Death is always private, but the death of a world figure becomes a public event.
President Roosevelt’s Health
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April, 1945, the world was stunned. He had been US president for twelve years, just recently inaugurated to an unprecedented fourth term.
Television was still experimental, and newsreels and photographs of the President were always carefully staged. Few Americans were aware that FDR had been crippled by polio for nearly twenty-five years, and could not walk without braces, a cane and the arm of a strong man to steady him.
Even fewer noticed his visible decline during the past year. The strain of WWII had taken a huge toll. He had lost weight. His face looked drained and haggard. When he returned from his recent meeting in Yalta, he was seated while addressing Congress – something he had never done before. They were all aware of FDR’s disabilities, but this was different. And worrisome.
They did not know about his dangerously high blood pressure, and his heart condition. His doctors were alarmed and insisted on immediate rest. As usual, FDR pooh-poohed, but agreed to some down time.
FDR: Warm Springs
At 39, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio, and spent the better part of a decade vainly trying to find a remedy to restore strength to his withered legs. In the 1920s, the most promising treatments demanded warm water exercise therapy.
In 1924, FDR discovered the buoyant waters in Warm Springs, a depressed rural town about an hour from Atlanta, whose only attribute was a spring of water that maintained its soothing temperature year round. It seemed so beneficial, that Roosevelt purchased the area in 1926, turning it into a viable treatment center for polio patients.
Roosevelt loved Warm Springs and all its residents, whether they were “polios,” local residents or part of the medical therapy team. With his infectious optimism and political gifts of remembering names and faces and all their pertinent information, that love was returned.
Even as President, he periodically came to his “Little White House” to refresh his body and spirit. After Yalta, when his doctors counseled rest, this is where he came.
The President Dies
It was almost fitting that death would come for FDR at Warm Springs. The Little White House was small cottage. It could easily fit inside the White House in Washington a dozen times. He had gone there accompanied by his valet, secretary, two cousins, a few friends, his doctors and personal staff. Most were lodged nearby. He was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a violent headache and collapsed. It was a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
Word was secretly sent to Washington. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been at a speaking engagement, and Vice President Truman were urgently summoned to the White House. Both feared the worst.
Within hours, telephone and telegraph wires had spread the sorrowful news across the country. Cables were sent abroad to heads of state and to the Armed Forces. Mrs. Roosevelt personally wired her sons serving overseas. Then she flew to Georgia to accompany the President’s body back to the capital. By the time she returned to Washington, the White House had been flooded with condolences from all over the world.
The Private Goodbyes, The Public Goodbyes
Warm Springs residents, both patients and locals, were devastated, perhaps more than any other American citizens. They not only lost a President they deeply admired, they lost a dear friend. They knew him in a way no one else did. He was one of them. They saw him in his bathing suit, in the water, his withered legs in view. They alone understood the limitations he had to face, and they alone understood the nearly impossible heights he had reached despite everything.
The following day a funeral cortège lined up outside the Little White House. In front of Georgia Hall, all the residents, on crutches, canes and in wheelchairs turned out to pay their final respects as the hearse and its entourage slowly made its way along the route the President always drove whenever he vacated the premises. Usually everyone waved and smiled. But this time, children and adults sobbed uncontrollably.
Graham Jackson, a local resident played a sorrowful Going Home on his accordion. He had entertained FDR and the other patients dozens of times over the past two decades. The aging Negro had tears running down his cheeks.
By the time the casket was lifted onto the train to Washington, black-bordered headlines proclaimed the sad news. Flags everywhere flew at half-staff. Houses of worship were filled as prayerful eulogies were offered. Shops and stores were closed. Schools were closed. Congress adjourned.
It is more than 700 miles between Warm Springs, Georgia and Washington, DC. About a 12-hour drive. But the train carrying the President’s body chugged very slowly. All along the way, day and night, people lined up along the tracks, heads bared and bowed, sobbing as if they had lost their best friend. Some even placed pennies on the track to let the funeral train run over it as a souvenir.
As Commander-in-Chief, FDR was a casualty of war, like the thousands of American servicemen who had already died, and would continue to die before the War ended. His casket laid in state both at the White House, and later at Congress, as people from all stations in life came to pay their respects. . Representatives from every state – and even from foreign countries came to march in his funeral procession along with thousands of military personnel.
A small private funeral was held at Hyde Park, the place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, and the place he loved best.
He had been a part of the American family.
Bishop, Jim – FDR’s Last Year – Wm.. Morrow, 1974
Gallagher, Hugh – FDR’s Splendid Deception – Dodd, Mead, 1984