his mental fingertips.” Gable served as a consultant and on-camera commentator for the 2003 History Channel special TR: An American Lion and appeared in the 1996 PBS production TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt. “He wasn’t an ivory-tower sort of guy,” Renehan explains. “He was a great devotee of popular history.”

Even Roosevelt’s descendants sought out his expertise. “He would often be at a party with a gaggle of Roosevelts,” Renehan says, “instructing them on who was who and how they were related.”

Gable recently edited The Man in the Arena, a collection of Roosevelt’s speeches, letters, and essays, for a special U.S. Armed Forces edition. He was an adjunct professor of history at the New College at Hofstra University and a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Committee at the American Museum of Natural History. He was also on the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay.

Days before he died, Gable had been voted to receive the TRA’s Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal. He is survived by his mother, Mary Jane, a brother, and a sister.

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May / June 2005