The candlestick telephone was a relic even then. The black upright device with a round mouthpiece and a hook to one side with its bell-shaped receiver sat on the desk of the telegraph editor, George Dodge, in the city room of the Chicago Daily News that Thursday afternoon, April 1945.
It was quiet. Almost 5 o’clock and my quitting time. But I was still sitting at the city desk, a copygirl for four months, long enough to move over into that spot when the city desk secretary left for the day and take phone calls from beat men around the city checking out.
I saw George Dodge reach for the telephone, a direct line from the Associated Press (AP), positioned at the far edge of his desk, used to alert editors to big news they might not catch in the regular stream of printed copy coming in on the Teletype machines in the tube room. He listened, pushed the phone back and away, and said, softly, “Roosevelt is dead.”
A momentary, complete, end-of-the-world silence was broken by the sound of his swivel chair hitting the glass panels in the bookcase behind him as it shot back when he jumped up and raced to the tube room.
The assistant city editor to my left said, “Clear the decks for action.”
City Editor Clem Lane, who had gone down the hall with the last deadline long passed, came back into the city room as if shot out of a cannon, followed by the Director of the Daily News Foreign Service, Hal O’Flaherty. To this day I wonder how they heard, but they had. And Managing Editor Everett Norlander, whose office had a glass wall overlooking the city room, came through the door. They gathered around George Dodge at the copy desk.
It was a horseshoe shaped desk with the chief copy editor in the slot and some eight or ten copy editors facing him. While editors read over the articles under their umbrella, all stories went to the copy desk to be marked up for the linotype operators who would set them in type: paragraphs, inserts, consistency of style — avenue was always av. in the Daily News — and write the headlines. They were then sent down to the composing room in a round container the copy editor placed in the pneumatic tube.
Clem Lane called to me to get the clips on Truman.
Ah yes. The vice president, for not quite three months.
I ran down the hall to the library — the morgue of the old days (clips of dead stories) — and they’d heard. They had overflowing white envelopes of clips of President Franklin D. Roosevelt spread out and, I can still see it, one small envelope of clips on Vice President Harry S. Truman. I grabbed it and ran back to the city room, where Clem Lane was standing near reporter Bob Lewin at Lewin’s desk, fortuitously just across the aisle from the copy desk.
Bob, who usually covered Labor, was to do the story on the new president.
Because this was an EXTRA or Special Edition, it was squeezed into the limited remaining time to publish, prompting Bob to do what are called “short takes.”
Rather than writing the story and going on to the next page, Bob wrote two or three paragraphs, then pulled the copy out of the roller of his typewriter. Reporters used “books” of five pages of copy paper with four pages of carbon paper (for copies before Xerox copying). He pulled out the carbons and handed the top sheet to Lane, who turned to read it at the copy desk. Then Lewin rolled in a fresh book.
To further shorten the time, I pulled out the copy after the next three paragraphs, drew out the carbons, ripped off the top sheet and handed it to Clem Lane, placing a copy at Bob’s left for reference, careful not to disturb the newspaper clips he had fanned out there.
Looking back, it was a bit like those scenes in movies where folks hand the pails of water off to the next person to fight a fire. We handled the story in short takes that got to the next editorial station in record time, and then on down to the composing room.
“Okay. That’s it,” Mr. Lane said, wrapping it up as we ran out of time.
Lewin slumped back in his chair in relief. And I headed back to the city desk, where Charlie Cleveland, a rewriteman and future political star, was writing a piece on the reaction he’d been able to get from the stream of suburban commuters in the Daily News Building concourse headed for the adjoining Northwestern train station. I took his story to Mr. Lane and then on to the copy desk, and it made it into the special edition.
When it was too late for any more stories to be published that day, the city room settled into a routine that was almost normal, but with the undertow of this stunning event, the breaking wave of the news that the 32nd president of the United States was dead.
