The following is a true story about when Jack Farrell met and spoke to Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II.
Jack stood in the cold along with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other people on the lawn in front of the Columbia University library waiting for the First Lady to arrive. Eleanor Roosevelt was going to give a short speech before attending a meeting on campus.
Jack was there with two of his friends. All three of them were in the uniforms of Army Privates. Jack wondered if the other two felt like complete frauds the way he did. After all, Jack was not really a soldier. He was just a guy going to medical school who happened to be in an Army Uniform.
It was not supposed to be this way. Jack was supposed to be out there in the front lines as an officer in the greatest war in the history of the world. Jack had even gotten an appointment to West Point. Appointments were very hard to get. You had to be recommended by a U.S. Congressperson which meant that a lot of times only the sons big campaign contributors even got the chance to try to get in. You still had to have the right grades and pass the physical, but first you had to get someone in Congress to recommend you.
Jack did not come from a wealthy family. His father owned a used car lot and his father’s father had been a poor farmer in rural Massachusetts. But it turned out there was another way to get an appointment to West Point. Jack’s father had been an artillery Captain in World War I. West Point had set aside places for the sons of World War I combat veterans. Jack had excellent grades and he was all set for West Point.
Until the Physical.
As a boy Jack had suffered a ruptured appendix which had nearly killed him. Toxins had poured into his body from the rupture and an emergency operation had to be performed to save him. In fact, he had needed a whole series of operations over the course of almost a year, to get his insides right again. The doctors at the hospital joked that he had so many operations he should have a zipper installed in his abdomen. Jack thought that was so funny he named his little puppy dog “Zipper”.
Jack had recovered and grown up into a muscular six foot three inch tall young man. It never occurred to Jack that he could not pass the physical at West Point. But when Jack took off his shirt for the exam the doctor immediately saw that the entire front of Jack’s body was a mass of intersecting scars. Jack pleaded with the West Point doctor to mark him as fit, but the doctor refused.
“I’m sorry young man, ” said the doctor, “but those kinds of operations never fix things one hundred percent. Under extreme physical stress there could be complications with internal tears or bleeding. And let’s face it, the Army would put anyone under extreme physical stress. ”
So instead of going to West Point, Jack had gone to Columbia University. America got into World War II just as Jack was graduating from Columbia. If he had been at West Point he would have gone directly into the war as an officer.
Instead, Jack applied to and got into Long Island University Medical School. Anyone else would have been thrilled with that. But Jack felt like a coward, hiding out in school while guys he knew were fighting and dying in the war.
As the war went on, Jack read stories about how the Army needed so many men it was lowering its physical standards. He decided this was his chance. Jack and two of his medical school friends took the train to New York and went to enlist at the Army recruiting station in Times Square. It was great. They filled out all the forms and as far as they knew they were in. No one even asked for a medical history or gave them physical.
Seeing their ages, the tough looking recruiting Sergeant asked them what they had been doing all this time and why they had not enlisted earlier. When one of Jack’s friends blurted out that they were in Medical School, the Sergeant gave them a strange look, but did not say anything.
The Sergeant told them the paperwork would take a few days that they should come back the beginning of the following week. Jack and the other guys were ecstatic. They were going to finally be “real men” and get into the war! Medical school would have to wait. A few more days and they could finally put on a uniform.
The next day, Jack and his friends were heading to class when a professor spotted them and said, “The Dean would like to see all of you. Right now.”
The Dean of the Medical School was a very serious man. A superb surgeon who still taught classes as well as being Dean. He was also very formal and completely serious at all times. He was the kind of man who you could not imagine ever smiling.
Jack and the other 2 young men sat in the plush leather chairs in the Dean’s massive wood paneled office. The Dean himself sat behind a large oak desk and turned his glare on them.
“I got a very disturbing call from an Army Sergeant yesterday,” said the Dean. “He and I had a long conversation. He was quite an intelligent man. You see, unlike you three, the Sergeant understood that what this country needs right now is more doctors, not more men to carry guns. Even if this war ends tomorrow there will be hundreds of thousands of people who desperately need medical care. The type of care you are begin trained to provide. That is where your duty lies. Don’t walk away from that responsibility.”
Jack and his friends felt very ashamed as they returned to their classes. They realized that they should have been thinking about how to best serve their country instead of just what would make them look good to other people.
In the end, Jack and his friends and all the other men in the medical school got to wear an Army uniform anyway. Almost losing 3 medical students had worried the Dean so much that he spoke to some very senior officers in the military. A few weeks later the U.S. Army drafted every man in the Medical school. They were all given uniforms and issued a direct order. Their assignment was to stay in medical school and become doctors. Upon graduation the Army would find an assignment for them.
So that is how Jack and his friends ended up in Army Uniforms, standing in the freezing cold with a crowd of people waiting for Eleanor Roosevelt to speak. They had taken the train in from Long Island to Jack’s old college, just to see her. There was a sudden push in the crowd and then a cheer. She had arrived.
There was a little wooden platform set up for Eleanor to make a short speech to the crowd before she went into the University for a meeting. The photographers with her wanted to get a good shot for the papers. Suddenly a photographer spotted Jack and his friends in uniform. Some of Eleanor’s entourage jumped off the stage and pulled Jack and the other guys up to stand behind Eleanor. It was always good to have soldiers in uniform in a picture with the First Lady . They tired to protest that they were not really soldiers but the entourage was not listening. They were only interested in how to line them up for the best possible picture.
Jack only got to speak to Eleanor for a few seconds. He wanted to ask her how she felt about his being safe in medical school while guys he grew up with were being killed every day. But up close she looked so tired and so stressed that he realized how inappropriate it would be to try to burden him with his own problems.
It was obvious that she wanted light conversation, so Jack asked her if her last name was pronounced “Ruse-a- Velt” or “Rose-a-Velt”. To his surprise, she said the proper pronunciation was “Ruse-a-Velt”. The entourage loved the banter. This was a happy photo-op appearance. They did not want anyone asking any deep philosophical questions.
The medical students were technically in the Army and wore the uniforms to class each day. However, the war ended just before they graduated. The army was trying to wind down its numbers dramatically so it gave all the medical students honorable discharges. Jack and his fiends never got to become “real soldiers”.
Jack became a well known doctor in Connecticut and had a long career. However, he always felt guilty about not getting into West Point. Of the West Point class he would have been in, 25% were killed in the war and many more were wounded. There is a good chance that Jack’s ruptured appendix as a child had actually saved his life; an example of what is now called the “butterfly effect.”
If anyone ever said Jack was in the Army during the war he would quickly correct the person and note how he was never in the “real” Army. He also would quickly correct anyone who mispronounced Eleanor Roosevelt’s name.