Perhaps it’s ironic that a blue-blooded aristocrat from New York became a great hero for rural residents. But that’s what happened with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Millie Opitz is one of those who remembers FDR with reverence. After all, “he got us out of what we were in, that deep Depression.”

Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in 1882 in Hyde Park, NY. He was a relative of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was educated first at home with tutors and then at the exclusive Groton School in Massachusetts. He was an average student at Harvard University and served as editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper his senior year. Then he attended Columbia Law School, but dropped out when he was admitted to the New York bar in 1907. For three years he worked for a Wall Street law firm in the financial district.

He was tall, athletic and outgoing. In 1905, while he was in law school, he married a distant cousin Eleanor Roosevelt. Her uncle, President Teddy Roosevelt gave the bride away. Politics was in Franklin’s and Eleanor’s blood.

In 1910, he won a seat in the New York state legislature from Dutchess County, NY. After he supported Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1912, FDR was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy. He did a good job, and was nominated for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1920. The Democrats lost badly to Warren G. Harding that year, but FDR now had become a nationally recognized figure.

Throughout his rise in politics, FDR was perceived as an aloof man. He rarely smiled and was not particularly charming.

All that changed in 1921. His family was vacationing in Canada when FDR came down with polio. Polio is a virus that attacks the nervous system, most often in children, leaving them paralyzed. FDR lost the use of his legs. He endured a long and painful recovery process that included a lot of swimming exercises in rural Warm Springs, Georgia. There, he got to know the farmers of the rural South and the kids who were also struggling with polio. Eventually, he was able to appear to walk by hanging on to his son’s arm and dragging his legs forward. Don McGinley was a 12-year-old boy interested in politics when he saw FDR “walk” to a podium to speak to a crowd in McCook, Nebraska. (McGinley went on to become a county attorney, U.S. Representative and Nebraska’s Lt. Governor in the Kerrey administration.) The press corps covering the president also saw the president’s struggles to walk. But throughout the rest of FDR’s life, the press did not comment on his paralysis.

One of Roosevelt’s advisors was Frances Perkins, a social worker who was later appointed Secretary of Labor – the first woman cabinet member. Perkins believed that polio changed FDR’s character.

“Roosevelt underwent a spiritual transformation during the years of his illness. I noticed when he came back that the years of pain and suffering had purged the slightly arrogant attitude he had displayed on occasion before he was stricken. The man emerged completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy. Having been to the depths of trouble, he understood the problems of people in trouble.”

The experience of living in a rural part of the country and fighting polio made him open up and be sympathetic to the struggles of rural America during the Depression. Advisors also told him that solving the problems of agriculture were key to bringing the country out of the Depression. So, many of the New Deal’s key programs were designed specifically to help agriculture, and FDR spoke eloquently about the plight of farmers.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that many rural residents loved the blue-blooded Roosevelt.

Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.

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