Remembering Franklin Delano RooseveltThe Washington Post
The Washington Post received more than 800 submissions from readers who responded to our request to share their memories and memorabilia of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his era. Many of those we heard from loved FDR; a few hated him. In letters, faxes and e-mail, people from the region and across the country told us poignant and sometimes humorous stories of the Depression and World War II and of how FDR's presidency affected their lives or the lives of loved ones.
The Post will publish a selection of those stories through Friday, when the FDR Memorial will be dedicated. Many submissions were shortened and altered slightly for space and clarity. Some were augmented with additional interviews.
Our thanks to all who sent us their stories or lent us their memorabilia to help portray FDR and his times.
Campaigning at 10,000 Feet
After the New Deal, when Thurman Arnold was in law practice, I was in his office when he received a visit from another old New Dealer, Maury Maverick, former congressman and then mayor of San Antonio. They were talking, and Arnold asked Maverick how he would describe the New Deal.
Maverick replied, "Civil liberties -- plus groceries."
My wife, now a longtime resident of the Washington area, was among the top students in her 1942 class and ready to graduate from Los Angeles High School. Her principal summoned her and 14 other Japanese Americans to his office and told them they would not be allowed to graduate. My wife's father, a Christian minister without a church, had worked many jobs to buy a secondhand piano for $500 to help his daughters and sons develop their musical talents. They had to sell it for $5, the best price they could get. After a desolate internment camp near Death Valley, then detention in a bug-ridden, swampy, muggy camp in Arkansas for 1,126 days, my wife was released with a one-way railroad ticket and a "resettlement allowance" of $25.
Roosevelt brought us through the worst Depression, raised the minimum wage and gave us Social Security. Working as a maid, I brought home $18 for two weeks' work, and after the minimum wage increase, I made $30 for two weeks' work. I thought I was rich.
A Proud Salute
It was a cold, rainy March 4. We gathered in the basement of St. Peter's Catholic Church, at 3rd and C streets SE, until our unit was called to join the parade. One of us carried the District's flag, another the NYA banner. I was in the middle with the American flag.
Our final instructions: Look straight ahead, march in a steady pace and when approaching the reviewing stand, eyes to the right and dip the flag.
I still have my white sash that I wore proudly -- NYA in blue letters on a white background. Under my coat were layers of newspapers to hold off the rain. No umbrellas were allowed in the parade. How proud I was to honor this man who had given me a chance to stay in college. I smiled and dipped the flag as I paraded past the president. He saluted. We heard the crowds cheer as we passed!
Three in a Boat
When Winston Churchill paid one of his many secret visits to the White House, we tippy-toed quietly out of town to the president's hideout at Shangri-La near Thurmont, Md. We took FDR and Winnie for a drive around the scenic countryside and pulled off the road at a small pond. The next thing we knew, Roosevelt, Churchill and Adm. Wilson Brown, the president's naval aide, had gotten into a small, flat-ended rowboat, and Brown was pushing it around the pond with a long pole. Instead of looking like two top leaders of what was left of the Western world, they looked like a couple of kids playing hooky on a nice day. I couldn't help thinking what Bertie McCormick of the Chicago Tribune would have paid for a picture of this scene, captioned, "Where's the Fleet?"
On April 12, 1945, I was 11 years old. On that Thursday, when I got home from school, both my mom and Nana were crying. Dad had called from his store downtown and told them to turn on the radio. The president was dead. I wanted to be by myself and went out onto our front porch. We lived on the corner of Fifth and Oneida NW.
It was late afternoon, and some people were coming home from work and getting off the bus across the street. Soon I was calling out to them, yelling that Roosevelt had just died. To this day I remember the shocked looks. Some started to cry. Others turned to hurry home, a few running. None said a word back to me, this kid on a front porch. But, somehow, they knew I wasn't fooling. Maybe it was because I was crying, too.
Banking on Memories
I have bored captive friends with that story many times. But a few weeks ago at my local bank, a bright young assistant cashier noticed my cap with its CCC logo and asked what it was. I began telling him that the Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the great social experiments of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"Who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt?" he asked.
I didn't cry. After all, my modest bank account does seem to be in good hands.
Inspiration and Pain
Although invisible, Roosevelt touched virtually every life in the far-flung Philippines. At age 7, I remember coming home from school jumping with joy because classes were canceled. The family huddled around a clandestine short-wave radio listening to Roosevelt as he declared war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Philippines fell to Japan soon after, but Roosevelt remained the dominant figure in our lives.
