The Bittersweet Reason President FDR Came To Riley

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It was, on the surface, a thrilling, happy occasion. But, it wasn’t necessarily so. President Roosevelt visited Riley because he felt the pain these young patients felt -- polio, lifeless legs and being confined to a wheelchair.

They sat in their tiny wheelchairs on the sprawling lawn of the hospital. Some weren’t even able to sit, so their little beds were pushed outside onto the grass. Many wore plaster casts.

It was Sept. 5, 1936, a splendid autumn Saturday, and James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children looked different.

There were nurses and doctors and patients swarming all over – outside, in the yard, on the terrace.

They were there because a special guest was coming, very special. The president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was in Indianapolis and he wanted to see their hospital.

It was, on the surface, a thrilling, happy occasion. But deep down, it wasn’t necessarily so.

President Roosevelt was coming to Riley because he felt the pain these young patients felt -- polio, lifeless legs and being confined to a wheelchair.

He was there to let them know – in the only way he could – that he understood.

“As his open car rolled along over the drive, he waved at them his face lit by a warm smile of sympathy and understanding – an understanding such as few can have who have not suffered.” – Indianapolis News article, Sept. 5, 1936.

This visit by Roosevelt to Riley, it has always been a blip on a timeline, a mention in a hospital report.

Karen Bruner Stroup beside display of FDR photos

And that bothered Karen Bruner Stroup, who spent 28 years at Riley – first as director of the automotive safety for children program and then building the hospital’s community education and child advocacy department.

So, the first thing Stroup did when she retired in 2011 was launch a project that would answer the question: Why did FDR come to Riley?

“I always swore I would find out why he came here. And what the heck did he do?” said Stroup, now secretary of the Riley Hospital Historic Preservation Committee. “We just need to tell the story. Because nobody knows it.”

In the lower level of Riley, in the Ruth Lilly Learning Center, is a display that answers those questions about Roosevelt’s visit to the hospital. Stroup is the display’s creator and she also has written a book detailing the visit, “The President is Coming Today.”

But to understand why Roosevelt came to Riley is to first know a more about the president’s health issues – and where his heart really was.

“FDR the man cannot be understood without comprehending that he was crippled. He could have died from the severity of his polio attack in 1921. As it was he lost all movement in his legs and even some strength in his right hand.” – The New York Times, August, 1998.

Roosevelt was vacationing with his family at their summer home on Campobello Island in 1921 when he became sick. Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with polio at age 39. The disease struck hard, leaving Roosevelt paralyzed from the waist down, unable to stand or walk without support.

There was no cure for paralysis, but Roosevelt was willing and ready to try all sorts of therapies. Among his favorite was hydrotherapy, the one he believed was most promising. He felt so strongly about hydrotherapy that in 1926, he founded a center in Warm Springs, Ga.

“He really did some phenomenal work in Warm Springs when he was battling back from polio,” said Stroup. “The things that he was able to teach other patients who were battling polio there really laid the foundation for a lot of rehabilitation practices. He really helped build the field at that time.”

And his work soon made its way to Indianapolis.

Riley hydrotherapy pool designed after Roosevelt’s Warm Springs

A hydrotherapy pool designed after Roosevelt’s Warm Springs pool opened with much fanfare in October of 1935 at Riley, in its very own building on the south side of the hospital’s campus.

And nearly a year later, on that Saturday in September, Roosevelt came to Riley to see that pool. After he waved to all the children on the lawn, his car rolled up onto a ramp built just for his visit. The ramp, decorated in red, white and blue was stationed alongside the hydrotherapy building, next to a window so that the president could look in.

FDR with at Riley

“For ten minutes or more he looked through the open window at the children receiving treatment in the warm water and talked to the operators in charge. Perhaps no particular feature of his visit in Indianapolis interested him quite so much.” – Indianapolis News article.

“I think this is perfectly splendid,” Roosevelt said as he sat in his car, looking through that window at the pool. The president didn’t get out of the car. He rarely was photographed in his wheelchair and the press was there that day.

But he did interact and asked many questions about Riley’s pool to Winifred Conrick Kahmann, who was the director of occupational and physiotherapy at Riley: What is the temperature of the water? How long do the operators stay in? How many shifts do you have? Is that a Hubbard tank over in the corner?

“Oh, this is a fine plant,” Roosevelt said to her, after she answered his questions. “It must be a source of pride and joy to the city.”

And then came the most touching part of the president’s visit – when Kahmann lifted a 3-year-old boy, a victim of infantile paralysis, out of the pool. She sat him on the window sill, almost in Roosevelt’s lap.

“This is Lawrence, Mr. President,” she said.

“Well Lawrence, shake hands with me,” Roosevelt said. “You’re a fine boy.”

He went on to comment that Lawrence would soon be swimming. Roosevelt had a twinkle in his eye as he interacted with the young boy. And then, he said farewell, driving off and waving to the children still waiting on the lawn.

“It was a memorable day to the hospital’s little patients – one they cannot forget in all their lives. It was their honor on this day to entertain not only a President of the United States but a man who once knew the moments of black despair and suffering that is now theirs. And he recovered and came to see them!” – Indianapolis News article.

The story doesn’t end there. Roosevelt’s visit to Riley was just part of a busy day for the president, something Stroup found out through her research.

“He had a huge day,” she said. “He didn’t just come here. This was a jam-packed day where he was making all kinds of connections. Riley was just part of it.”

That Saturday morning started with Roosevelt arriving in Indianapolis by train at Union Station. He then got into a travel car and went on a ticker tape confetti parade through Downtown.

Next, he was taken on a 30-mile tour of the city, a tour so Roosevelt could see projects put together by the Work Project Administration. It was on that tour that he ended up at Riley to see the hydrotherapy pool.

After his visit to Riley, Roosevelt went to the Indiana State Fairgrounds to speak to a crowd of more than 10,000. That was followed by a regional conference on drought at the Athletic Club, where governors and politicians from throughout the Midwest were in attendance.

Two months after his visit to Riley, Roosevelt won the election, his second term as president of the United States. He proved, though, that his visit to Riley wasn’t just some political stunt.

After 1936, he went on to establish the Infantile Paralysis Foundation, which was a precursor to March of Dimes.

“Because of the force of his presence and leadership, he was really able to help push the movement for polio research,” Stroup said. “The fact he was at Riley just showed his interest in the cause.”

Stroup’s book on Roosevelt’s visit to Riley can be found here:

Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of Riley milestones that will be featured. To see the complete historical timeline, go to

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
 Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow

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