The Deaths of Our Presidents
During my lifetime—so far—nine American presidents have died. Herbert Hoover, who was born in West Branch, Iowa, was the first of those nine. He was 90 when he died in 1964. Besides Mr. Hoover, three other former presidents on my list made it to their nineties: Ronald Reagan (93), Gerald Ford (93), and George H. W. Bush (94). Harry Truman almost made it (88), but Dwight Eisenhower (78), Lyndon Johnson (64), and Richard Nixon (81) weren’t close. (Jimmy Carter, who will turn 98 in October, has broken all the presidential longevity records. His retirement spans 41 years, and he’s lived longer than any other American president. His wife, Rosalynn, is also still with us.)
Like many of you, I’m old enough to remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. He was just 46 years old. It was a Friday, and Mom was feeling poorly that day, so Dad picked up Peter and Nancy and me at Pickwick Elementary and took us to Ray’s Café on Church Street for lunch. (Peter, a third grader, remembers having bean soup. I can’t tell you what I had.) On our way back to school, we heard about the shooting on the car radio. We spent the afternoon in our homerooms (I had Mrs. Augspurger), watching everything unfold on the black and white television in the corner of the room. When I walked in the house later that afternoon, Mom was sitting on the steps to the upper level of our split-level house. She was crying. I thought that was odd because I knew my parents were Republicans, and I also knew the president was a Democrat. “Why is Mom crying?” I wondered to myself. Such silliness from the mind of an 11-year-old girl.
On Sunday morning, my dad was watching t.v. when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police department. (Did we skip church that day? Maybe we attended the early service.) Our t.v. was in the basement family room, and Dad came running up the steps to tell us. The president’s funeral was the next day, and we all stayed home to watch. It was a very sad time for America—for the world, really.
So, even though it was before my time, I can understand the mood of the country when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Different time, different situation entirely, but both Kennedy’s and Roosevelt’s deaths were sudden and unexpected. Both men had their detractors (they were politicians, after all), but both were beloved by a significant number of Americans.
President Roosevelt was at his Little White House retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, sitting for a portrait, when he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. (The artist was Elizabeth Shoumatoff, a Russian-American painter.) He was only 63 years old. He’d been president for over thirteen years when he died, the only president known by a generation of Americans. His tenure spanned most of America’s involvement in World War II, so the whole world knew him, too.
His body was transferred by train from Georgia to Washington, DC. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the train route to pay their respects. After the funeral at the White House on April 14th, his final journey continued to Hyde Park, New York, where he was buried in the rose garden at his Springwood Estate. Today you can visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum on the grounds of the estate.
I write about President Roosevelt’s death in My Mother’s Friend. It’s the afternoon of April 12, 1945, and Pastor Frank Swensson (father of my protagonist, Phee) is in his office at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Algona. The phone rings. It’s his friend Ed Mattson, the American chaplain at Camp Algona, calling to tell Frank about the president.
This afternoon at two thirty-five Iowa time, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. Some people heard about it on the radio, others got phone calls from family or friends. Secretaries interrupted meetings, nurses interrupted surgeries, and farmers’ wives ran out to barns to give their husbands the bad news.
It didn’t take long for the news to reach the pastor’s office at St. Pete’s. Frank had been there most of the day, working on Sunday’s sermon. Just after three thirty, the phone rang, and Frank casually lifted the receiver. “St. Peter’s, Frank Swensson speaking.”
“Frank, it’s Ed Mattson.”
“Howdy-do, Ed. How’s it going?”
Ed took a moment, then said, “Are you sitting down?”
Frank quickly sat up straight. “Oh God, what is it?”
“We’ve just heard. President Roosevelt is dead.”
Frank leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “When? Where?”
“We don’t know too much yet. It happened about an hour ago. He’s in Warm Springs, that’s in Georgia. Been down there a couple of weeks.”
“Heart attack?” Frank asked.
“No, they’re saying a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Apparently, he went pretty fast.”
“Well, shit. I mean, we all knew he wasn’t a healthy man, but still . . .”
“I know. It’s hard to believe.”
“So, will you have a service out there?”
“Yes, and that’s one reason I’m calling. I know it’s short notice, but I’m hoping Phee might be available to play tonight, unless you need her there.”
“I won’t need her if Edith can play. Tell ya what. Let me call Edith. Phee should be home from school in about half an hour. Soon as I know what’s going on, I’ll call you right back.”
“Sounds good. Thanks, Frank.”
Edith had just heard about the president and was expecting Frank’s call. She could play tonight, and they’d meet in Frank’s office at seven fifteen to go over the service.
Frank shut his sermon notebook and prepared to walk home, but instead of turning right towards the back door, he turned left and strolled down the hall to the sanctuary. He took a seat in the front pew, bowed his head, and prayed for the president’s family and the American people. He also prayed for Vice President Harry Truman who, if he hadn’t already, would soon take the presidential oath of office. Frank figured Mr. Truman, the man whom almost no one knew, would need prayers more than just about anybody.
Before he left the sanctuary, Frank walked over to the piano. He couldn’t play, really, but he could plunk out a few familiar hymn tunes when he put his mind to it. “Nearer, My God, To Thee” was on his mind now because he remembered hearing a while back it was one of the president’s favorite hymns. He’d include it in the service tonight.
And yes, Phee does play (piano) for the memorial service at the camp.
In the 1970s, Joe and I worked as ushers at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. It was quite a thrill for this Iowa gal. For almost five years, we saw and heard the best orchestras in the world (and many other performances)—for free! The Center had opened in 1971, just three years before our first night working in the Concert Hall when recently inaugurated President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty were seated in the presidential box. What an initiation! I almost got knocked over by a throng of press photographers vying for a chance to snap the pictures that would be featured on the front pages of their newspapers the next day. Eventually, I would have a few opportunities to escort famous people (e.g., Henry and Nancy Kissinger and Senator Ted Kennedy and his son, Ted Jr.) to their seats. Those were the days!
(This bronze bust of JFK by Robert Berks stands in the center of the Kennedy Center Grand Foyer across from the Opera House entrance. Mounted on an eight foot marble pedestal, it stands seven feet tall and weighs 3,000 pounds.)
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.