A Man Who Never Gave Up – Part 3

Published 6:05 pm Sunday, June 23, 2024

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As Roosevelt’s private train pulled into Warm Spring’s tiny station on Good Friday, March 30, 1945, Roosevelt was glad to be back in the place that had been close to his heart, the Little White House. He had been coming here for the past twenty years, first to swim in the warm waters of the springs and lastly to relieve the pressure of the job of President, which he’d held for over twelve years. When he returned this time, he was sixty-three years old and now was a very sick man. Yet, other than his friends and associates, few who worked around this most popular President, realized the full extent of his illness.

Hundreds of local folks were on hand to greet this thirty-second President at the train station. They watched, interested, as he slowly descended the train’s steps. Laboriously, he climbed in the back seat of a waiting automobile, and was whisked off to his home, the Little White House.

This trip was to be one of rest and recuperation for Roosevelt. Within minutes after the Presidential party reached the Little White House, uncharacteristically, Roosevelt was in bed. He needed to rest from the exhausting twenty-four-hour train ride from Washington DC to Georgia.

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That evening, his personal physician, Lieutenant Commander Bruenn, and his private secretary, William Hassett, discussed their boss’s health. The men were worried. They felt that he was slipping away and no power on earth could keep him from going. Dr. Bruenn said he felt that although Roosevelt was in poor health, he could be saved if they could somehow keep him away from certain mental and emotional strains. However, Roosevelt had just been reelected to an unprecedented fourth term as President and the war in Europe and the Far East was raging. If anything, his stress could only get worse.

The doctor told Roosevelt’s staff and his old friends that his social life was going to have to be held to a minimum. He also would have to avoid the pool. So, Roosevelt spent the hours that he was up, chatting with his cousins, Laura Delano and Margaret Sucklye. Unlike Eleanor, these women loved Warm Springs and they became his frequent companions while at the Little White House.

One morning, when Hassett delivered the government mail pouch from Washington, he was surprised to see Roosevelt looking almost like his old self. Chatting with his two cousins, Roosevelt said that he was prepared to handle the work that he had to do. By noon, he had read the pouch full of official news, read every letter, and dictated several others. When Hassett saw the President again at five o’clock that evening, he found his appearance to be weary and exhausted. It seemed that around one o’clock that afternoon, the President simply lost all of his energy. No matter how simple or small a task he was trying to do, it seemed to bring him intense misery.

As Easter Sunday, April 1st, 1945, dawned in Warm Springs, President Roosevelt announced that he felt well enough to attend church services in the nearby chapel. However, even with the assistance of his personal valet, Arthur Prettyman, it took Roosevelt more than an hour to get bathed, shaved and dressed for the service.

Wearing a gray suit with a blue tie and seated in his wheelchair, he arrived at the chapel just before eleven o’clock accompanied by Laura and Margaret, and three secret service agents. He allowed himself to be lifted from his wheelchair so he could sit in a regular pew, a custom he had always preferred.

He was very pale and this was emphasized by the white floral decorations around the church, the soft light, and his gray suit. He sang, responded to the readings and prayers, and bowing his head, as did the others who were stricken with polio, did when the able bodied in the audience knelt. For the first time, some of his long time Warm Springs friends, noticed a constant tremor in his hands. He dropped his prayer book once and his glasses another. Not normal for Roosevelt, not once during the services, did he smile.

Nevertheless, he kept going and the following days were busy ones. President Roosevelt kept in constant communication over war matters with government leaders in Washington, as well as with Great Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and with the Marshal of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin. He held press conferences and was even visited by the President of the Philippines and the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau.

Old friends came and told him about a real, old time Southern style barbecue, complete with singing by an old-fashioned Gospel group, that was going to be held on April 12th. He enthusiastically replied, “Count me in. I’ll go.”

On Monday. April 9th, longtime friend, Mrs. Lucy Rutherford, arrived for a visit. She brought famous artist, Elizabeth Shoumatoff, with her to do a water color portrait of the President. By then Roosevelt was a much different man from the one who had been very weak a couple of days before. Once again, Warm Springs was producing its magical effect.

The weather was now ideal and this brought about a decided improvement in Roosevelt’s appearance and his sense of well-being. He was now starting to eat with his usual hearty appetite. Cook, Daisy Bonner, made his favorite dishes and he was soon asking for seconds. He was well rested, in good spirits, and his afternoon drives in his convertible under the hot, Georgia sun, brought color back to his cheeks. The magic of his second home was obviously working.

Roosevelt slept late on April 12, 1945, and though he complained to Dr. Bruenn that he woke up with a headache, he looked well to his doctor. He worked at his card table in his living room, while the artist sketched him. His cousins were always nearby. Mrs. Rutherford sat quietly in front of him. They planned a light lunch since they were all were going to the barbecue. Suddenly, Roosevelt put his hand to his forehead and said, “I have a terrific headache”.

Mrs. Rutherford noticed that he looked strange and exclaimed, “Franklin, are you alright?” Before the words had left her mouth, Roosevelt had slumped over, unconscious in his wheelchair, his eyes open in the hollow stare of a man who has just had a stroke. A secret service man carried him the few steps to his bedroom.

