TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
NORTHBRIDGE As an historical figure, Franklin Delano Roosevelt
may suffer from the same diminution of recognition a close family
|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
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
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 Roosevelts 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.
Lincolns 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
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 FDRs 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.
Plauds 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
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.
Roosevelts era was a time of hand-written
notes. There were no Dictaphones, no personal computers with emails.
FDRs 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 Whos 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 Americas 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
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
She explained to her grandson how to vote.
You go in there (the voting booth) and
you look for the Ds 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
Plaud even thought his grandmother liked to imagine
Roosevelt was still president during the Nixon years, so she
wouldnt have to deal with it.
Shed 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The center's Web address is http://www.fdrheritage.org/