The biographer of one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most influential aides found connections and a receptive audience at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Athens this week.
Kathryn Smith’s recently published “The Gatekeeper.” It tells the story of Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, Roosevelt’s longtime private secretary and his gatekeeper. With more access to Roosevelt than anyone else, LeHand was more a chief of staff than a secretary, Smith said.
Smith, a University of Georgia graduate and herself a Rotarian — the first woman Rotary member in Anderson, S.C. — even took on the role of LeHand as she traced connections between LeHand, Georgia, Roosevelt, the March of Dimes, and the Rotary Club in a talk and book signing in Athens on Wednesday.
The Rotary Club is a major player in the international effort to completely eradicate polio, the dread viral disease which crippled Roosevelt.
“President Roosevelt sends his warmest regards,” she began.
Later, as author Smith, she told the Rotary group that the long quest to end polio could be near.
“We’re closer than an inch; we’re a millimeter away,” Smith told the Athens Rotarians.
According to Rotary International’s website, the club has helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children against polio in 122 countries since its first vaccination project in the Philippines in 1979.
Polio was recognized before there was history, but became epidemic in the 20th century thanks, ironically, to better sanitation practices, which hampered children’s development of a natural immunity.
Roosevelt was struck as an adult in 1921, months after LeHand became his private secretary. The disease left him paralyzed from the waist down. She remained in that role until she suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1941.
LeHand accompanied him everywhere, including his lengthy stays at Warm Springs, near Columbus, Ga.
And she also played a major role when shortly before World War II Roosevelt launched the organization that became known as the March of Dimes, raising the equivalent of $17 million in today’s money in dime contributions.
Those donations helped people during their rehabilitation and recovery, and also funded the research that led to the first effective immunization against polio, the Salk vaccine.
More recently, Rotary International joined with the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988.
The world saw 350,000 cases that year. In 2016, there were 37, according to the CDC.
A wild polio virus now circulates in only three war-torn counties — Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Local Rotarians will mark World Polio Day on Oct. 24 with a live streaming program from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at Athens’ Cine about the fight to eradicate the disease.