Saturday, October 16, 2004
When FDR came to town
"Cameras clicked" and "typewriters chattered" when the president visited the Roanoke Valley on Oct. 19, 1934.
Bands played. The national media were here. People lined Roanoke streets for miles, clapping and waving little American flags and yelling "Hail to the chief."
It was Oct. 19, a red-letter day in the history of the Roanoke Valley. The president was here.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 52. He had a dazzling smile, smoked Camel cigarettes in a cigarette holder and was bringing a New Deal to an America mired in the Great Depression.
In time, Roosevelt would become a polarizing figure in American politics, with his support for social programs and expanding the federal government - though he also would be elected president three more times. But in Roanoke, 70 years ago this Tuesday, the presidential honeymoon was definitely still on.
"It was a helluva big deal," recalled Melville "Buster" Carico, retired political reporter for The Roanoke Times, who graduated from Roanoke's Jefferson High School the year of Roosevelt's visit. "He was a hero for everybody. You've got to remember the time."
Roosevelt had come to dedicate the 445-acre regional veterans hospital complex outside Salem. He had likely been invited by Congressman Clifton Woodrum, a Democrat who had pushed to have the hospital brought here.
Woodrum and Virginia Gov. George Peery had the honor of riding with the president in his car. Clifton "Chip" Woodrum III, the congressman's grandson, said that his grandfather stopped the motorcade at one point on Memorial Avenue so the president could meet the congressman's mother.
The Roanoke Times and The Roanoke World-News covered the presidential visit like a blanket, writing many stories.
None of them, Salemites reportedly complained afterward, gave Salem its proper due. Roosevelt, after all, had spent as much time there as in Roanoke - maybe more.
"It wouldn't have taken any of the glory away from Roanoke City" to acknowledge it, a Salem editorial writer groused, "and it would have shown a kind, friendly spirit toward a neighbor."
It was 1934.
The year that Benny Goodman organized one of America's first swing bands. That cartoonist Al Capp created "Li'l Abner.''
Gangsters John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde all died in shootouts with the law. Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem and Joan Didion were born.
In Washington, a new president was remaking government to minister to a land in crisis. The stock market had crashed in 1929. Pensions had turned to ashes, and a quarter of the work force was unemployed.
In his inaugural address in March 1933, Roosevelt had reassured America, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Eighteen months later, he was in the Roanoke Valley.
It was the first time that a president had come here on official business, The Roanoke Times reported, and everyone was curious. There was no television in those days. The black-and-white photographs in the newspapers were grainy and small. People knew Roosevelt's voice from radio, but little about his life or looks.
Neither the photographs nor the primitive newsreels of the time, for example, had revealed the fact that the new president could not walk. Roosevelt, stricken by polio at age 39, could stand with braces and help, but he never regained the use of his legs. Roanoke, like the rest of the country, did not know.
If you are of a certain age in Roanoke (or Salem), odds are you remember when the president came to town. The crowd began that day at the Norfolk and Western Railway passenger station in downtown Roanoke, where the president arrived on a special train and was transferred to the presidential Packard.
The motorcade wound its way through Roanoke and Salem and then to the hospital site - where some 40,000 people waited to hear the president speak.
Hundreds of police and National Guardsmen kept order among the throngs along the way, saluting as the president passed.
Al Holland Sr., now 87, was a student at Lucy Addison High School and working his afternoon job at a Campbell Avenue dress shop when the president went by. Holland, like everybody else who worked downtown, went outside to see.
"The whole street was out there watching. He was waving at everybody. He had a very pleasant smile. Sure, I waved at him," he said.
Josephine Minnix, then a student at Jefferson High School, recalled that students were dismissed from class early and told to assemble on the lawn.
"They told us to go stand out front," said Minnix - and then the president came by. "It was an open car. And he had that big smile. I thought it was great."
Bands played along the way - one played "Anchors Aweigh," reputed to be the president's favorite song. People waved tiny American flags, which someone must have handed out by the boxload.
"Isn't he fine looking?" people sighed, according to newspaper accounts the next day. "Isn't he handsome?"
Near the new hospital, the crowd swelled. Dorothy Gillespie, a Roanoke native who has spent most of her adult life as an artist in New York City, was 13 at the time. Her family took her to the hospital to hear the president speak.
"I was so excited that I can't remember any of it," said Gillespie, who can recall going there and coming back, but nothing in between.
John Fishwick, then a 17-year-old Roanoke College student, was near the road as the president pulled in.
"I remember seeing him drive up," said Fishwick, later chief executive officer of N&W. "I remember I was right there. I don't remember seeing him with a cigarette holder, but he did have a cloak on. I don't think I ever saw him again.
"Seems like a long time ago."
At the new hospital, people had been gathering since daylight. More bands played. A Wythe County drum and bugle corps with high-stepping drum majors was much noticed. Some schools and businesses had closed, and people had come on bad roads from as far away as West Virginia.
When the president arrived, the 116th infantry band struck up "Hail to the Chief," then an artillery detachment from Richmond gave a 21-gun salute. Before the speaker's platform, 79 Virginia Military Institute cadets stood guard.
"Cameras clicked," read a newspaper account, "typewriters chattered and newsreel men craned their necks and turned the crank, while the throng was a sea of faces upturned to the 'chief.'"
The president had a speech prepared, but didn't hesitate to ad lib. Government's first responsibility, he said, was to "the disabled, the sick, the destitute and the starving."
"The speed of a fleet is the speed of its slowest ship," he said, loudspeakers carrying his voice to the edges of the crowd. "The speed of an army is the speed of the slowest unit in that army." He called the hospital "a bold denial" to those who charged that America did not take care of its vets.
When he spoke of the "glorious hills, this lovely country of Virginia," he was interrupted by applause.
Afterward, there was another 21-gun salute as the presidential motorcade left for Salem - where the president boarded a special train for Williamsburg, never to return.
The first official presidential visit, with all its pomp, receded into history and local lore. In later decades, other presidents would come and go. Lyndon Johnson greeted well-wishers at the airport here in 1964, en route to Lexington. Richard Nixon spoke in Salem in 1969; Jimmy Carter spoke in Roanoke in 1977. Roughly 100 people waited at the Roanoke Regional Airport for a glimpse of George Bush when he landed here on his way to the D-Day Memorial dedication in 2001.
Others may come, too; but in these days of media overload, our response may seem subdued compared to 1934.
"Let's face it," said Buster Carico. "Familiarity breeds a little contempt."
Information for this story came from "FDR: An Intimate History" (Doubleday), "Salem: A Virginia Chronicle" (Salem Historical Society) and "FDR's Splendid Deception" (Dodd, Mead). News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report.