Dare Greatly, Think Boldly: An interview with Ed O’Keefe

The Grand Forks Foundation for Education works hard every day to provide students and educators with maximum opportunities for excellence through granting, scholarship, and alumni programs. One of those programs is a quarterly publication called The Red Cent, which I am happy to say I am able to contribute to on a fairly regular basis.

In the latest issue of The Red Cent, I had a hand in an interview with Grand Forks’ Ed O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum board, and I wanted to share his comments because, as we know, the Library will be a pretty, pretty big deal.

The Red Cent is a print-only publication available to members of the Grand Forks Foundation for Education. To become a member for a very reasonable $33 a year, click here or email them here. You can check out how the Foundation uses those membership dollars for good by following their Facebook page or checking out their website. (And thank you to the Foundation for kindly allowing me to publish this interview here!)

Ed O’Keefe has been doing great things since he graduated from Red River High School in 1996.  A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Ed spent much of his career bringing award-winning multimedia to the masses – from a radio role with ABC News, to an executive producer for ABC News Digital, to vice president of CNN Money and CNN politics, to CNN’s senior vice president of content development.  Today Ed is the CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum board, and he graciously sat down to answer a few questions about the Library, life in Grand Forks, and what he would like to tell future graduates:

Can you provide an overview of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will celebrate the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. The pillar principles of the project are Leadership, Citizenship, and Conservation. We will situate the library in the 193 acres of US Forest Service land that was purchased from the US Forest Service as a result of a federal act in 2020. The landscape is the library, and we are investing in the Native Plant Project, a habitat and species restoration project. We’re working with the Medora Grazing Association to show responsible conservation practices in a burning grace plan. The site and the building itself is designed by Snøhetta, a regional and US architecture firm that has gracefully designed a building which almost disappears into the landscape and frames of view of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only park named for a person in the National Park system.

What is the timeline for the completion of the library?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library hopes to begin construction in the spring of 2023, and we anticipate a substantially complete building by the summer of 2026. We hope to celebrate the 250th anniversary of America on July 4th, 2026, which, like the bicentennial of 1976, will be a nationwide patriotic celebration with the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library being a star in that nationwide constellation of celebrations.

What role will the library play in preserving and promoting the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt?  How will technology play a part in that?

Theodore Roosevelt is a remarkable U.S. President. He was the first president to fly in an airplane, the first President to drive a car, the first president to be submerged in a submarine, and the first president to use a telephone. He ushered in what we now refer to as the American Century. He was a thoroughly modern president, and in many ways dramatically expanded the US’s role in the world. He’s the first and only president to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He is credited with having saved football and created what now is the National Governors Association, the first meeting of governors in the White House. Conservation is a big part of what we will do to promote the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. We will focus on our pillar principles of leadership, citizenship, and conservation, with conservation being foremost amongst those three. In celebrating conservation, we will be a fully sustainable library. We will achieve zero energy, zero emission, zero carbon, and zero waste alongside North Dakota’s goal to become the first carbon neutral state by 2030. So, we plan to be a living library and celebrate not only the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, but encourage visitors and participants to think about their lives, how they can dare greatly, live passionately, think boldly, and care deeply, just like you.

What role will the library play in elevating western North Dakota (and North Dakota as a whole)?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will be situated in Medora, North Dakota, which is already the state’s number one tourist attraction. It is home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which receives 800,000 visitors a year. And of course, home to the Medora Musical, which between Memorial Day and Labor Day, sees upwards of 125,000 visitors in just that summer swell. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will be a remarkable addition to this already incredibly successful part of the state and will be a hallmark for what we’d like to think of as the T.R. triangle. Families on road trips who want to travel to western North Dakota and be inspired by the landscape that inspired Theodore Roosevelt, could potentially visit Mount Rushmore in South Dakota or travel west to visit the Yellowstone Glacier in the national park system. We really think that this will be an incredibly impactful project across the entire state. Just as in South Dakota, there is an impact from Sioux Falls all the way to the western part of the state and the location of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. So, we think the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will have an impact in Fargo, in Grand Forks, in the eastern part of the state as well. And, of course, a big impact on the tourism in western North Dakota.

What type of educational programs and events will the library offer?

The library hopes to do all kinds of inventive and innovative programming. We aspire to create a K12 education initiative, which will invite every 8th grader in the state of North Dakota to come to the library, get a civics education inside the library, and have an outdoor adventure in the National Park. We hope to do quite a lot with the indigenous tribal communities in North Dakota. We are very fortunate to have had representatives of each of the tribal nations come to Medora and have met with those tribal nations to talk about programs that can be inclusive, innovative, and understanding with the history and relationship with our native communities in North Dakota and beyond. We are talking about doing quite a lot of programming with the National Park. Having a 75,000-acre park as your backyard opens all kinds of opportunities in biking, hiking, outdoor recreation, and horseback riding. This would be the only presidential library you could walk, bike, hike, or take a horse to. There is also a lot of programming we are interested in with regard to veterans as well. Looking at the course of conservation and sustainability initiatives, these are all the types of programs and events that we can continue to build for many years and decades after the opening of the library.

How has the library collaborated with other organizations and institutions in its planning and development?

Ninety-nine-percent of Theodore Roosevelt’s archive is scattered throughout the United States and the world. The collection is primarily with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian system, the American Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is working with each of these institutions, hoping to develop relationships. Particularly with the National Park system, which has the Sagamore Home and the boyhood home in New York in its National Historic sites. We hope to work with these organizations and institutions to develop loan agreements so we can bring this part of the archive that has never been on public display into the library and public view for all to see.

How will the landscape play a part in the experience of the TRPL?