To understand how big that was, you have to understand how big Roosevelt was. He took the oath of office March 20, 1933, as the full impact of the Great Depression was registering on the nation, his inaugural address containing the oft-quoted phrase: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
But there was a lot of fear.
Certainly, enough to go around.
I once heard the former president of the University of North Carolina system recall his youth in one of the mill towns in North Carolina near Charlotte. I forget whether it had four mills and three banks or four banks and three mills. It didn’t matter. They woke up one morning, he said, to find the banks were closed and the mills had shut down. No jobs. And no money. With the banks closed, you couldn’t even withdraw your own money.
Newspaper photos and documentaries show the long line of unemployed men stretching down the length of buildings to get a hot meal at soup kitchens.
I remember men occasionally coming to our kitchen door to ask humbly, hopefully, if any work needed to be done, something they could do. I was a child, and the devastation of the Great Depression didn’t fully sink in, as I had enough to eat and went to school every day as usual, but I did see unemployed men on street corners in Detroit when we went there occasionally. They often had red apples or tin cups with pencils for sale.
Then came Pearl Harbor.
When I think of Roosevelt in a historical sense I think of the Great Colossus of Rhodes, the towering bronze figure at the harbor of Rhodes — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Some images of the giant figure show him with one foot on one side of the harbor, the second on the other. Roosevelt, in my analogy, had one foot in the Great Depression, the other in World War II.
And to shape the post-war world, he met with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. He showed his age then and did not look well.
But no one foresaw him dying of a cerebral hemorrhage that Thursday, April 12, 1945, while in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he went often because he was a victim of polio and the springs helped him.
Before I left about 8:00 p.m., Mr. Lane asked me to take copies of the statements that had come from local and state leaders down the hall to the office of Lloyd Lewis, the chief editorial writer. When I reached the doorway, he was sitting in the dark, looking out at the city, the sparks from the electric streetcar below little red stars in the night.
He sensed my presence and turned, musing aloud: “I wonder what the world will be like without him.”
“I don’t know, sir.”
He looked at me again, 19, in my pleated plaid skirt and loafers, fresh off the Northwestern University campus, and nodded. “Of course.” He told me to put the statements on his desk.
The other thing I remember from that night is the editors gathered around the news desks, absorbing the news — which they were good at: that was their business — when someone wondered what kind of president Harry Truman would be. Hal O’Flaherty said, “If there’s anything to the American system, the man will rise to the office.
I think of that occasionally when I read reviews of books by presidential historians or hear a group of historians on TV talking about presidents and their place in history, unanimously putting Truman in the top tier.
But he was an unknown that night, a small white envelope of clippings next to the array of envelopes, large and small, on Roosevelt.
What President Roosevelt meant to Americans was captured in an account by David Brinkley, then a young reporter in the nation’s capital, of the funeral train bringing the president’s body back to Washington from Warm Springs:
Up through the South the train rolled at twenty-five miles an hour. The family asked that it be moved slowly because all along the way, throughout the afternoon and throughout the night, people lined the tracks to see it pass. In darkness, the Connaught [the private car carrying the body] was softly lit, the shades raised, and people outside could see the American flag atop the coffin, the honor guard in dress uniforms and, occasionally, Mrs. Roosevelt sitting there. The people stood along the tracks beside tobacco and corn and peanut fields, in the cities and towns. Even at 3 a.m. they were out there. They held their children up to see. They cried. They knelt. They sang hymns. No one could count the people lining the track through town and country from Warm Springs to Washington. Some guessed two million.
Silent homage from the people whose lives he had touched. The realization, in the words I heard George Dodge say as he pushed the black candlestick telephone away that Thursday afternoon: “Roosevelt is dead.”
For another perspective on this day, read “The Day F.D.R. Died,” from the April 16, 1955, issue of the Post. The story is a remembrance by one of President Roosevelt’s secretaries, 10 years after his death.
Featured image: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s casket is removed to the Caisson at Union Station for his funeral procession. Washington, D.C. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now