Passing the Exam
The Fellowcraft degree of theodore Roosevelt
Second article in a multi-part series
A palpable stillness permeated the room. The District Deputy Grand Master and two past District Deputies anxiously awaited a reply from the Entered Apprentice standing before them in the crowded lodge room. After a few moments, the examiner once again repeated the question from the coded ritual that every new Entered Apprentice was required to answer.
Again, there was no reply.
The Masonic dignitaries nervously looked at one another, confused on how to proceed. If the new brother failed to answer, the examiners would be required to reject his passing to the degree of Fellowcraft on the very night of his degree. There remained the possibility that the examiners could overlook the misstep and assist the first-degree mason to spare him the humiliation. In the presence of over one hundred brethren, many of whom travelled great distances for this special occasion, any error would surely be shared outside of the lodge room, embarrassing the examination committee and the Entered Apprentice.
After what seemed like an eternity, Entered Apprentice Theodore Roosevelt responded, “My brothers, I believe you asked the wrong question.”
The examiners, with a combined 50 years of Masonic education between them, glanced at each other with baffled reactions. They had heard the legendary tales of the former Rough Rider, the escapades in the west and his boisterous personality. He was admired by many for his consistent hard work and selfless devotion to his fellow citizens. Overcoming asthma in his formative years, Roosevelt strengthened his physical body through strenuous exercise and determination. He applied the same work ethic to his academia pursuits, dedicating his free time to reading and writing, exploring his growing interest in history, politics, religion, and any other subject that appealed to him.
He was not the average candidate or brother. Nevertheless, he entered the lodge room on the level and expected to be treated the same. The examiners recognized this trait in him and asked the prompter to investigate Brother Roosevelt’s determined query. Looking in the coded Masonic monitor, the prompter responded in Roosevelt’s favor; the Entered Apprentice was more proficient in the Masonic ritual than the experienced brothers conducting the examination.
A sigh of relief could be felt throughout the room. Brother Theodore Roosevelt, the only sitting Vice President of the United States to go through a Masonic degree, would be passed to the Degree of Fellowcraft, just 23 days following his inauguration as Vice President of the United States.
It should come as little surprise to contemporary amateur historians, that Theodore Roosevelt was the United States most literary president, writing 35 books on a wide variety of subjects. He read prodigiously and he proudly boasted of having an almost photographic memory. There is evidence that Roosevelt was able to recite obscure poetry and other articles, sometimes referring to the pieces well over a decade after reading the documents.
A recent reading coded Masonic ritual, which mostly used coded letters and symbols at the turn of the twentieth century, would be of little challenge to the man walking with the big stick. Theodore Roosevelt was on the road to become a Master Mason.
His examination committee was presided by R:.W:. Frank E. Haff, of Meridian Lodge No. 691 (Islip, NY) with assistants R:.W:. Douglass Conklin, of Jephtha No. 494 (Huntington, NY); Brother John K. Dunning of Jamaica No. 546; W:. Joseph Fitch, of Cornucopia No. 563 (Flushing, NY) and W:. Joseph Cummings of Altair No. 601 (Brooklyn, NY).
R:.W:. Haff was District Deputy Grand Master of the First Masonic District (1900-1902) and Master of Island City Lodge No. 586 of Long Island City, NY (1900-01) at the time of Roosevelt’s second-degree ceremony. Brother Haff was also elected as a Trustee of the Hall and Asylum Fund of Grand Lodge in 1902. Haff would later serve as Secretary and Treasurer of the Long Island Railroad for several years. As he laid on his deathbed in 1922 and it became apparent that his son residing in Chicago would be unable to reach him in time, Haff dictated his last words to a telegram, “Am crossing the line, meet me in heaven.” Haff was honored with a special train that carried his remains from Halifax, Pennsylvania back to New York, where he was interred.
R:.W:. Conklin was Master of Jephtha Lodge for three years (1886-87, 1899) and was District Deputy Grand Master of the First District (1899-1900).
W:. Fitch was Roosevelt’s classmate while attending Columbia Law School- the only known direct connection within the examination committee to the Vice President. Elected as Assemblyman (D) from the First District of Queens County in 1885, Fitch’s big legislative win was for the establishment of the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery. He served many prominent posts in Queens, New York, including first Deputy Commissioner of Water (1898); Assistant District Attorney (1905); Police Magistrate (1908); a director of the Flushing Bank; Chairman of the Democratic Town Committee; and counsel to the Flushing Village Board of Health from its founding in 1891 until the development of Greater New York in 1898. In his private life, he was a long time Scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts of America, Captain of the Nereus Rowing Club for two years and served as Second Lieutenant of the Seventeenth Separate Company of Infantry, N. G., S. N. Y., (1880 -1888). Brother Fitch would later become District Deputy of the First Masonic District and Grand Standard Bearer of Masons in the State of New York in 1906.
W:. Cummings of Altair No. 601, gave the Middle Chamber lecture at Brother Roosevelt’s Fellowcraft degree, the only non-Matinecock brother to participate in the degree.
Returning to the third-floor lodge room occupied by Matinecock Lodge No. 806 in the Oyster Bay Bank Building, delegations from eleven Masonic lodges witnessed the historic event of Theodore Roosevelt’s Fellowcraft degree. Brother William Loeb, Jr. 33°, Roosevelt’s private secretary, was his Masonic instructor for all three degrees.
On March 27, 1901, Brother Theodore Roosevelt was passed to the degree of Fellowcraft. Roosevelt was larger than life, and he undertook everything that came before him with a focused intensity with which many of any age could not compare. After making his mark in academia and politics, Freemasonry was to be his latest passion, and he dedicated his time in the quarries to smoothing his rough ashlar to the best of his abilities. He did not come to Masonry as a dignitary to be made a Mason on sight, but one who met on the level and respected the craft at every step.
Written by Wor. Bro. Ronald J. Seifried, DSA
Trustee Chairman and Historian, Jephtha Lodge #494
Co-Editor, Craftsmen Online NY Masonic History column
32° Scottish Rite, Valley of Rockville Centre
Companion of Asharokan Chapter No. 288, Royal Arch Masons
Member of Suffolk Council No. 76, Cryptic Masons
Author, “Long Island Freemasons,” Arcadia Publishing, 2020