Given some of his outlandish characters, you might not peg Dr. Seuss as the quiet type. But by most accounts, the beloved author was a shy, soft-spoken person who hated addressing large groups. Who gets the blame for his stage fright? Theodore Roosevelt and the Boy Scouts of America.
By all accounts, 1918 was a lousy time to be a German-American. Anti-Deutschland sentiment had risen to a fever pitch during the first World War, with Woodrow Wilson himself spending federal money to produce films demonizing “Huns." Amidst the hysteria, even the word “sauerkraut” became controversial, prompting some distributors to rename it “liberty cabbage.”
Boy Scouts began selling war bonds en masse in a nationwide campaign to aid U.S. forces abroad. Joining the effort was Troop 13 of Springfield, Massachusetts which included a young man named Theodor Seuss Geisel. Theodor was the grandson of German immigrants and accordingly leapt at the opportunity to prove his patriotism. Apparently, so did his grandfather, a successful brewer who purchased $1000-worth of them, making Theodor one of Springfield’s top ten Boy Scout bonds salesmen.
The accomplishment did not go unnoticed, and that May, Theodor found himself summoned to the town’s Municipal Auditorium to receive a special award for his accomplishment. And who was to present the accolades? Former President Theodore Roosevelt himself.
But unbeknownst to Geisel, Roosevelt had been accidentally given one medal too few and assumed he’d only be handing them out to nine scouts. As luck would have it, Theodor was the tenth. When he crossed the stage to accept his award, the Bull Moose stared down at him and bellowed, “What’s this boy doing here?” Rather than explain the situation, Theodor’s scoutmaster whisked him off the stage, making a humiliating mix-up even worse.
Geisel was understandably traumatized, and from that point on had a phobia of big crowds. “Speak softly” may have been part of Roosevelt’s mantra, but thanks to the ex-president’s bluntness, it was Dr. Seuss who wound up putting it into practice.