The Man Who Saved America: FDR's 125th Birthday Stirs Poignant Memories
This past Tuesday, I glanced at the morning newspaper's dateline and exclaimed to myself, "This is Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday!"
A quick calculation confirmed that it was now 125 years since his birth on Jan. 30, 1882. (My father had entered this world just four months earlier.)
I scanned the news in both print and online versions, looking in vain for some acknowledgment of this significant day -- significant for me, at least, for FDR has always been foremost among the giants in my life story. Annually, on Jan. 30, for many years we were reminded to contribute to the March of Dimes, originally created to raise funds for treatment of polio, which had crippled our great president.
He came to the White House on March 4, 1933, and began at once to deal with the poverty and hopelessness we experienced all around us in the midst of the Great Depression. I was 6 years old, but I remember our waiting for Mr. Roosevelt to assume the office to which he had been elected the previous November.
I went with my father to the lodge hall in Shawnee Mound, Henry County, Mo., where I watched him cast his ballot for the Democratic candidate. He marked it with a lead pencil and deposited it in the slotted lid of a large tin box with a padlock on it. Somehow I sensed, in the gravity of that day, an omen of important things to come.
Aspects of the Depression are deeply etched in my memory.
Many good people in our neighborhood literally went hungry. One of my father's friends from childhood came to our kitchen door and poured out his heart. He and his family had no food and no money. I can barely imagine what it cost that good man, so proudly independent and a highly skilled carpenter, to make such a confession and ask for help. My dad wrote him a check, came back to our living room, sat down and wept bitterly. (I had never seen him cry before.)
Not far from our home lived a "hired hand" of a neighbor farmer. His little girl came to our school shivering in the cold because she had only threadbare clothes. My father bought her a coat and other warm garments. He admonished me never to let it be known where these gifts came from.
For months on end, streams of disconsolate people traveled by the big farmhouse my great-grandfather had built in 1876. Some were on foot, others had decrepit cars that would barely scale the hills.
These poor souls were on the way west, a few of them determined to reach California, where jobs and a better life beckoned. Others were just on the move with no destination in mind. Believe it or not, I remember several covered wagons being drawn by pathetic horses and mules.
Invariably, the pilgrims would ask us for something: a little money to buy gasoline, a few eggs and bacon for a decent breakfast, or help to address a letter (and a stamp, please). The word "depression" was precisely descriptive. We were depressed not only economically but also emotionally.
I was only a little boy, but gloom was always in the air, and I didn't like it.
My father was astute. He had no debts and good balances in several banks. We ourselves had to be careful about spending, but we always had what we needed. We were able to give a helping hand to neighbor and stranger alike.
I remember an afternoon when my parents took me along for a trip to the county seat of Clinton. A crowd was gathered in the town square, peering at a notice on the glass door of a bank. This formerly solid institution had failed, and our deposits no longer meant anything. My parents lost several hundred dollars, but we had funds elsewhere. Many were not so fortunate.
A Fruitful Legacy
When Franklin Roosevelt announced his "New Deal" for the American people, hopes were raised, and they were well placed.
Early on, he declared a bank holiday to stem such closures. For several weeks, we were unable to withdraw funds. But people were so glad for the intervention that they hardly complained about the inconvenience. Mr. Chism, our grocer, kept a running tab of our weekly purchases, knowing we would pay a lump sum when the banks opened again. Local merchants such as he were heroes as they extended credit to us.
In rapid order, the president and Congress cooperated to pass three crucial measures:
-- The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC, 1933) insured every private bank account for $2,500. The amount was soon raised to $5,000. Today it is $100,000. This wonderful act stopped the devastation wrought by bank failures.
-- The National Recovery Administration (NRA, 1933) was established to kick-start the economy by promoting fair competition, wage and price supports, and creation of new jobs for the unemployed. This measure was applauded by most of the nation's large corporations. For reasons of his own, Henry Ford vigorously opposed it. For people in general, it was good news. Businesses proudly displayed in their windows a "Blue Eagle" sticker indicating their participation and approval.
-- The Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935) is still the best known of the New Deal programs. Thousands of men and women in every sector of the nation were employed to build 650,000 miles of public roads, 78,000 bridges, and 125,000 buildings. The WPA also supported programs in the arts, helping orchestras to employ musicians and encouraging instruction in painting and writing.
Some folks in my generation will remind me of the jokes about people paid for work they didn't do -- and other real or imagined abuses of the system. But the overall assessment of this Depression-era effort is a positive one. Examine the older cornerstones of public buildings all over this nation, and you are likely to find signs of WPA involvement (including murals painted in post offices).
I remember well the evenings when our family would gather around our Atwater-Kent radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt's "fireside chats." He always began, in his deep, cultivated voice, "My friends " and then he would launch into a flawless delivery of his message.
In January 1941, in a stirring address to the Congress, FDR shared his list of Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
I remember vividly the afternoon of Dec. 7, when we were listening (on that same old radio) to the New York Philharmonic Sunday concert. An announcer interrupted with the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. We knew we were vulnerable, but the actual event was a dreadful surprise. The next day, Mr. Roosevelt was on the radio telling us that Dec. 7, 1941, would "live in infamy."
I was too young to go myself, but those years of World War II still shape much of my thinking. Tom Brokaw got it just right when he referred to our men and women who took part as "the Greatest Generation."
'Test of Our Progress'
On a wonderful spring afternoon in April 1945, my friend Tom and I were taking a walk in the countryside near William Jewell College, where we were students. We sauntered to the door of the house where I had a room, and my landlady came out on the stoop to tell us that Mr. Roosevelt had just died.
It felt as if the world stood still. How would we cope with his absence? He had been a friend and support ever since we were kindergartners.
I wrote a column for the Liberty (Mo.) Tribune, where I worked my way through college. It was a teenager's effort, to be sure, but I was stunned by the reactions to it. Some people wanted to reward me in some way for such a brilliant tribute to FDR's presidency. Others, I soon discovered, hated him venomously, and they let me know of their displeasure at reading my piece.
Seven years ago, again in the spring, I visited the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Although I had seen pictures of it since its dedication in 1997, this was my first chance to go there. I walked slowly into each of the four "rooms" of this vast outdoor exhibit made of South Dakota granite (one room for each of the FDR terms).
By far the most touching scene for me was "Breadline," in which George Segal's statuary of hungry men form a queue at a closed door. Suddenly aware of a man standing near me, I noticed that he was about my age. Tears were streaming down his checks, and they prompted a flood from my own eyes. We could barely speak of all that this scene conjured for us -- all those childhood memories of the Great Depression.
We took comfort in these inscribed words of our beloved FDR: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Locke Bowman, a retired Episcopal priest, is a copy editor with The Pilot.
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