By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note: Eleanor Roosevelt was, at once, one of the most admired and one of the most reviled women of the twentieth century. You either loved her or you hated her. That’s what happens when you set out to improve the world… and do. A lot of people aren’t going to like it…
That’s why, when I went in search of music for this article, I knew it might be tricky finding just the right sound. But it wasn’t. A friend recommended Anastacia’s tune “Paid My Dues” (released 2001). You’ll find it in any search engine.
First listen for the beat; then listen for the lyrics.
“You can say what you want about me Wanna do what you want to me But you can not stop me.”
This was very much the case with Mrs. Roosevelt. And she had unquestionably paid her dues…
How the subject came up.
Most every Saturday I spend some quality time with my now 86 year old father. He’s in California, I’m in Massachusetts so our conversations are on the telephone. I’ve been urging him to get a webcam so we can benefit from the visual, but he keeps telling me that would be too hard. He’s wrong, but obstinate; for now we adhere to the phone.
Our conversations cover any aspect or subject in the lives of two active men, his and mine. Some are profoundly serious, others comical, hilarious as jokes from long ago are trotted out to be reprised and laughed at again. At the end of these conversations, we both feel good; at least I do.
A few months ago in the middle of one such conversation, he casually said, “Did I ever tell you about my visit with Eleanor Roosevelt?” Then the bombshell. “It was the most important day of my life.”
I was staggered on two accounts, first that I had never heard of this matter before and second that he regarded the visit so importantly. Of course, I couldn’t wait to hear the details…
It was the summer of 1944.
By the summer of 1944, it was clear the Axis powers had lost the war, but it was not quite clear that the Allies had won it. That’s why the total focus needed to deliver victory had to be maintained. And so every aspect of life at that time was touched by the war. It was total war, totally consuming.
My father was a candidate for the navy’s officer training program. However, when taking the physical it was discovered that he had a heart murmur. He was ordered to go to the navy hospital in San Diego for further tests. Thus, he found himself billeted in the Fine Arts Gallery and History Museum, Balboa Park. This was a facility for 1,200 patients, space very much at a premium.
One day a message was circulated by the commander that Mrs. Roosevelt would be paying an official visit shortly. He ordered all able bodied and ambulatory personnel to attend. He, of course, wanted to make the best possible impression on the President’s wife and key advisor. But some of the “boys” in hospital were determined they wouldn’t help. Their remarks were often rude, vulgar, immature; often directed at a woman who, it was true, was plain to a degree and who was thus made the butt of many crude, ungracious comments.
Many of these comments criticized her for not staying at home in the White House to serve tea and cookies to visiting dignitaries. These reflected the views of their fathers who were outspoken about the woman who did too much gadding about, interfering in other people’s business.
My father felt differently. He admired her “pluck” as he called it and was looking forward to seeing this world figure and hearing what she had to say.
When my father arrived in the Spreckles Organ Pavilion Mrs. Roosevelt, dressed in uniform, was already on stage. Right on time she started the program, greeted the audience and took questions from those nearest the stage. In an instant the crude comments and insults of just moments before stopped. There was that about the lady that turned ruffians into rapt listeners and gentlemen. You didn’t know this though until you were with her. Then you knew it, for life; it was her secret and it came in very helpful in the demanding life she fashioned for herself. She knew how to put people at ease and make friends.
After a time and as it was one of the picture-perfect San Diego days, she suggested to her hosts that they sit in the shade under the trees. Most of the audience left at that point, having, as they saw it, done their duty. But my father knew that this was the chance of a lifetime to be in the presence of History and learn. He followed Mrs. Roosevelt outside where the conversation was warm, personable, like family.
She knew two important things about the “boys” surrounding her. She knew they were far away from home and lonely, and she knew they were not the best of correspondents. She also knew that their families missed them so and worried. She knew she could make a difference… and where she could, she would.
Thus, as she talked to the young men, she took down, with a gold pencil, their names and addresses and promised to send word to their parents. She looked you in the eye, my father recalled, when asking for the details… and no one at that moment saw a plain woman; instead they felt the radiance of her personality and her humanity. She was a good, caring soul… and they all knew it.
I’d like to tell you that my father gave Mrs. Roosevelt his particular details, including the name and address of his parents; I’d like to tell you that he had framed her letter to his mother, my grandmother, and that he was giving it to me, because he knew I would take good care of it. But I can’t…
Instead he shyly watched as others, one by one, gave the information she requested…. until at last the aides who guarded her schedule (and her strength) let it be known it was time to move on. The farewells were brief, friendly, warm handshakes… and that smile instantly recognizable to a world which admired and counted on her.
At that moment my father kicked himself for not giving Mrs. Roosevelt his particulars since, as good as her word, she did write astonished parents, who instantly wrote their offspring and told all the neighbors and every one of their startled relations.
My father was chagrined but he made the best of it. He became a regular reader of Mrs. Roosevelt’s six-day-a-week syndicated newspaper column “My Day”. Written from 1935 to 1962, it is still eminently readable today. He also made the pilgrimage to Vall-Kill (as I later did), the only home she ever owned and the only home of any First Lady to become a National Historic Site.
It was at Vall-Kill she said, “The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again.” This is why my sprawling Saturday conversations with my father will continue, for these are the conversations of home, and we each have more to reveal to each other…
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About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is ., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at http://homeprofitcoach.com/associates
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