Obsession with FDR now a spring tradition

Delmas Wood's portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt includes leg braces and a '36 Ford.

April 25, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

SANDY SPRING -- The time has come once more for Delmas P. Wood Jr., retired insurance man, to rise to greatness.

Time to strap on the iron leg braces, don the gray suit and fedora, step to the microphone and call upon Congress to declare war on Japan. Or glide past cheering crowds in the blue 1936 Ford Phaeton convertible, exuding the confidence that might yet lift a despairing nation.

It is spring, after all, when Wood returns from Florida to get back on the circuit of parades and historic commemorations in the persona of his political hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died 60 years ago this month.

"I've literally become obsessed with Franklin Roosevelt," Wood tells audiences in his hourlong talk on the life of the 32nd president of the United States. His brother used to wonder whether Wood had lost his identity.

Proprietor of a Roosevelt memorabilia collection known as the FDR Living Museum, Wood happens to stand the same height as Roosevelt (6 feet, 2 inches). He also wears the same size hat (7 3/4 ) and nearly the same size shoes (Wood a 13, FDR a 12 1/2 ) -- points of similarity Wood seems happy to let folks know. Roosevelt worked in the insurance business, Wood likes to say, but eventually went onto other pursuits, such as saving the world from fascism.

Wood, now 73 years old, stayed in insurance in this Montgomery County town. Sandy Spring is where he grew up, where his first youthful attempt at public speaking was such an embarrassment that it appears to have marked his life from that day forward.

Speech got it started

The 13-year-old boy who stumbled through a temperance speech before 200 people in a Howard County church evolved into a young man who won public speaking awards and then a soft-spoken insurance man known to speak to community groups about local history and to conduct antiques auctions. In 1985, he was invited to appear before the International Platform Association's annual convention in Washington and speak for no longer than six minutes.

He wanted to deliver a famous speech, but which one could be done in six minutes?

Before this, Wood said, he had no particular interest in FDR. In the course of researching a presentation, however, he found a good fit in the "date which will live in infamy" speech delivered after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Roosevelt asked a joint session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, to declare war on Japan.

An obsession was born. Wood felt compelled to know not only the FDR speech but also the man, reading dozens of books on Roosevelt and interviewing a few people who knew him.

"He really saved our country," said Wood. "I feel we would not have the United States as a nation as it is today if it hadn't been for Franklin Roosevelt."

Wood was standing in the little barn next to his house that he has turned into the FDR Living Museum, a collection that Wood opens to the public by appointment.

Visitors find not only photographs, newspaper clippings and documents, but a life-size mannequin of Roosevelt seated, cigarette holder in hand, before a microphone next to a mock-up hearth, delivering one of his trademark "fireside chats."

By the fireplace is a dog bed with a stuffed toy version of Fala, FDR's beloved black Scottish terrier. Displayed on an easel next to Fala is a copy of the unfinished watercolor portrait of FDR that was being painted the afternoon Roosevelt suffered the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him at Warm Springs, Ga., on April 12, 1945.

Wood visited Warm Springs and saw the chair from which Roosevelt, at age 63, last glimpsed the world. He has been to Hyde Park, N.Y., where FDR was born, and to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami to see the Pullman car Ferdinand Magellan, outfitted specifically for Roosevelt.

As if that were not enough, Wood hung from the museum ceiling an oval of train track, where a model of the Ferdinand Magellan is pulled by a locomotive to a mock-up of the Warm Springs train station. Next to the station is a little black hearse, all to approximate the somber scene when Roosevelt's body began its trip back to Washington.

The "living" part of the exhibition would be Wood himself. This is not to say that Wood is likely to win a Franklin D. Roosevelt look-alike contest, but he studied the voice and mannerisms of the charismatic chief executive.

`New York accent'

"I really tried to get a little New York accent" said Wood, although Roosevelt's diction was flavored more by the Groton School and Harvard than the Bronx. Wood conveys much of that patrician inflection, along with the oratorical cadences that mark the political speechifying of a bygone age.

"He really didn't speak with a natural voice" in public address, said Wood. "He spoke with a lot of volume to try to fire up the troops. ... His speech was probably closer to an evangelist, a preacher."

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