Visit to a President


When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, others thought: What will happen with the war? How capable is Harry Truman? When will it all end? My thought was that now we would never get to meet the president.

My husband was a physician serving with the 157th General Hospital Unit in England. Just weeks before Arthur left the country we had been invited to the White House. Arthur, a talented artist, had painted on china a portrait of Mr. Roosevelt's cherished Scottie Fala, and mailed it to him. In response we received an invitation to go to Washington on a given date.

That day we were ushered into the press room where we waited alone until Grace Tully, the president's secretary, walked in. Her warm greeting and handshake relaxed us, but the relaxation melted into disappointment when she told us that security restrictions had prevented her from notifying us earlier that Mr. Roosevelt was meeting that Saturday morning at Camp David with Winston Churchill. It had not been announced that the prime minister was in our country. She asked us to come back, "two weeks from today." We hastily said we would.

But my husband's medical unit went "on alert" and he was unable to leave Valley Forge. Shortly afterward, he left for Liverpool, where he was when the president died.

Three months after Arthur returned to America, Mrs. Roosevelt came to Baltimore to address a veterans' dinner. We bought tickets. A wild snowstorm convulsed that November day. Traffic was halted, public transportation was crippled.

Mrs. Roosevelt listened with patience and understanding and said, 'I wish there were something I could do to make it up to you.' I was shocked to hear my husband say, 'There is.'

But Mrs. Roosevelt had not canceled her appearance, so we braved the storm and went to the Southern Hotel to meet her. Of an expected 300 people, fewer than 50 came. She was coming from Boston; her pilot had advised against traveling, but she said "If we make it to New York, we shall go on to Baltimore."

When we met her, Arthur told her of his disappointment at missing his chance to meet the president. She listened with patience and understanding and said, "I wish there were something I could do to make it up to you."

I was shocked to hear him say, "There is. My wife and I will be in New York at Christmas time, and we plan to visit the Hyde Park Library," the only place open on the estate at that time. "I would like to visit the president's grave." She asked that we let her know and promised to arrange it. She even said she would meet us if she were at Val Kil cottage, her private retreat on the family estate.

We went home that night so warmed by her warmth that we hardly noticed the icy chill that swept up Light Street.

When we arrived in New York at Christmas a telegram awaited us that read: "Use this wire for admission; the guard at the grave-site near the kitchen door will be expecting you." She had previously sent a hand-written note on her personal stationery enclosing a pass to visit the grounds.

We spent a great deal of time in all the rooms and on the snow-covered veranda. We opened the hall-closet door and with a painful rush of memory saw the famous black cape, cane and hat. We studied the family pictures on the grand piano and the magazines on the bench at the foot of the president's bed. We sat in his chair at the head of the dining-room table.

This was not the same as visiting Monticello or Mount Vernon. It was a place of our time, a piece of history of which we were a part. In those days TV cameras did not cross the lines of White House privacy and inject themselves into family intimacies. I have not been to Hyde Park since it became a museum.

Sylvia Bliss Mandy writes from Baltimore.

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