By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Birthdays are always a good time to take stock and look back. On this, the 134th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s birth, it is important to remember what made him so special. He was born at Springwood, the family home in Hyde Park. It was a difficult birth on a cold winter’s day. The doctor advised his mother Sara not to have any more children because it might prove fatal.
Growing up, surrounded by the great beauty of the Hudson River Valley, adored by his mother, provided with every luxury and opportunity, it would have been easy for Franklin Roosevelt to glide through life as a pampered member of the New York elite. But he did not choose that path. There was something inside him that drove him to go beyond traditional expectations. To find a way to do something important. To do the right thing.
As a boy he fervently collected birds, books and stamps. He absorbed facts and details and converted them into knowledge and wisdom. He explored the vast acres around his home and developed a great love of the land.
He learned from his stewardship of this riverfront property and as president applied those lessons to the vast expanses of America’s heartland that lay in dusty ruins, the victim of poor farming techniques and mismanagement. During his administration more than 2 billion trees were planted to stop erosion and end the dust bowl. Planting trees wasn’t just a good thing, it was the right thing. Recovery and rehabilitation were powerful themes in FDR’s life. He believed in a better future.
During his recovery from polio FDR traveled to a small polio rehabilitation clinic in rural Warm Springs, Georgia. There he was exposed to a way of life so radically different from his life at Springwood that it changed his understanding of the world.
While the natural hot springs provided a comforting retreat where he could share his handicap with other polio victims, the surrounding area gave glimpse to a colder world. The crushing poverty of the rural South, the muddy red clay roads, the lack of proper schools, the absence of electricity and running water: these things opened his eyes to the plight of the less fortunate.
And he observed the needs and wants of his Southern neighbors and converted them into policies and programs that helped America recover from the depression. Why? Because it was the right thing to do.
During the last 20 years of his life he used his birthday as an opportunity to help raise funds to find a cure for polio. He created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and launched the Birthday Balls, a remarkably successful fundraising program. On January 30, 1934 there were more than 600 celebrations across the country that raised more than a million dollars for polio research. His own Birthday Ball that year featured a Roman theme, and photographs of his inner circle dressed in togas capture his playful, confident spirit. His efforts eventually led to the March of Dimes. In 1945 it raised $18.9 million.
Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership was almost always based on his absolute conviction that if you did the right thing when it mattered, you would, in the end, prevail. The funds raised by the March of Dimes did eventually help cure polio.
On January 30, 1945, his last birthday, Franklin Roosevelt was on the heavy cruiser the USS QUINCY, off the coast of Morocco, heading for the Crimea.
He braved the Atlantic in the depths of winter to attend a Big Three Conference in Yalta with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. He was a very sick man at this point, and he knew it. He should never have embarked on such a dangerous and arduous adventure. But he believed the only way he could ensure the success of his greatest legacy, the United Nations, was through his personal lobbying of Joseph Stalin. He truly believed it was the right thing to do.
On board the QUINCY, in a brief birthday ceremony, Edward F. Laukagalis, Machinist’s Mate first class, presented President Roosevelt with a handsome brass ash tray as a gift from the entire crew. Laukagalis made the ash tray from a piece of a 5″ shell that had been fired by the QUINCY during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Cake was served but it was a subdued celebration.
It is fitting the Roosevelt spent his last birthday aboard a Naval vessel. He loved the sea, and collected models of ships of all kinds. Particularly US Navy ships. After the Yalta Conference he returned to the United States aboard the QUINCY, arriving at Norfolk, Virginia on February 27th. He died, in Warm Springs, Georgia, seven weeks later.
He wanted to be buried at his home in Hyde Park. He left detailed instructions. Springwood was his home, his heart. It shaped him, nourished him, and provided a sanctuary in times of stress. He knew that people would come to his grave to remember him, and he wanted them to come to his home. Every year on his birthday the FDR Library and the National Park Service hold a wreath laying ceremony to honor his memory. So it is a fitting time to look back and take stock. If there is one lesson we can take from his remarkable life, it is that we must always strive to do the right thing, no matter how hard it might be.