Dr. Bruenn was called to the house and was there within fifteen minutes. He was the first of the President’s doctors to arrive. He checked Roosevelt’s blood pressure and found it was extremely high. Immediately, the physician suspected a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

Another doctor, James Paulin, an internist from Atlanta, was also called. In Paulin’s medical report that was filed later, he stated: “The President was near death when I reached him. He was in a cold sweat, ashy gray and breathing with difficulty. He was propped up in bed. His pupils were dilated and his hands slightly cyanosed. Commander Bruenn had already started artificial respiration. On examination his pulse was barely perceptible.”

Dr. Bruenn ministered to Roosevelt for two hours. Then, at 3:35 pm, both Doctors Bruenn and Paulin listened with a stethoscope, trying feverishly to pick up a heart sound. They backed away from the bed and nodded to each other. “This man is dead,” declared Dr. Bruenn as he closed the President’s eyelids. Therefore, on April 12th at 3:35 pm, on a narrow, single bed, in a simple paneled room, 12 feet wide by 14 feet long, the President of the United States, passed away.

The unfinished portrait remains where it was, as it was, frozen in time, when one of America’s great leaders passed into history.

Mrs. Roosevelt flew down from Washington DC to bring her husband’s body back there on April 13th, 1945. People from all over gathered in front of Georgia Hall to watch the funeral procession that was taking the President’s body to the train station. Military bands played and battle dressed troops from Fort Benning followed. The casket was covered with the flag that was taken down from the flag pole at the Little White House. At 10:13 am, Georgia time, the train carrying Roosevelt’s corpse left Warm Spring as hundreds of residents and onlookers, cried. Many people in Warm Springs believed Roosevelt had decided to retire to his second home. Others believed his declining health would at least make him a permanent winter resident there. No one thought of him dying.

After the ceremonies in Washington DC, President Roosevelt’s body was transported to his family home in Hyde Park, New York, where he was laid to rest. He had asked that the stone over his grave be of white Georgia marble containing the inscription, Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-…. No date of death was to be given. His wishes were carried out.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt left behind a legacy that has yet to be duplicated. Despite his position as President, he enjoyed the company of his Southern neighbors the most. Since every place has its legends and lore that are passed on from generation to generation, here is one that is a part of Warm Springs history. A story of Roosevelt and his encounter with a local farmer.

When the pressures of World War II got so great that they even caused the walls of the Little White House at Warm Springs to squeeze in around him, President Roosevelt got in his hand controlled, 1938 Ford convertible and drove out into the quiet country side. One of his favorite places was Dowdell’s Knob, a rocky 1,395-foot spur on the Pine Mountain ridge. Here there were panoramic views of the rolling Pine Mountain Valley that were like none that Roosevelt had ever seen.

According to a local story, he was enjoying the view one morning when an old farmer wandered up the rough road and marveled at finding the President and his Ford setting there. The farmer whipped the dirt from his hands on his overalls and shook Roosevelt’s hand who then invited him to visit the Little White House. Roosevelt made his last visit to Dowdell’s Knob on April 10, 1945. Two days later, he passed while sitting for his portrait at the Little White House.

Roosevelt probably didn’t have a favorite friend in Warm Springs, he liked everyone. However, if he had to choose, it would most likely be Mary Lord, nicknamed “Sissy”, a patient at his rehab center. It was in 1934, that J. Cooper Lord, an old classmate of Roosevelt’s, wrote him telling the President about his ten-year-old daughter and how she had contracted polio.

Sissy had been very ill and in an iron lung when her father first wrote Roosevelt. The President replied to Lord’s letter by saying, “Ordinarily we have found it best not to take children so afflicted”.

However, Roosevelt then saw to it that Mary got into the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center. The Lords built a cottage at Warm Springs that they called, Pine Needles. Now their daughter would be close to the rehab center as well as her family.

During Mary’s stay at the Warm Springs Rehab Center, she spent a lot of time in a special orthopedic frame, and she kept improving. The waters of Warm Springs were working their magic on her.

Sissy and the President exchanged messages frequently. She wrote this to him after his spring visit in 1938, “It is so sad to see you go, but we’ll be seeing you again in November, and perhaps, by then, I will be able to dance a jig for you!”

A large part of his legacy has to do with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis that he started at Warm Springs. On January 3, 1938, Roosevelt started the March of Dimes fundraiser to coincide with his birthday, on January 30th.

After Roosevelt’s death, a large trust was set up for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and Georgia’s Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center, by Roosevelt. Now there was more money than ever to support the effort to end the scourge of polio. Even though the endowment was good news, when the annual dinner for the Foundation and Rehab Center was held that spring, it was a sad affair because of the empty chair at the head of the table where Roosevelt always sat. When the patients and staff all said their silent prayers, that chair was in their minds.

In 1955, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis announced that the field trial of the Salk Polio vaccine that was developed by the Foundation’s sponsored research had proved that the disease could be prevented. The announcement came on April 12th, the anniversary of Roosevelt’s passing. This was a God send. Those of us who were children in the 1950s, remember the routine of being vaccinated and what a scourge polio was for children and young adults.

Initially, the Foundation and the Rebab Center focused on the rehabilitation of polio victims and the support for the work of Dr. Jonas Salk on polio vaccines. Today, the Center in Warm Springs is a place for treatment for post-polio victims and provides vocational rehabilitation, and therapy for amputees and recovery from spinal cord injuries, brain damage and stroke.

Today, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Museum at Warm Springs is a place that Georgia can be proud of. Dedicated in 2004, it emphasizes Roosevelt’s life at Warm Springs and its impact on Georgia, the South and the Depression ravaged rural America.