Today’s guest post is from Sherri DeCoursey, who used the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library to find a special piece of history for her father.
For as long as I can remember, a photo of FDR and a letter have hung side-by-side in the den of Mom and Dad’s home. The yellowed letter, written by FDR’s secretary Missy LeHand, was in response to a letter my father wrote the President in 1941. My dad—Forest Delano Roosevelt Ferguson—was eight years old in 1941. Dad will be 80 in June of this year.
As familiar as that letter and the President’s photograph were to me, what I had never even pondered until last year was what my father wrote in his letter to FDR.
While visiting my parents in the fall of 2012, I looked at the framed letter and photograph and asked Dad what he included in his letter to the President. He couldn’t recall the details. Who could after 72 years? I continued to ponder what my father as a boy might have written.
What would an eight-year-old Forest Delano Roosevelt Ferguson write to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Perhaps about school? The farm? Family or friends? War? What it was like to grow up in Arkansas? Would any parts of Dad’s personality that I knew so well as an adult be emerging or evident when he was child? What did his handwriting look like?
Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, to have a glimpse of my father at such a young age—however small that glimpse was—if only to expand what I already knew about him as a father, business professional, family provider, veteran, jokester, and as we’ve grown older—a friend. What in the world would eight-year-old Forest Delano Roosevelt Ferguson have to say to the man running the country during such perilous times?
Seventy-two years after my father penned his letter, I discovered the answer to these questions in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
With Dad unable to recollect exactly what he wrote to the President, the mystery rooted in me and started sprouting. What if I could find that letter after all these years? During an Internet search, a website for the FDR Library and Museum appeared. “The perfect starting point,” I celebrated. “They have archives! I wonder if . . . oh, probably not. But maybe. Worth a try.”
I sent an email to the archival contact listed on the web site and waited. Within a week and a half, my inbox had a message waiting for me. I opened “Response From FDR Library Inquiry” and read the first paragraph.
Thank you for your recent message to the FDR Library regarding your father’s 1941 letter to President Roosevelt. I am happy to say that we located his letter, along with an enclosed photograph, and the carbon file copy of Missy LeHand’s reply. . . . This correspondence is a wonderful example of the affectionate mail FDR received from children, and the letter dates to the time of Roosevelt’s unprecedented third inauguration.
I cried as I opened the first attachment that Kirsten, the digital archivist, found and sent. Immediately, my father’s original letter appeared on screen. His eight-year-old penmanship was, without doubt, the same penmanship I recognized from countless birthday cards and letters my father has written me over 46 years. Always block print, never any cursive.
The second attachment contained a black-and-white photo of my father that he sent the President. He looked like he belonged in a “Little Rascals” episode as he stood between two yucca plants and grinned, his head tilted down. He had forgotten that he included a photo of himself for FDR.
I thought of waiting until Christmas to surprise Dad with his letter and photograph, but couldn’t wait. Instead I made an impromptu trip to Memphis to “visit.” On the first night as we chatted in the den, I asked Dad if I could take a photo of his framed LeHand letter and FDR photograph for a friend back home who was teaching civics and was going to be covering Roosevelt. “She’d love to be able to show the kids a copy of this to encourage them to communicate with their legislators,” I fibbed.
“Want me to take it off the wall for you?” Dad said, already on his feet and moving toward the frame. He removed the framed items from the wall and sat down again on the couch with the frame against his chest, LeHand’s letter and FDR’s calm gaze facing me.
“That’s perfect, Daddy,” I said and pulled out a camera from my bag and began to take photos of him with his treasured correspondence. I put down the camera.
“Ok, Daddy, I need you to pass the frame to Mom now and let her hold it,” I said. “And now, I want you to take a look at these and tell me what you think.” I handed him two sheets of paper, print facing down. “What do you think of this?” I picked up the camera again.
Dad turned the sheets over, immediately recognizing the top one as his letter to the President dated March 3, 1941. Silence. One hand moved to his mouth. Silence. Dad at a loss for words. The child who was spanked in first grade for talking too much, now speechless.
“It’s my letter,” he finally said, as I pulled out an additional copy for Mom to see. “How in the world.” A pause while he reread the letter. “That’s my writing,” Dad said softly.
Mom agreed. “That’s definitely your writing,” she said. “Look at how the writing slants down to the right. Even today, when you write anything it always slants down toward the bottom right-hand side of the page.”
“There’s more,” I said, and Dad looked at the second sheet, the photograph of himself at eight years old. He was flabbergasted that the FDR Library had retained his correspondence after all these years. A week later when he called the library to thank Kirsten, she shared that Missy LeHand was known for her respect of Presidential communications and her understanding that those communications should be kept for posterity.
Dad’s letter and photograph sparked memories for him. He recalled writing the letter on the stone fireplace hearth inside his family’s small farmhouse on Blockade Hill. He chuckled at the reference to Miss Don, his elder sister and the teacher who gave him that first grade spanking for talking too much. When Dad shared the letter recently with 92-year-old Aunt Don, she said she didn’t remember spanking him, but Dad assured her that indeed she had. “The spanker may forget, but never the spankee,” he said.
We laughed about him signing his name as F.D.R. Ferguson and not sharing that his first name was actually Forest, not Franklin, and how it only made sense that LeHand’s response was addressed to Franklin. He looked at the photo of himself and noticed that far in the background there was an outbuilding, the old cow barn. Dad didn’t recall the photo being taken, but Aunt Don shared that she had taken it with the Kodak camera she purchased with her teacher’s salary. That same camera is now an heirloom in the possession of Don’s daughter.
A little boy’s letter and photograph from 1941. My love and admiration for my father today. My curiosity about who my father was as a child. All of these reconnect and reverberate in 2013 because of the FDR Library’s understanding that correspondence and photographs and all types of personal expressions have validity and significance—contributing not just to national history or a president’s legacy, but also to celebrating the personal histories of United States citizens.
Dad continues to marvel to this day that a letter from a “little country boy eight years old” was not only retained, but also found and returned to him so many years later. In appreciation of the FDR Library and as a 2012 Christmas gift to my parents, I made a donation to the library—celebrating the spirit of Christmases past in a way. One good deed always deserves another, and I hope others reading this story consider supporting the good work of this deserving organization.
Recently a Facebook friend shared a post about a daughter’s school assignment which required her to list the top three things she would do if she could travel backward in time. The child included in her list, “Meet my parents when they were my age.”
And that made me smile because, in a way, I did.