The day a president died

Story highlights

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly 70 years ago April 12 in Warm Springs, Georgia
  • Lauder: He was longest-serving president in history; impact was felt immediately and personally

Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "The Back Page: The Personal Face of History." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I was a copygirl in my fourth month at the Chicago Daily News, my second assigned to the city desk. It had become my custom at 4 o'clock, when the city desk secretary left for the day, to move over to her spot to help answer the phones as the beat reporters called in to check out for the day.

It was so quiet that afternoon -- 70 years ago, on Thursday, April 12, 1945 -- the city editor and assistant city editor had felt comfortable leaving their desks. The second city editor, Guy Housley, was to my left. To my right, perhaps 6 feet away, the telegraph editor, George Dodge.
Val Lauder
At 4:50, the old-fashioned upright "candlestick" telephone on his desk rang -- the direct line The Associated Press used to alert editors to major news events. He answered, replaced the bell-like receiver on its hook and said to everyone in general and no one in particular, "Roosevelt is dead."
    The silence of shock.
    Until Dodge jumped up so quickly, his swivel chair crashed into the glass-fronted bookcase behind him -- a symphonic orchestra cymbals sound -- and ran to what was called the Tube Room, with its row of Associated Press Teletype machines.
    Housley said, "Clear the decks for action."
    The words had barely cleared his lips when City Editor Clem Lane half-ran back into the city room. Hal O'Flaherty, director of the Daily News Foreign Service, was only a step or two behind. The door of the managing editor's office that opened into the city room flew open, and Managing Editor Everett Norlander joined them around the copy desk, where Dodge was editing the bulletin.
    Lane wheeled toward the rewrite desk. "Cleveland! Get downstairs. Get the reaction."
    The main entrance to the Chicago Daily News building also served as the main entrance to the Northwestern Railroad terminal, with its commuter trains to the North Shore communities. A veritable sea of lemmings would be coming up that marble incline for the next hour. Not that Charlie Cleveland could linger.
    FDR's D-Day speech
    FDR's D-Day speech

      JUST WATCHED

      FDR's D-Day speech

    MUST WATCH

    FDR's D-Day speech 01:30
    The Daily News, an afternoon newspaper, was strictly limited in the hours it could publish. Only an hour or so remained for EXTRAs.
    I knew clips would be needed and ran to the library, the old "morgue." They'd heard and had a splay of white envelopes on President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- big and bulging -- spread out. They had one, as I recall -- a small one -- on Harry S. Truman. I grabbed it and ran back down the corridor.
    Bob Lewin, who usually handled labor stories, had been told "to do something on the new president." He opened the Truman envelope, spread out the newspaper clippings and reached for one of the "books" in a wire basket within easy reach of reporters and rewritemen: five sheets of copy paper stapled together, with four sheets of carbon paper between. To be rolled into typewriters and have the necessary copies: the top one for the editor, a carbon copy for the reporter's reference and three others for distribution to various editors or news desks
    Lewin's eyes moved over the clippings, evaluating, rejecting, selecting, deciding what to use. At last, he started typing. Because of the time pressure, the story would be done in "short takes": two, maybe three paragraphs at a time.
    He wrote:
    "The new President -- the 33d in the history of the United States -- is Harry S. Truman.
    "He was automatically elevated to the presidency on the death of President Roosevelt.
    "Truman will be 61 on May 8."
    Lewin ripped the book out of the typewriter roller. I left him the bottom page for reference and rushed the top page to Lane.
    Back by Lewin, I read over his shoulder:
    "Born in Lamar, Mo., Truman's political rise was spectacular.
    "He was relatively little known outside of his home state when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934. He had the backing of the late Tom "Boss" Prendergast, of the Kansas City machine.
    This time, Lewin gave me a nod. I pulled out the book, the typewriter roller ratcheting protest.
    President Franklin Delano Roosevelt smokes a cigarette in a car in Hyde Park, New York, on July 4, 1937.
    After two more takes, Lane said, "Okay, that's it."
    Cleveland was back. The cricket-like click click click of typewriter keys at the rewrite desk drew me, and I stood by to take his story to Lane:
    "Word of President Roosevelt's death struck Chicago late this afternoon with numbing suddenness.
    "Within a few minutes after the bulletins came to The Daily News, the office switchboards were swamped with calls for verification.
    "So great were the number of calls, that the lines became clogged and many queries could not be handled.
    "Many of the callers spoke as if disbelieving the report -- as if it were some wildly spread rumor.
    "The same kind of uncertainty was noticed in the faces of the crowds thronging homeward. Word passed from one to another:
    "'Did you hear that? Roosevelt is dead? Is it true'?"
    Cleveland's story delivered, I returned to the city desk to help with the calls. Many, as he had mentioned, from people wanting to know whether it was true but some from reporters and beat men who'd been heading home, reporting the reaction where they were.
    A copyboy rushed around the room, dropping off copies of the first EXTRA -- the simple news in a 76-point-type headline: ROOSEVELT DEAD
    Statements began coming in from local officials and civic leaders, a few phoned in but most from the City News Bureau, which served the Chicago newspapers with local news as the wire services did with national news. I sorted through the multiple copies, separating them into ever-growing stacks.
    The second EXTRA was dropped off. ROOSEVELT DEAD With the subhead: Dies at 63 of Hemorrhage in Georgia
    The last EXTRA had a three-column photo of Roosevelt, edged in black, a two-column of Truman and a story on the president's death and funeral plans.
    As the editors talked, I heard one ask, "What kind of president do you think he'll make?" And O'Flaherty, director of the Daily News Foreign Service, said, "If there's anything to the American system, the man will rise to the office."
    Franklin D. Roosevelt's cortege goes down Connecticut Avenue on its way to the White House.
    I've thought of that through the years as Truman has risen in the opinion of presidential historians. The atom bomb. The Marshall Plan. The Berlin Airlift. The Truman Doctrine. Recognition of the state of Israel. Desegregation of the armed services. Ordering U.S. forces to oppose the invading forces when North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea, then organizing a United Nations army. Firing Douglas MacArthur.
    I continued to sort the statements from officials. Lane asked me to take one set down to Lloyd Lewis.
    The chief editorial writer had a corner office at the far end of the long office corridor. I found him sitting in the dark, looking out the window at the Chicago skyline. Sensing my presence, he said, "I wonder what the world will be like without him."
    "I don't know, sir." In the dusk, the quiet, I suspect he didn't expect an answer, but I thought about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served in the White House for an unprecedented 12 years. "He's the only president I can remember."
    He turned, saw me in the doorway, a teenager in penny loafers, a cardigan sweater and a pleated plaid skirt, and said with a nod, "Of course."
    I gave him the statements and updated him on the latest news. "The funeral train will bring his body up from Georgia ... to Washington, I mean."
    The next morning, I turned to the editorial page to see what he'd written. Lewis took his cue from Roosevelt's address to a joint session of the Congress following his trip to Yalta. The headline:
    "It has been a long journey. I trust you will agree it has been a fruitful one."
    Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted FDR's age in the Chicago Daily News subhead. He was 63.