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Dickinson State University receives $10 million to secure future of Theodore Roosevelt Center

Dickinson State University announces largest-ever donation of $10 million for support of the Theodore Roosevelt Center.

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Dickinson State University President Steve Easton speaks on the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation historic gift of $10 million to secure the future of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. (Photo by Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

Dickinson State University and the DSU Heritage Foundation jointly announced Tuesday, Dec. 14, that the university received their largest-ever gift of $10 million from the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. The contribution will support the Theodore Roosevelt Center, dedicated to conserving the life, legacy and enduring relevance of Theodore Roosevelt.

The mission of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University is to raise the profile of the American politician, statesman, conservationist, naturalist, historian and writer who served as the 26th president of the United States. The center aims to promote the understanding of arguably one of the most remarkable statesmen and intellectuals in American history.

The grant will provide operating support for center, including expanded digitization and archiving efforts of Theodore Roosevelt related materials, assisting scholars with reference questions, further development of the TRC website and other digital communications and programming aimed at assisting education for primary, secondary and higher education. In addition, the gift will establish a new chair position whose role it will be to facilitate the study of the life, achievements, legacy and historical reputation of Roosevelt, and to serve in promoting the TRC, DSU and Theodore Roosevelt scholarship nationally and globally.

"It's an enormous undertaking to make available digitally the records of an analogue president, meaning a person whose records weren't created in digital form," Steve Easton, Dickinson State University president, said. "We appreciate the rare opportunity to both enhance our students’ education and offer a gift of learning to the world, and we couldn’t be more energized to continue this important work. This generous gift from Rob and Melani Walton provides long-term financial stability and the ability to realize our vision for the Theodore Roosevelt Center.”

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Melani Walton, a board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, watches a presentation in Medora, N.D., on Aug. 17, 2020. The Montana native is married to Rob Walton, a billionaire heir to the Walmart fortune. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

The Theodore Roosevelt Center, which prior to the donation relied upon the legislature for funding, has solidified its ability to host Roosevelt-related events of local, state and national significance courtesy of the gift.

"We are fortunate, but also challenged, by the fact that Theodore Roosevelt was more than just the president of the United States. He was so much more than that. He went to college thinking he would be a naturalist and wrote, depending on how you count, 38 to 42 books, was a New York City police commissioner, civil service commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, military leader, big game hunter and rancher. So there is so much to his life and we are honored to highlight this great figure because he was so interesting, beyond the presidency."

According to Easton, study of Roosevelt goes beyond the political sciences and offers opportunities for business students, history students, Agricultural students and more to glean information from the Theodore Roosevelt Center.

Since its launch in 2009, the center has digitized over 70,000 Roosevelt-related items providing immediate access to anyone with an internet connection. Led by project manager Sharon Kilzer, TRC also hosts an annual symposium featuring acclaimed speakers and authors while attracting thousands of visitors and scholars from all over the world. TRC also provides programming and support to scholars of all ages learning about Theodore Roosevelt.

“Ensuring the lessons we can learn from Theodore Roosevelt are accessible to everyone inspires future generations to get ‘into the arena’ and solve the challenges we face today as a collective, global community,” said Melani and Rob Walton. “We’re filled with gratitude to support DSU in realizing its expanded vision for the Theodore Roosevelt Center, which began over a decade ago.”

The Rob and Melani Walton Foundation and DSU have a long relationship. Melani Lowman Walton hails from a family of proud Blue Hawks. She is a Dickinson State University alumna, Hall of Fame member, and a stand-out athlete in basketball and track and field. She grew up in eastern Montana near the North Dakota border and has been visiting Medora and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park since childhood.

Easton highlighted the contributions of local political leaders in helping secure the long-term financial support the donation brings.

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"Senator Rich Wardner and Representatives Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner have been a huge part of this process. From the 2019 legislature there is a statute that is very interesting, but it set up a structure that says that if a private entity that is building the library receives $100 million of private support or gifts, then $50 million will be put by the state in a fund of which the proceeds can help with operations and maintenance of the library. But in order to unlock those proceeds it needs to provide a $10 million donation to an educational foundation in North Dakota," Easton said. "This $10 million dollar gift is from the Library Foundation to Dickinson State Heritage Foundation, but it comes from funds coming from the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. So that statute created the pathway for us to receive this gift and it was very critical, so we thank Wardner, Lefor and Steiner for their efforts."

Speaking to the support of the legislature for the project, Wardner said he was proud of the legislature's support.

“This has been a legacy project from the very beginning, and one that sets DSU and our community apart as the national leader in preserving important lessons from TR’s life,” Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson and Senate Majority Leader, said. “I’m proud of the legislature’s long-time support of this work and the generosity of the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation in making this important milestone for the Theodore Roosevelt Center a reality.”

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Sen. Rich Wardner, R-37 of Dickinson, said the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University has been a legacy project from the very beginning and thanked the generosity of the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation for a $10 million contribution to the center. (The Dickinson Press file photo)

According to Dickinson State University, the gift from Rob and Melani Walton that has been provided through the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation solidifies the long-term relationship between Dickinson State University Heritage Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Center for the digitization of the Theodore Roosevelt presidential papers.

Dickinson State University plans to unveil more about the future of the project during the forthcoming celebrations for the re-opening of Pulver Hall in 2022, the future site providing the Theodore Roosevelt Center a permanent facility.

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Current architectural floor plans for Dickinson State University's Pulver Hall. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

"Roosevelt's conservationism, in part, started during his time of ranching in the Badlands of southwest North Dakota. In many senses, Roosevelt created the political movement of conservationism and it's a real honor to conserve his legacy at Dickinson State University," Easton said. "We have an agriculture school, we teach natural science classes about wildlife and rangelands, and so we feel privileged to have that mantle carrying forward. This is a really tremendous opportunity for us, and I want to give credit to those at Dickinson State before I returned and who set the pathway for this, but especially today I want to give thanks to Rob and Melani for their contribution. Melani is an alum of Dickinson State and her family like mine has four or five generations of attending Dickinson State. So thank you to them for making this possible."

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