By Thomas Mattson

NORTHBRIDGE — As an historical figure, Franklin Delano Roosevelt may suffer from the same diminution of recognition a close family member does.

Dr. Joseph J. Plaud at his desk in his house in Northbridge, with a bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the foreground.
Tom Mattson photo

Psychologists say it is often difficult to picture the face of a mother, a father, a wife or a husband. Recognition of facial detail depends, oddly enough, on a broad-brush stroke of near familiarity on the one hand or of distant appraisal on the other.

To say that people took FDR for granted is not quite true. But to say that in the 58 years since his death he has become an icon more static than dynamic may be a semblance of the harsh truth.

And Joseph Plaud, a 38 year-old forensic psychologist who lives at 44 Hickory Lane and has roots in Shrewsbury and Worcester, is trying to see that Roosevelt’s place in history among general citizens and students is as vivid as it is to professional historians who rate him among the greatest three presidents in American history.

The other two are Lincoln and Washington, and in various polls each takes over the top spot.

But just as Washington over a long period was regarded as a plaster figure, almost an unapproachable demigod, so Lincoln, too, seemed lost during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, as Reconstruction and the ‘Robber Barons’ stamped the next half-century.

Lincoln’s revival came first, until now even Southern scholars like David Herbert Donald write books that assess Lincoln as perhaps the greatest American figure of the 19th century.

In the past decades, Washington has emerged from the lock of an irrelevant perfection to the status of a man who lived in a particular time and place and achieved monumental things by the sheer magnanimity of his character.

During the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt was like a father, just as Lincoln was known as ‘Father Abraham.’ Lincoln had dimensions of anguish and vision that perhaps transcended the scope of FDR’s experience and imagination, but no American ever presided over two such earth-shaking eras as the Depression and World War II. And Roosevelt held the office of the presidency almost as long as Washington and Lincoln did together.

The impact of Roosevelt on the American historical scene, and on the world, was of such a magnitude that it was like the air everyone breathes. It has been hard to assess because everywhere you go to examine it, it is a part of the perspective as well as of the data.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to bring somebody important to the attention of a new public. Critic Malcolm Cowley did that for William Faulkner. Literary agent Max Perkins did it for Thomas Wolfe.

And while Plaud is not the only person dedicated to the memory of FDR, he is one of the most significant. Granted, the scale of FDR is monumental compared to that of even major literary figures, but the same opacity that visits the reputations of artists can find a parallel in the world of politics and statesmanship.

Plaud’s contribution is based on passion, and the specific content of that passion includes a collection on Roosevelt said to be the largest private collection of Roosevelt memorabilia anywhere.

“Most of it is locked in safes,” he explained. That is why it does not stand out in his house, where he keeps a number of Roosevelt artifacts, like the Panama hat FDR wore at the Teheran conference, or scrolls of maybe 100 signatures on a list supporting Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Roosevelt’s era was a time of hand-written notes. There were no Dictaphones, no personal computers with emails.

FDR’s strong handwriting graces many pieces Plaud owns. He goes down the list of Roosevelt supporters, all signatures, with a cue stick, pausing to explain connections of one or another person. The list is a ‘Who’s Who’ of American politics in the first half of the 20th century.

Or with a small green bird perched on his shoulder, Plaud leans forward at his desk to tell the story of a gold-leaf-painted bust of Roosevelt. Or he turns and faces you Larry-King-style, suspenders and all, fixing his attention with an intensity befitting Orson Welles. He tells you about the 1944 Democratic convention at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, and how Roosevelt tried to get his vice-president Henry Wallace renamed on the ticket, but how later the pressure built for Harry Truman, who at first refused, then later accepted the role when Roosevelt asked him over the phone whether he wanted to threaten the national security in the middle of a war.

For Plaud, the best approach to the question of who is America’s greatest president is to select them by century. Thus, Washington was the greatest 18th century president (the only other 18th-century president was John Adams), Lincoln in the 19th century, and FDR in the 20th. But probably no president in the 19th century up to Lincoln, with the possible exception of Jefferson, could be considered on the same plane as our first chief of state.

Although Plaud is too young by several decades to have met Roosevelt, his maternal grandmother, the late Carmella (Corvina) Perry of Worcester and later of Shrewsbury, who was born in 1917 and died a decade ago, was a fierce Roosevelt loyalist and inspired her grandson with a fascination for FDR and his era that has taken root in the rare collection.

“To her,” Plaud said with a warm smile of memory, “FDR was an idol. She just loved his fireside chats. He was a wonderful leader for our country during a very difficult time.”

She explained to her grandson how to vote.

“You go in there (the voting booth) and you look for the ‘D’s’ and you vote,” she said.

When Plaud asked his grandmother whether she had ever voted for a Republican, she confessed to having cast a ballot for Eisenhower once.

Asked why Americans do not pay more attention to history, Plaud said the prevailing feeling is that “history is just one damn thing after another.”

It is all those facts and dates that put people off, he theorized.

But the interest of history, he said, is in how people lived in a different era and how they were a part of the forces that shaped civilization.

He noted he himself grew up during the Cold War, an historical force that shaped his era.

In addition to crediting his grandmother for opening up history to him, Plaud praised two of his professors at Clark, the late Tamara Hareven, who wrote “Amoskeag,” a study of life and work in the 19th century factory city of Lowell, and Ronald Formisano, whose main interest is populist movements.

“My grandmother communicated to me just what a magnificent leader he (FDR) was in the Depression and the war,” Plaud reiterated. “How people were afraid.”

Then, during the Depression, Roosevelt tried to calm people with his famous speech about having “nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Plaud explained that his grandmother was also more comfortable with the customs she grew up with than with the modern world.

Plaud even thought his grandmother liked to imagine Roosevelt was still president during the Nixon years, “so she wouldn’t have to deal with it.”

“She’d tell stories about Roosevelt as if she knew him personally,” Plaud said of his grandmother.

Because FDR came to Worcester several times, on Nov. 5, 1944, drawing a crowd of 3,500 at Union Station, Plaud hopes to establish a museum about Roosevelt and his era on the second floor of Union Station. He believes it could become a mecca for scholars, students and many citizens who want to learn more about one of the great figures of 20th century America.

Tom Mattson is a Tribune staff writer. He can be reached at (508) 234-2107, or by e-mail at

The center's Web address is

We welcome your comments and suggestions, please contact us.
Copyright © 2007 - Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center, Inc. All rights reserved.
Site designed by Campaign Advisory Corp.