Once former American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio, his wife, Eleanor, became his “eyes and ears,” especially during his presidency.
Or so the story goes. In fact, calling Eleanor FDR’s eyes and ears is a gross understatement. Eleanor proved her tenacity, spunk, and compassion before FDR contracted polio, throughout his presidency, and continued to after his death.
She worked a great deal with her husband, but she pioneered more causes on her own. Locally and globally, Eleanor fought her entire life to create a better world where all humans have rights.
Her tremendous legacy lives on a mere25 miles away from Pawling. Val-Kill, the stone cottage she called home after FDR’s death, located in nearby Hyde Park, is now a National Historic Site. It is notably the only National Historic Site dedicated to a first lady.
Thursday through Monday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Val-Kill is open for visitors eager to glimpse a little bit of what Eleanor’s life was like, learn more about her lasting impact, and explore the beautiful surrounding grounds.
It is also home to the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Center, a non-profit organization working to provide programs that are inspired by Eleanor’s values and example. One such program, Girls’ Leadership Worldwide, is a yearly summer program for young female leaders who desire to make a difference in their own lives, their communities, and the world.
In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt served as chairwoman of the United Nations committee to create The Declaration of Human Rights, in which it is declared “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” She considered her work on the Declaration her proudest accomplishment.
And Eleanor was truly devoted to all members of the human family. For example, during the Great Depression, she answered over 300,000 letters from concerned American citizens. During World War II, she opposed Executive Order 9066, which placed Japanese-Americans in Internment Camps. She was also a champion of the civil rights movement, so vocal a supporter that the Klu Klux Klan placed a bounty of $25,000 on her head.
She traveled far and wide to interact with peoples of all different colors, classes, and creeds, yet she also worked a great deal in her modest house in Hyde Park, sitting at a desk adorned with a misspelled nametag – Elanor Roosevelt – given to her by a young admirer.
This nametag is merely one of many anecdotes about the cottage that show Eleanor’s compassion and stance on equality. When the king and queen of England came to America, she and FDR invited them to dine on hot dogs by the pool at Val-kill (rumor has it the King enjoyed them more than the Queen). She notably did not only invite the Queen to sit by the pool, though. Her house was always full of people – not only diplomats and politicians, but also family and neighbors of many backgrounds. And she never called people who worked for her “the help”; her servants were truly considered friends.
The physical space of the cottage is also telling. The walls are not adorned with lavish artwork, but an assortment of framed pictures, and the furniture is a hodgepodge of patterns and shapes.
In fact, it was on two of the mismatched chairs in 1960 in the corner of Eleanor’s library at Val-kill that she and John F. Kennedy talked for hours until she finally agreed to endorse his candidacy for the presidency, with the promise that he would take a firmer stance on civil rights. He subsequently appeared at a Harlem civil rights conference.
Eleanor said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
At Val-kill, Eleanor enacted these ideals, and her legacy lives on within its walls.