I re-acquainted myself with Eleanor Roosevelt last weekend when I received the Eleanor Roosevelt medal for public service at Val-Kill, her Hyde Park retreat.
When asked who my role models were, Eleanor Roosevelt led the list. My mother read her column “My Day” every day. I discovered she wrote 8,000 of these columns, often working late into the night. I must have read over my mother’s shoulder, because I, too, was in awe of Mrs. Roosevelt, her travels around the world, her attention to the poor and the powerless.
Before the ceremony we were given a tour of Val-Kill by her grandson Elliot, and Doris Mack, who had worked for the family. I was struck by the modesty of the house and its furnishings. Photographs lined the walls of every room; Eleanor and Truman, Eleanor and Kennedy, Eleanor and the Queen of England, Eleanor (Elliot called her grandmere) and the numerous grandchildren. No paintings. She wanted to be surrounded by people.
Doris Mack pointed out the elegant china in the dining room, and then referred to the water glasses and the picture frames, “probably bought in the ten cent store.”
In the living room she explained, “None of the furniture pieces matched, just like the people she invited to her home—they came from all walks of life.”
Eleanor was very good to her staff but she couldn’t keep a cook. “They would quit after two weeks.”
“Why?” we asked.
“Because she would keep inviting people she met during the day for dinner, and would forget to tell the cook.”
Once, on the cook’s day off, three people showed up at the door. Eleanor had forgotten that she had invited them. There was no food in the house. What did she serve them?
“Scrambled eggs, toast, and champagne.”
In my research for my remarks, I found the resignation letter that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote to the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) when that organization refused to permit Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall in 1939. Instead, Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before a crowd of thousands.
I was surprised by its directness and simplicity. I read the typed letter out loud.
“My dear Mrs. Henry M. (the “Henry M.” was inserted in ink, as an afterthought) Roberts:
“I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign, or whether I continue to be a member of your organization.
“However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.
“I realize that many people will not agree with me, but feeling as I do this seems to me the only proper procedure to follow.”
Mrs. Roosevelt, I noted, had the courage to act–and with that simple gesture, she changed lives.
Eleanor today remains famous for her succinct wise words. One quote that appeals to me at this stage of my life is: “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”
In my remarks after I received the medal, I quoted this line:
“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run, it is easier.”
Courage is what I learned most from Mrs. Roosevelt. I noted that our lives were very different; she came from a privileged background and a political family. I did not have either, having been an immigrant to this country and raised by a single parent.
What we had in common is that we had re-invented our lives. She had no role models for the kind of First Lady that she wanted to be. She had to make herself up from scratch.
I, and the other woman who received a medal, retired New York chief judge Judith Kaye, also had few role models. With the help of the women’s movement, and the encouragement of others, we allowed ourselves to dream and to strive.
Like Eleanor, I too, needed the support of my women friends when I embarked on a political life. I could relate to Val-Kill where Eleanor met with the people who were closest to her, who loved her, unconditionally.
Lynn Rothwell was the mother of the woman who introduced me at the medal ceremony, Mary Rothwell Davis. She was one of a small circle of friends who sustained me throughout my years of public life. They stood by me, no matter how I voted or what I said.
In the audience, I could point to my husband, brother, daughter and some of my former staff and several good friends. I acknowledged the obvious; none of us win medals by ourselves.
The Friday before the event I had received an e-mail from the Pomfret, Vermont elementary school. I read it from the podium.
“Dear Mrs. Kunin. Congratulations on receiving your award on Sunday in Hyde Park. We are very proud of your accomplishments and as a leader, who just happens to be a woman. We are all involved in the leadership group at the Pomfret Elementary School where we are 6th graders. You are our modern Eleanor Roosevelt!
“Morgan Hartman, Anna Tracey, Hayley Usilton, Dana Burrington, Jocelyn Hewitt and Kaelen Heaton.”
The true meaning of ceremonies like this, I discovered, is not what they convey to the person being honored, but the message such events send to others.