My father, a staunch American ally and national, continued to invoke Roosevelt's supremacy over the Japanese emperor's authority -- and paid dearly for it. A high-ranking commonwealth official, he vehemently declined when called to serve in the "puppet government." Shortly before the American liberation of the Philippines, the ruthless Japanese Kempeitai arrested my father on unspecified charges of subversive activities and had him summarily and brutally executed.
Tooting the President's Horn
One day I was coming back from lunch and began reading a letter. I heard the slight beep of a horn. I glanced up and here was the president and his Secret Service men in a big open car -- all laughing at my unexpected look of "city anger." Now I tell my grandchildren I once stopped the president's car and the president was FDR.
They Wore Out Their Welcome
A Cloud on the Horizon
The Darkest Nights
Perhaps my fondest memories were of walking the streets during air raid drills. Each street had an air raid warden. On Whitehaven Parkway, it was Daniel Finnegan. After dark, the siren blared and residents were supposed to dim their lights, close their blinds and remain indoors. Mr. Finnegan let me go with him on the weekly drills. Of course, everyone complied. The Carricos. The Wrights. The Showalters. Their houses were blotted out in the night. Up and down the block, there was thick silence and darkness.
Setting a Life's Course
Then the National Youth Administration Act was passed for qualified young people who wanted a higher education. As a result of this program, I graduated from Samuel Houston College in Texas and Howard University. I began working at the State Department. In 1941, President Roosevelt gave a speech at DAR Constitution Hall. I helped make preparations for his appearance and sat about 10 or 12 feet behind him.
After his speech, the president nodded his head in my direction. That was the closest I have ever been to a U.S. president. This one had changed the course of my life.
When the President Came Calling
About 20 yards of brick walkway led to the front door. Two Secret Service men sprang to the rear doors of the car. They cradled the president between them, his strong arms and hands over their shoulders and his legs lifelessly dangling from their firmly locked hands. With a jaunty smile, he said to my brothers and me, "Boys, you'll have to excuse me, but it's a relief not to have to wear pounds of steel braces on my legs today."
They carried him swiftly to the house, down a corridor and into the library, where a comfortable chair was waiting. Immediately the president engaged in relaxed and warm conversation with our mother. After 15 or 20 minutes of friendly reminiscences about our father, the Secret Service men were summoned. They carried him back to the car. The impressive arms and shoulders, the beaming smile, the pathetic limbs concealed beneath his trousers left an unforgettable memory of a remarkable man on an unpublicized visit.
What Could Have Been
For two years, he was rebuffed. The United States had a quota system, inflexible even with war clouds over Europe and horrors within Germany. He returned to this country in 1939, never to see his parents and a sister again. As we laud Mr. Roosevelt for his accomplishments, remember that fine would-be Americans died at the hands of a president who turned a blind eye from the words of the Statue of Liberty.
Five Blue Stars in the Window
Mama's contribution (everyone called my grandmother, Evelyn Herl, "Mama") was five sons serving in various branches of the armed forces. As each left home and a room became vacant, Mama rented it to one of the thousands who poured into Washington for defense work. I remember joining Mama's Blue Star Mothers group on Memorial Day, placing American flags and paper lilies on graves in Arlington Cemetery. For days before, they would meet in the parlor to make the lilies and unroll the miniature flags.
Perhaps the best memory is that at the end of WWII, none of Mama's blue stars was replaced with a gold one, the symbol that a son had given his life for his country. Although they served in some of the worst situations, all the Herl men came home.
A Tip of That Hat
In 1931, my nonpolitical mother surprised us with an announcement that the family would attend an election eve rally for Roosevelt in Camden, N.J. At the rally, I watched my mother smile and sing. I was so happy for her. As the troubled '30s rolled on, Roosevelt's alphabet soup -- WPA, CCC, etc. -- worked its magic. Our lives improved.
In 1939, at age 13, I heard the loud wail of sirens while walking to my part-time busboy job in downtown Camden. It was Roosevelt's reelection motorcade. As it reached me, the president doffed his famous hat in my direction. Thrilled, I ran home. When I told my mother, she hugged me. I felt her tremble as she sobbed. Then she looked at me as if through me she could express her deep gratitude to the president. My brothers and sisters treated me like a celebrity. I did not bus dishes that day.
When Dad Would Get Mad
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company