When President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on April 12, 1945, the country reeled at the news. Word reached Seattle just before 3 pm that early spring Thursday, when network radio interrupted programming with a terse bulletin reporting the Commander in Chief’s death at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia.
FDR had been president since 1933, and had only months earlier been elected to a fourth term in office. From the depths of the Great Depression to the verge of total victory in World War II, FDR had been the skilled Democratic communicator. He was the “Radio President” of the-only-thing-we-have-to-fear-is-fear-itself, Fireside Chats, and the date-which-will-live-in-infamy. He was also the father of radical New Deal programs and initiatives that truly reinvented government. And of course, he was the smiling, energetic, cigarette-holder-using, co-prosecutor along with Winston Churchill of the Allied campaign against the Axis.
Many teenagers had never known another president, and even many adults had no recollection of the earlier GOP times of Hoover, Coolidge, and Harding. Hardly anyone knew he’d been paralyzed below the waist by polio since 1921, or that his health was so perilous when elected to a fourth term.
The news of FDR’s death spread quickly among Seattle’s civilian population and thousands of defense workers and members of the military. Newspaper reports from the time describe a downtown movie audience stunned when a film was stopped and a hastily prepared slide was projected on the screen instead. Boeing workers paused when an announcement was made over the PA system.
Seattle telephone switchboards saw a 300 percent spike in activity as callers tried to confirm the rumor or share the news, but the city generally remained calm. One reporter said that newspaper extras were selling “like hotcakes” on the streets of Seattle, but wrote, “For the most part, the news was received in silence. The tragedy was a little too momentous for the city to grasp all at once.”
Flags (then of the 48-star variety) were almost immediately lowered to half-staff at government buildings around the city, and Gov. Mon C. Wallgren ordered they remain that way for 30 days. Late Thursday and early Friday, impromptu tributes were organized by teachers and students, including at Mountain View School in Highline, and prayer services were offered at nearly every place of worship.
While the streets of downtown were noticeably empty Thursday night, the 23rd annual Boy Scout Circus at the UW carried on, but began with a moment of silence for the more than 10,000 scouts and scout leaders gathered in what’s now Hec Ed Pavilion. “Music and frolic were present,” a reporter wrote, “but there remained the shadow of the sorrow that had come with the news from Warm Springs.”
Though VE Day would come less than a month later, World War II still raged in Europe and the Pacific war was many months from its conclusion. Prior to FDR’s death, defense plant managers in Seattle and around the US had been making contingency plans to allow workers to celebrate VE Day when it came, but to do so briefly so as to not seriously interrupt war production.
It seems that these plans were quickly adapted to mourning for the president, as workers at Boeing, Todd Shipyards, and other local plants halted production on Saturday, April 14 at 1 pm, the exact moment when FDR’s White House memorial was getting under way in the nation’s capital. Just five minutes later, it was back to work.
Saturday morning had most people tuned to their radios for network coverage of FDR’s funeral procession in Washington, DC. Seattle listeners in those days could hear CBS via KIRO, NBC via KOMO, Mutual via KOL, and ABC’s predecessor the “Blue Network” via KJR. Saturday also saw most of the city shut down, including department stores and all branches of the Seattle Public Library. Movie theaters stayed closed until 6 pm, and the Seattle Repertory Theater cancelled Saturday night’s performance of Mary Lasswell Smith’s Suds in Your Eye.
A previously scheduled King County Democratic Club fundraiser marking Jefferson Day on Saturday became a tribute to FDR instead. Meanwhile, the Boeing Bowling Club cancelled the dance they had planned at the Civic Auditorium, all dances at Fort Lewis were also cancelled (along with the need for “hostesses”), and the 13th Naval District boxing tournament at Sand Point Naval Air Station (now Magnuson Park) was postponed for a month.
Local newspapers speculated about the mettle of the new president, and whether Gov. Wallgren’s ties to Harry Truman (they’d served on a committee and traveled together for a series of hearings earlier in the war) would prove helpful to the state. Reporters also looked back at FDR’s local connections, including visits made to Seattle as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in April 1914; as a vice presidential candidate in 1920; and when he ran for president in 1932. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer also ran a 1937 photo of FDR visiting the Seattle home of his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John Boettiger. (Boettiger was publisher of the P-I in the late 1930s, though when he entered military service for World War II, wife Anna Roosevelt Boettiger also left Seattle.)
FDR also came in 1942 for a visit announced only after the fact due to wartime security concerns. On that trip, the president toured the Boeing plant in Seattle and the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton.
For Sunday, the day that FDR would be buried on the grounds of his Hyde Park estate in New York’s Hudson Valley, Seattle Mayor Devin organized a public memorial at the Civic Auditorium (current site of McCaw Hall, which still has some “bones” of the original building). A crowd of 6,500 came to Seattle’s memorial, hearing speeches by Devin as well as military officials and local religious leaders. Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin, US Navy 13th District Commandant, told the audience that ships built by FDR “prevented attacks on the West Coast.”
Though the elite were assembled on stage, one reporter wrote that, “the great bulk of those who gathered to express their deep sorrow were plainly, even poorly dressed.” It was fitting, then, that also featured in the program was a choir singing what was described as one of FDR’s favorite songs: Home on the Range. Though a son of wealth and privilege, in life FDR had always been regarded as a man of the people. It was no different in death.
Late Sunday afternoon, KOMO carried the somewhat awkwardly titled Our Hour of National Sorrow, NBC’s radio tribute to FDR. Along with Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, and other performers and entertainment executives, Washington’s own Bing Crosby appeared near the end of the program, offering Brahm’s Lullaby in honor of the fallen head of the Executive Branch.
The Radio President would have loved it.
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