Thee's death on 11 Feburary 1878 was thus the first of two traumas that would rock young Theodore's world. The death was unexpected. In the months before, Thee had risen to national prominence through his fight with Ross Conkling, a corrupt Republican political boss. President Rutherford B. Hayes had tried to nominate the Thee, a known reformer, to a major civil service post, which would have undermined Conkling's control over the New York State Republican Party. Conkling opposed Thee's appointment and pulled strings to block the Senate from confirming him. Almost as soon as it became clear that Thee would not win his post, he became horribly sick. Doctors discovered he had a case of advanced bowel cancer, but chose not to tell T.R. for fear of distracting him from his studies. Thee and his son visited together one last time, over T.R.'s Christmas break. Thee succumbed to the cancer just days after T.R. returned to school for the new semester.
T.R. was destroyed. As he wrote in his diary, "the aim and purpose of my life had been taken away." He went through drastic and almost inexplicable mood swings. That summer, vacationing with his family at Oyster Bay, he broke up with his childhood friend and presumptive lover Edith Carow. He alternated between elation and despair. When he returned to college that fall, he no longer had the confidence to live his earlier life of moral superiority, and quickly slid into the traditional Harvard mold. Back then, Harvard was little more than a finishing school for Northeast elites; the typical student spent his days drinking and flirting. T.R. threw himself into that scene, joining a handful of social clubs and drinking heavily. He let his grades slip; he stopped worrying about his religion. Without Thee, none of that seemed to matter anymore.