Descendants of Roosevelt hold reunion

by W. Winston Skinner


Martin Harmon, a Coweta County resident and longtime RWSIR staffer, organizes members of the Roosevelt family for their group photograph in the quadrangle at Georgia Hall.

About 160 descendants of two American presidents - Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - got together in Warm Springs last week, many of them meeting for the first time.

The descendants included grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Pres. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, great-grandchildren of Pres. Teddy Roosevelt - and the start of a new generation with an infant.

'This was not what we think of as a typical family reunion,' said Buffy Mitchell, conference center director at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. 'Instead of everyone saying, 'Hi! Nice to see you again,' we are hearing family members say, 'Hi! Nice to meet you.'' The reunion, held on Nov. 2, marked 'the first time Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt's descendants have held a joint reunion,' according to Holly Winner, director of development for RWSIR.

In conjunction with the reunion, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns came to Warm Springs and showed clips from his seven-night documentary, 'The Roosevelts,' which will debut next year.

Tickets to the film were available to the public, and several Cowetans were in the audience. The premiere benefited the Roosevelt Warm Springs Development Fund.

Among the Roosevelt descendants attending the event was young Grace Hannah Roosevelt Dworkin. 'I thought it was pretty good actually,' she said after the film in the auditorium in Georgia Hall.

Dworkin, a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., had clearly enjoyed the visit to Warm Springs. During the film and a picture-taking session that followed, she clutched a stuffed version of Fala, the black Scottish terrier beloved by FDR. Fala Days were celebrated recently at several locations in Warm Springs, sponsored by the Scottish Terrier Club of Greater Atlanta and the city.

Burns spoke during the theater program as did Ken Dobbs, chairman of the institute's board, and Bill Bulloch, RWSIR executive director.

'I am so happy to be here - to feel so close to the Roosevelts,' Burns said. 'This project has been maturing in my mind and heart for more than 30 years.'

He said he ran across a list of proposed future projects from 1981-1982. On the list, he has written 'FDR' and then 'TR, too?'

He began making connections with Roosevelt scholars. More than 20,000 images were gathered - with 2,500 making it into the finished film. Burns emphasized 'The Roosevelts' is a project created by many, and he introduced the creative team to those at the premiere.

'The Roosevelts' will air on the Public Broadcasting System for seven nights - two hours each night - starting Sept. 14.

Burns received Emmy Awards for 'Baseball' and 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea.' He received Academy Award nominations for 'Brooklyn Bridge' and 'The Statue of Liberty.'

Dobbs expressed appreciation for the various branches of the Roosevelt family deciding to hold their reunion in the Meriwether County town. He also talked about 'the legacy that was started by Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt' at Warm Springs.

'You may hear today about the spirit of Warm Springs. You may even feel the spirit of Warm Springs,' Dobbs said.

Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation was founded in 1927 by FDR as a rehabilitation center for polio patients. The facility now offers vocational services, long-term acute care and inpatient rehabilitation hospital services.

The central focus of the film centered on the brokenness of Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and how their overcoming their own hurt enabled them to help others. Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly youngster suffering from asthma, who grew to be a fearless man.

Eleanor Roosevelt's beautiful mother was critical of her plain daughter. Her adoring father was an often absent alcoholic. The favorite niece of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor was orphaned as a girl. Shy and studious, she married her gregarious cousin, Franklin.

FDR contracted polio at 39. Although he never was able to walk unaided again, he resumed his political career and was elected president four times. His widow went on to represent the United States in the United Nations and to provide the central push for the Declaration of Human Rights.

Even after his death, Theodore Roosevelt and his ideals continue to have an impact on the lives of Eleanor and Franklin.

A young woman from the Roosevelt family fainted during the screening, temporarily bringing the program to a halt. Medical personnel rushed to the auditorium and she was resting in the theater's lobby as the screening resumed.

A reception was held following the film's debut. In the hallway en route from the theater to the main lobby of Georgia Hall, Burns stopped to chat with Marion Dunn, who had worked as a push boy at the institute in FDR's day and who was interviewed for the documentary. 'Because Warm Springs played a pivotal role in FDR's rehabilitation from polio and is an important part of our country's history, the Roosevelt family felt the institute would be a great place to host a reunion and view the film,' Bulloch said.

Roosevelt descendants had the opportunity to feast with each other over a catered dinner and wine from a family member's vineyard during a Q&A with Burns following the documentary summary and reception.

Burns said it was a joy for him and 'The Roosevelts' team to be 'commingling our DNA - at least for a few minutes - with the Roosevelt family.' He also said, 'The experience today has been so warm-hearted.'

'The Roosevelt Family has continually been involved and supportive of the mission at RWSIR and requested the documentary premiere be used as a fundraiser to benefit the development fund,' Winner said. 'The event was a success with over 300 tickets sold. The support raised will benefit the specialized programs on campus.'

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