We like to say that the library is the landscape. Theodore Roosevelt was our greatest conservation president, and it’s arguable that his greatest legacy is the protection and preservation of 230,000,000 acres of public lands, the creation of the US Forest Service, and his creation of bird and wildlife reserves. He really used the power of the Presidency to set aside land both for protection and development. As Theodore Roosevelt said at the dedication of the Cornerstone of Yellowstone National Park, these parks and places are for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. We take that legacy very seriously at the TRPL and are working on the surrounding landscape. The building itself will include a transversal roof and the frame of the east and west wing provides a viewshed into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only park named for a person, let alone a president. On the 93 acres, there’s a walking pathway where you can encounter different destinations or pavilions, an outlook from which you can get a perspective of 360 degrees around the Badlands that so inspired Theodore Roosevelt, a stargazing pavilion to look up at the dark night sky, and a look at ecology and conservation in practice. We’re working with the Medora Grazing Association to do responsible grazing of the land to imitate the bison migration and grazing pattern. And then having a responsible, controlled burn plan every two to three years so we can restore the native habitat and native species and ultimately show what conservation means, not just tell what conservation means.

How can people get involved and support the library?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library wants everyone in the arena for T.R., North Dakota, and our nation. If you’d like to get involved in the T.R. library, please go to www.trlibrary.com. Or if you’d like to donate to the library, you can go to www.trlibrary.com/donate.

How has growing up in Grand Forks influenced your life?

I loved growing up in Grand Forks, ND. It was, as I like to say now, a big-small town. I always felt safe, I always felt like I had a community, and I always felt like everyone was there to help and support me. I had wonderful teachers; Gene Martin, who recently passed away at Trader Middle School, Mrs. Sanford, my third-grade teacher, was a wonderful influence on me. I’ve talked about Dean Opp and Brad Sherwood, two of my teachers at high school. I of course was a Red River Roughrider, which might have influenced some of what I’m doing now for the T.R. library. But it’s just a wonderful place where I felt like I was loved and supported by the entire community in Grand Forks.

How do you feel that being a North Dakotan has shaped your perspective and values?

North Dakotans are good and decent people. I think that Theodore Roosevelt meant what he said when he said, “I would never have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” North Dakotans are full of common sense, decent, respectful, and kind people. I feel like the whole state has a no-jerks policy, and I just always enjoyed the commonsense practicality of Midwestern values. I tried to carry forward in my life with humility, gratitude, and respect for all people and their perspectives. Those are certainly lessons I learned in particular as a North Dakotan.

In what ways do you think that growing up in Grand Forks prepared you for your future?

Grand Forks prepared me for my future in many different ways. I’ve talked about how much I enjoyed living in the big-small town of Grand Forks, where everyone felt familiar, friendly, helpful, and supportive. But I think it also grounded me with the values and perspective of a Midwesterner who enjoys and values hard work, resilience, responsibility, and just doing the right thing and being a good person. Grand Forks was a dynamic, interesting community. When I say that I’m from North Dakota, I think people have the vision of a rural community without many people. Grand Forks is a vibrant, active town. We have a big military base. We are an hour-and-a-half from the Canadian border, so we see a lot of Canadian tourists. We’ve got the University of North Dakota, which of course has 10,000 students of all different backgrounds and perspectives. We are right across the Red River from Minnesota, so we had opportunities to spend time in other cities and places. I felt like I had a small town with all the access and activity of a big town. To me, growing up in Grand Forks prepared me for my future by giving me the best of both worlds.

Can you share any specific memories or experiences from your time at Red River High School?

I have a lot of fond memories of Red River High School. I think mostly about my time in the summer performing arts company, SPA, as well as student government. I ran for and won student council president while I was in high school. That was my first experience with leadership. I really enjoyed thinking about what issues were important to my classmates and being able to represent their voices with the administration in school. I was involved in every musical and play that Red River High School produced during my years there. I just had some impactful teachers and people who care deeply about me and made it clear that they were always interested in seeing me succeed. It was just a wonderful place to go to High School.

Do you have any connections or relationships formed at Red River continued to play a role in your life?

Yes, I really enjoyed Dean Opp and Brad Sherwood as my teachers at Red River High School and I’m very fortunate that throughout the rest of my life I’ve stayed in touch with them. When they take the biannual trips to New York City, I would give tours and greet the students from Red River. When I was at ABC News and at CNN Studios, I gave a backstage behind-the-scenes look at media, journalism, and broadcast news. I’ve continued to stay in touch with a number of classmates over the years through Facebook and social media. But you know, really, it’s the lasting memories, the values, and the impact of the teachers that I’ve carried with me the longest throughout my life. Bob Kulak was a teacher at Schroeder Middle school and then became an administrator at Red River while I was in high school. He wrote one of my college recommendations and I’ll never forget that, he said I was a “puckish purveyor.” That has always stuck with me that Bob Kulak had that impact on my early life, and probably that phrase got me into college. So, thank you, Mr. Kulak.

If you could give one piece of advice to a Grand Forks graduating senior, what would it be?

I like to say that you should never underestimate an underestimated person and one of the greatest advantages you will have after graduating Red River High School and being from Grand Forks, ND is that you will be underestimated in your life. People will, from other parts of the country and other parts of the world, believe that you can’t do it, and you can. Being underestimated is a gift, use it to your advantage. I would also say that the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life have not been when I’m talking, but when I’m listening. Be curious and ask good questions. I became a journalist and worked in media for nearly 20 years, and that entire industry is based on a pretty basic premise, which is asking questions, wondering, and being curious about the world around you. I would say in general to do good work, work hard, and be kind. Those are the things I’ve learned in Grand Forks and in North Dakota, is that, you know, you can be a great, enormous success in life, but if you are a jerk or someone that people don’t want to be around, it’s not worth all that much. So be curious, be kind, work hard, and enjoy the fact that you are probably going to be underestimated.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt

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