The call came 71 years ago early on the evening of April 12, 1945. My father answered the telephone in the hallway of our West End Avenue apartment.
"President Roosevelt?" he asked the caller incredulously. The conversation with his business client was brief. He hung up, turned to my sister, my mother and me and said with a matter-of-fact tone, "President Roosevelt died."
Although only a 10-year-old, I took the news hard. After all, FDR was our only president during my entire life. "God hates America!" I screamed, running to my room. Dad followed me with reassurance. "No he doesn't," he responded. "You'll see - we'll win the war."
Of course, I knew he was right. That one was easy. The Russians were pushing into Germany from the east. Allied forces were advancing rapidly from the south and west. Less than four weeks later, it would all be over in Europe. Adolf Hitler, the German dictator who had crowed about the president's death, ended his own life in his Berlin bunker, taking his "thousand year Reich" with him after just a dozen years.
America's grief over the loss of its commander-in-chief hovered over us. Although he had been recently observed as a man who looked ill, the degree of his failing health had been kept secret, so the news was unexpected.
Roosevelt was at his Warm Springs, Georgia "Little White House" that April for rest. Grace Tully, the president's secretary for seventeen years, accompanied him on the trip. In her book F.D.R. My Boss, excerpts of which have been cited by EyeWitness to History.com, an award-winning educational website, she described going to his cottage on the 12th after being told he was sick. She observed his being attended by two doctors after collapsing while having his portrait painted. Within minutes he was pronounced dead.
She recounted the president's wife Eleanor's arrival from Washington the next day. "... She was completely calm when she arrived ... 'You know,' I said, 'how deeply sorry I am for you and the children.' She patted me lightly on the shoulder. 'Tully, dear, I am so very sorry for all of you.'"
Tully described the scene of the funeral cortege taking the President's body from his Warm Springs cottage to the railroad station for the last time. "As the cortege drew into the drive and halted, the sad strains of an accordion played 'Going Home.' It was Graham Jackson ... who had played many times for FDR and the hundreds of others there. Bareheaded and with tears running down both sides of his face, he stood in front of the group and paid his last homage. And as the cars started again slowly, driving around the semicircular drive and on toward the station, Jackson swung into one of the President's favorite hymns, 'Nearer, My God, To Thee'." [A link to the image may be found here.]
The country's reaction was later summarized by famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, who reported on his trailblazing "I Can Hear it Now" record album, "If you were one of those who loved FDR, and there were many, or if you were one of those who hated him, and there were many, that flash from Warm Springs was as personal as a body blow, or a wire from the War Department. Without warning, the central figure had slipped out of a twelve-year era, and you were stunned by the sudden cleavage of time."
Just over five months earlier Franklin Roosevelt had been reelected to an unprecedented fourth term, so he never got to see the allied victory against either Germany or Japan. He was widely considered a casualty of World War II. When his successor President Harry Truman addressed Congress on May 8 to proclaim V-E Day, I shared his opening sentiment: "I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day."
The spring and summer of 1945 was a very unique period in the nation's history. Wrapping up the worldwide conflagration in August, we transitioned to a period of remarkable postwar growth and the early years of cold war under President Truman and an era of consolidation under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it was Roosevelt who had led the country out of the Great Depression and its isolationist leanings after the First World War into a new era of commitment to international leadership. That commitment cries out for renewed dedication in our 21st century politics.
Franklin Roosevelt's sculptured portrait belongs with those of the four other presidential giants on Mount Rushmore.
[A variation of this article appeared in the Tahoe Daily Tribune in April 2015.]