|This Week in American History
November 2127, 1939
A Warm Springs Thanksgiving
On November 23, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt gave an informal speech to the polio patients and staff gathered in Georgia Hall at the Warm Springs Foundation. He had first celebrated Thanksgiving at Warm Springs in 1925, and in 1928, he carved the turkey for the gala celebration which he dubbed "Founders Day." This double feast commemorated the first major addition to the old Warm Springs resort. Roosevelt's newly established Georgia Warms Springs Foundation had succeeded in building a glass-enclosed pool so that the polio patients could continue their water therapy during the cold months.
When Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York, and then four years later, President of the United States, many of his old acquaintances in Georgia felt they had to treat him more formally, but at Warm Springs the polio patients just called him "Doctor Rosey." He had come there, as they had, to find a cure, and he had ended up teaching himself all about the disease and developing a therapy regimen which was adopted by the professional medical staff which he assembled. To the patients, Roosevelt was a shining example of what they might accomplish to overcome polio's limitations. But there was no awe involved; they treated him as they treated each otherwith consideration but large doses of humor.
Every Thanksgiving Day, also known as Founders Day, was a joyous occasion. The patients and staff sat at a very long table in long and narrow Georgia Hall, the wheelchairs drawn up so that the waiters could pass behind. When Roosevelt became President, reporters and Secret Service men were added to the diners. After the turkey was duly carved and eaten, and the pumpkin pie had been served, Roosevelt gave an informal speech, filled with jokes and reminiscences about the early days of Warm Springs. Then, the patients performed plays and skits, most of them with mischievous and humorous overtones. The celebrants also engaged in singing their favorite songs, and Roosevelt talked with everyone at the door as they left Georgia Hall. The day often ended with a water football game in the pool, with the patients playing the staff.
When Roosevelt came to Thanksgiving dinner in 1932, he had just been elected President, and he received his first 21-gun salutea string of 21 giant firecrackers were set off by the Foundation's auditor. When he came in 1934, he told the celebrants that the Warm Springs center was to be a pioneer, an example for the rest of the country to follow in treating polio. "You must always remember," he said, "that you who are here ... only represent a tiny fraction of the people throughout the land ... who have infantile paralysis.... Even if we were to double in size or quadruple in size, we could treat only a small fraction in this country of the people who need treatment.
"We need to do everything we can," said the President, "to spread the knowledge we are gaining at Warm Springs ... so that, throughout the country, the facilities for taking care of grown-ups and children who have polio can be vastly improved."
When President Roosevelt came for Thanksgiving in 1939, war had officially broken out in Europe, and it was reflected in his speech. But he began with humorous reminiscences about the early days at Warm Springs. "You know," he said, "sometimes I think these parties have been going on all my life, and yet it is only just 15 years ago that I came down here, all alone, to have a perfectly good holiday and try out a thing called 'the public pool.'... And then, as time went on, our Thanksgiving dinners got to be something. I remember the first Thanksgiving Day dinner in 1925. It was in the old Inn, the old fire-trap which was about 200 feet from where we are now.... We were perfectly thrilled because we had, including all the people who worked on the place and the one doctor and the one physiotherapist, 50 people at that dinner.
"Then, as time went on, the problem of the old Inn and its dining hall got to be serious becauseI don't know when it wasaround 1928 or 1929, we had 200 people at our Thanksgiving dinner and we got awfully worried because there were some ominous creaks in the middle of the dinner after the turkey had been eatennot creaks from the people but creaks from the foundation of the building. It was a great question as to whether the timbers of the old Inn would stand the surfeit of food. That was one reason why we built Georgia Hall, because we were not quite sure if we got bigger and better Thanksgiving Day dinners that the old Inn would stand up....
"When I left here at the end of April or the beginning of MayI have forgotten when it wasI said to the people down at the train that I would be back this fall if we did not have a war. Well, we had a war; we have a war today. Of course there were columns written about just what I meant. I meant just what I said. We have a war, but I managed somehow to get down here this fall. I hope that next spring there won't be any war, but if the war should be still going on, I still hope to be able to get down here, even if it is for a very much shortened holiday, even for a few days, just to see how the Warm Springs family is getting on.
"You know, I am in favor of war. I am very much in favor of the kind of war that we are conducting here at Warm Springs, the kind of war that, aided and abetted by what we have been doing at Warm Springs now for 14 or 15 years, is spreading all over the countrythe war against the crippling of men and women and, especially, of children. It is a comparatively new fight. Even the older people here will be perhaps surprised a little when I tell them that 50 years ago, when some of us who are here tonight were alive, there was practically nothing being done in all of the United States to help crippled people to use their arms and legs again.
"What did they do? Well, they were pushed off to the side; they were just unfortunate people. It was just what they used to call 'an act of God;' and there were a lot of very good religious people, people who belonged to churches, people who lived Christian lives, all over the United States who, when somebody in the family got infantile paralysis or something else in those days, would say that it was an act of God and they would do nothing more about it. The child or the grownup would be regarded as an unfortunate victim of something about which no human being could do anything. He was segregated; he was put up in the attic. It was one of the things you didn't talk about in the family or among the neighbors. And when was that? Half a century ago! And what a change there has been in those 50 years.
"In other words, I think our attitude toward religion, toward helping our neighbors has changed. We believe that there are certain forms of human endeavor that may be called, very properly, warwar against things that we understand about, things that can be improved, ameliorated, bettered in every way because of human endeavor.
"I do not have to tell all of you the tremendous strides that have been made in medicine and, incidentally, in the attitude of people in almost every community in this country toward certain types of human affliction. But it seems to me also that here at Warm Springs we have discovered something that has not yet been recognized as a fact all over the United States, and that is the fact of human relationships and their relation to science and medicine.
"Way back there, 14 or 15 years ago, when some of the first people came down here because of a Sunday newspaper story and nothing else, there came into being a thing called 'the Spirit of Warm Springs.' Well, of course everybody likes to think in local terms, but gradually, over those years, that thing that we here call 'the Spirit of Warm Springs' has, I think, developed into a major factor in medical science itself, something that is recognized by a great many doctors, but not by all....
"Down here at Warm Springs in the last few years, principally of course because of the tremendous national support that we have had, we have built up a mechanically perfect place. This new Infirmary, with all that modern science can possibly give, is all to the goodand yet I do hope to see Warm Springs go on in the position to give the spirit of Warm Springs, the human associations, the general feeling that we are all part of a family, that we are having a pretty good time out of it all, getting well not only in our legs and arms but also helping our minds in relationship to the minds of everybody around us, the other patients, the staff, the friends, and the families, all of whom make up Warm Springs...."
"It has been a good dinner. I have a flock of telegrams in my hand from members of the Cabinet, from members of the Senate, from members of the House of Representatives, from Governors of many statesthe Governor of the state of Georgia in particular. Here is one from a girl who, I think, used to be here in the old days:
"'Here's to our national birds, the eagle and the turkey, May the one give us peace in all our states and the other a piece for all our plates.'
"Now I understand that we are going to have one of those old-fashioned Warm Springs plays and then some songs from our Tuskegee friends."