People: Grandpa and Teddy Roosevelt

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A Brief Note about My Grandfather, Rocco D’Angelis, and Teddy Roosevelt

When, at the age of nineteen, my grandfather arrived in the United States for the first time, he immediately went to work as a gardener at Sagamore Hill, the estate of President Theodore Roosevelt. How he landed this job is a matter of conjecture. However, it is more likely than not that someone else who also hailed from Paduli di Benevento and who already worked at Sagamore Hill, like his uncle Giovanni DeAngelis, known within the family as Zi’ Giuan’, Uncle John, in the dialect of Paduli, got the job for him. Uncle John was also known as Giuanni Martel, John the Hammer, because previously he had worked in Boston as a carpenter.

Rocco D’Angelis arrived at the Port of New York on the S.S. Barbarossa of the North German – Lloyd line on April 4, 1910. On the ship manifest it says that his destination in fact was to join his Uncle John who could be contacted at Box 49 in the Oyster Bay Post Office. Back then immigrants quite often would list their destination as a Post Office Box number.

When Rocco and his Uncle John, who I assume met him at the dock, arrived at Sagamore Hill, he was housed in a barn with other Italian immigrants who all slept on straw. Some may regard this fact as evidence of discriminatory treatment in that the immigrants were housed in the same manner as the animals who belonged to the Roosevelt family. But one has to understand that in those days there were no safeguards for workers, nor was there an expectation that the workers would receive any consideration whatsoever. (See a poem that I wrote on this subject attached at the end of this note.)

In any event, Rocco worked on the estate until sometime in 1915 when he returned to Italy, was drafted and was sent to the front to fight the Austrians and Germans.

One day during his first time in America, Rocco happened to be in downtown Oyster Bay when President Roosevelt rode into town on his horse. The President stopped and tied his horse up, and when he saw my grandfather he asked him to watch over his horse while he went about his business. Of course, Grandpa was happy to oblige.

When the President returned to get his horse for the short ride back to Sagamore Hill, he thanked my Grandpa and gave him 50 cents! That was a very generous tip in those days. That’s the story.

My grandfather returned from Italy to Oyster Bay in 1923 and he also returned to Sagamore Hill where he worked for many years to come. A reminder of this fact is that my father’s dog tags from WWII indicate that my father’s remains should he have been killed, should be sent back to “Rocco De Angelis c/o Roosevelt, Cove Neck, New York.”

A BARN AND STRAW TO SLEEP ON

A group of Italian immigrants, including my grandfather Rocco D’Angelis,

Worked as gardeners and grounds-keepers at Sagamore Hill,

The home of Theodore Roosevelt.

They stayed in a barn with straw to sleep on.

What should we think of this?

My father called it discrimination

By the rich against the poor,

The Northern Europeans against the Southern,

By those who came before against those just newly arrived.

I reflect on this now and again,

And wonder what the truth is.

The facts are clear, but the truth is another thing.

Back then in Teddy’s time,

Giving them a barn and straw was an accommodation to basic human needs,

At a time when many workers received no accommodation.

So, is it something we should praise?

Or was it unfair exploitation of the poor by the rich?

Could it be both? Both accommodation and discrimination?

And what we really seek is not truth but justice?

–Alexander P. DeAngelis, June 2020–

In the picture below of five men on the Roosevelt estate, my grandfather is second from the left. On the right side, second from the right, is Nicola D’Angelis of Paduli, perhaps distantly related to our branch of the family.

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