I remember that day well: the 12th of April 1945. The day Roosevelt died.
I was 11 years old and FDR had been president since before I was born. My father came home early from work. He had been sitting high in the cab of his truck waiting for the red light to change when he heard someone on the street shouting: “The President is dead. The President is dead.”
He immediately headed back to the garage, left the truck, and walked home in a hurry. Like so many Americans, he sat late into the evening, close to the console radio in our living room, listening for news about the president’s death. It was the only time I had seen tears in his eyes, and it was years later before I understood.
My father had left school in the fourth grade to pick cotton. His family needed his labor. After they married, he and my mother spent a year as itinerant field hands in West Texas, then returned to Oklahoma as tenant farmers, until they were driven from the land when the bank foreclosed on its owner during the Great Depression.
It was never apparent that FDR’s New Deal materially made a difference in my father’s life, but this I know, and I know it for certain: he believed President Roosevelt was on his side, fighting for common people like him. This man with a fourth-grade education and calloused hands and fingers with nubs from an accident at the cotton gin – he thought “that fella in the White House” – born in New York’s lush Hudson Valley, the son of landed gentry, Harvard educated, with pince-nez glasses and a long, slender cigarette holder aloft above his jutting jaw – he knew “that fella in the White House” was his friend and champion.
They, of course, never met. But on that Thursday afternoon in April, my father wept.
On his show “Moyers & Company,” Bill Moyers speaks with historian Harvey J. Kaye, author of the new book, “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great,” about how FDR’s Four Freedoms speech was a rallying cry to build the kind of progressive society that Roosevelt hoped for but did not live to see at war’s end. Get more details on the “Moyers & Company” website.