FDR carves a turkey as his wife Eleanor looks on
Franklin Roosevelt was one of the most consummate politicians ever. Emitting charm and practical intelligence, he was the Democratic sun in the 30s and 40s. A hero of experimental and energetic big government, conservatives believe he prolonged the Depression rather than ending it and was naive about Stalin's post-World War II aims. Regardless of one's appraisal, FDR, like his wife Eleanor and his distant cousin Theodore, continues to dazzle historians.
Film maker Ken Burns (far left)
In Warm Springs, GA recently, where my wife, Sarah, a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt, and I were involved in a family reunion of both the "Oyster Bay" (TR) Roosevelts and the "Hyde Park" (FDR) Roosevelts, visitors were treated to a screening of excerpts from a seven installment, 14 hour Ken Burns documentary, "The Roosevelts"
. It is set to air on PBS over a solid week next fall.
The reunion, with descendants now reaching to great-great-grandchildren, was an odd encounter, where in a reception hall holding 160 you could say, "Hey, Ted!" and a sizable share of the room's males would turn their heads. There also were small platoons of "Elliotts" and "Nicks", and even some "Eleanors" and "Franks." It was happy confusion.
Chapel FDR built in Warm Springs, GA
Among the agreeable discoveries was the extent of Franklin Roosevelt's personal attention to development of Warm Springs, GA-- where he erected a "Little White House" as a private retreat--as home also to the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation for polio victims. In Warm Springs the political FDR recedes and the compassionate innovator and detailed planner emerges. Fighting polio and disabilities was his personal cause.
He surely didn't do it for the publicity. FDR feared, perhaps correctly, that if the public fully understood how much the Infantile Paralysis he contracted at age 39 (in 1921) disabled him his political career would be damaged. Polio terrified people at the time. He would not want to advertise his infirmity.
The media kept his wheel chair out of sight for his whole later career and FDR himself found inventive ways to appear at podiums to speak--in leg braces, often with one of his sons helping to hold him up--and to drive a car with special hand controls. What he was doing to help other polio sufferers was known, but not prominently.
Model of Warm Springs therapy pools
Indeed, what FDR did at Warm Springs came at his own initiative and at risk to his personal fortune. Yet it had his devoted attention. In the mid 1920s he purchased a small spa in Bullochsville, Georgia south of Atlanta known for its warm, supposedly restorative mineral waters and persuaded the local council to rename the town Warm Springs to better showcase its main attraction. But then he found that tourist spa-goers were uninterested in sharing the waters with polio victims--it made them afraid--so he concentrated on making the facility a unique center for treatment of polio and other physical handicaps.
Campus of Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute
Roosevelt believed that the stigma of polio would only worsen with a hospital style environment for the mostly young residents. Instead, he devised a campus-style facility, sending architects to the University of Virginia to gain ideas from Thomas Jefferson's classical columns and arcades. He wanted as much year-round color and folliage on the grounds as possible and saw to it that the eating hub of the facility was not a cafeteria, but a dining room with real tablecloths, fresh flowers and waiters in bow ties.
An early iron lung
He found inventors and artisans to design new therapy techniques and equipment for the Institute's residents, including improved wheel-chairs and early versions of leg braces. Some patients with severe cases of polio were for greater and lesser periods placed in "iron lungs", which allowed them to breathe more easily, while less difficult cases received physical therapy, especially in the supportive warm water. The different pools the Institute developed allowed FDR and others to devise exercise opportunities and mobility unavailable on dry land. Polio sufferers could not endure cold water, but the naturally warm, 86 degree water at Warm Springs permitted the young FDR--who later was to become governor of New York, then President--to frolic with the children and teens. Physical play helping to develop upper body strength.
The Little White House
FDR never stopped innovating. The "Little White House" a few hundred yards away from the Institute, as I told my wife, can be seen as the first Americans for Disabilities Act-compliant architecture--several decades ahead of its time. Compact and accessible for its celebrated wheel-chair bound occupant, the place was a genuine retreat. FDR arrived from Washington by train, usually without attendant press or more than a couple of aides. A cook came over from a local hotel to prepare meals.
Pike Hazanne today, a patient in 1935
At the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute, meanwhile, Roosevelt liked to make personal rounds to meet patients, especially the young. At the Roosevelt family reunion I sat with a local Warm Springs citizen, Pike Hazanne, who was only four years old when she got polio in 1935 and became a temporary resident of the Institute--and met its illustrious founder. She remains an able advocate for the continuing services the Institute provides. The spirit of the Roosevelt Institute was cheerful, not dour, she reports.
Most Thanksgiving holidays for two decades FDR managed to come to Warm Springs to carve the turkey in the dining room. Then, standing in his braces at the door, he greeted each resident as he or she exited. It was his way of showing personal interest, and also giving the clear message: If I can do this kind of thing, there is certainly hope for you. The Ken Burns documentary undoubtedly will demonstrate that, as with Theodore Roosevelt and with Eleanor, FDR's determination in life was strengthened by the hardships he overcame.
FDR's favorite chair
On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, a few days before the end of the war in Europe, Roosevelt suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in the combined living and dining room at the Little White House and died soon after. The previous day, a Sunday, he worshipped, as usual, in the chapel he had erected on the Institute grounds. That chapel is still in use by Institute residents and staff.
The whole environment in Warm Springs speaks of sturdy American simplicity. The Little White House, for example, is a modest cottage. It becomes a republic, not an empire. Regardless of politics, you cannot witness what this shows about FDR without serious respect.
FDR swimming with other Polio patients