A presidential visit, part one

On Thursday, November 5th, the Grand Island Historical Society met at Historic Trinity (Trinity United Methodist Church’s old building, formerly used for church services until the newer and larger structure was built. Historic Trinity is used for a variety of special events now). Planned was a very special event: actor Albert McFadyen was to portray President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a one-man show. 

Approximately 150 persons came to see the performance. The room that the program was held in was full. Extra chairs were added. In addition, people went to sit in the choir loft. I think that everyone at the Historical Society was pleased to see such a good turnout.

Grand Island Historical Society President Forever Curt Nestark introduces President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Here comes the president, riding in a wheelchair that, in his time, the public would not have seen. He did not want to be photographed in his wheelchair. Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921, when he was 39 years old. Apparently, the majority of people who contracted polio were babies and small children. It was unusual for an adult of FDR’s age to contract the condition. The disease left him disabled. With the support and encouragement of his wife, Eleanor, FDR continued his political career and was elected president in 1932. He was the first person with a significant physical disability to be elected president of the United States.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the story of the United States from 1933 to 1945. He told the story with words and with song. It was a fascinating glimpse into life during a difficult period of history: the Great Depression and World War II. It was living history and, because it was told and sung, it was oral history.

The song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” portrayed the despair that was widespread during the early days of the depression, when people had lost their life savings and had become destitute, hungry, and even homeless. 

“…Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

“Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime.
Once I built a tower to the sun,
Brother, can you spare a dime…”

Life was difficult. My mother told me that she remembered her family being evicted from apartments in New York City. She was cold and hungry. One time, there was just one onion left in the kitchen to feed a family of four.

The dust bowl in Oklahoma caused many to have to leave their homes and travel west to California, where they were not always welcomed. Millions were unemployed. Many were homeless and hungry, living in Hoovervilles (outdoors with virtually no protection from inclement weather. They felt despair, anger, and hopelessness. “It was not a pretty picture,” President Roosevelt said.

President Roosevelt offered Americans a new deal and new hope. When he was inaugurated on a cold day in 1933, he said, “This great nation will endure, survive, and prosper. The only thing that we have to fear is fear itself.” He spoke of the host of unemployed citizens who faced a grim prospect of existence. He said that our problems are not unsolvable. The nation can put people to work.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration tried to ease the severe problems caused by the Great Depression. They started programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the National Recovery Act. Many people got work during that time, including writers, artists, and actors. There was a public Works of Art program. It lasted for only six months but it produced an amazing collection of artwork by numerous artists. They painted city scenes, country scenes, portraits, and much more. They showed what life was like at a moment in history through their paintings. Unfortunately, that project was never repeated.

The American people were also entertained by movies that took them away from their “daily cares and despair to a magical place.” In 1939, Hollywood produced movies at a “fabulous rate.” There were movies, such as “How Green is My Valley,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Gunga Din,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” among many others. President Roosevelt, at this point, led a spirited chorus of “mairsy doats and doasy doats and little lambsy divey” because there is nothing like singing a whole lot of nonsense to make a person completely happy.

Tomorrow: President Roosevelt and World War II

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