FDR and Me
In one way, Helynn Hoffa was very lucky. As a twelve-year- old in Warm
Springs, Georgia, she got to meet and talk with Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
the much-admired president of the United States from 1933 to 1945. In
another way, Helynn was very unlucky. The reason she was in Warm Springs
was to undergo therapy for polio, the dreaded disease she had contracted
four years before.
During the summer of 1928, polio struck several people in the small town of
Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Helynn was one of the unfortunate victims. But she
was lucky that she survived; many others didn't. At first she couldn't even
open or close her eyelids, and for two years she was completely paralyzed.
She was told she would never walk again. The cruel polio virus had
squelched the young child's dream of ever becoming an archaeologist.
Gradually though, with a reclining wheelchair, Helynn was able to rejoin her
third-grade classmates. She was determined even at that young age not to
be cut out of what life had to offer. Helynn remembers saying, "I can't write,
but I can recite.
"I'll never forget the particular afternoon when I was in therapy at Warm
Springs. I was sitting on a step of the pool when FDR came swimming over
toward me. We chatted for a few minutes - about my progress - and about
the value of this wonderful treatment center for polio he had built for
thousands like us," Helynn recalls. Now seventy-nine, Helynn has a faraway
look in her friendly, brown eyes as she continues, "Then he stopped talking
and looked at me for a minute."
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" he asked finally.
Helynn remembers shrugging and telling him, "I'm not sure I could 'be'
anything. But if I had a choice, I'd like to be an archaeologist. "
"Just remember," FDR said softly, "if I can be in a wheelchair and be
president of the greatest country in the world, you can be whatever you want."
That encounter with FDR has guided Helynn ever since. "Here was a
person," she thought, "who had to deal with the same physical handicap I
have to deal with. And he had to run the United States, too!" Helynn also
credits her parents for her strong determination. Her parents' unlimited love,
encouragement and support, and FDR's encouraging words, gave her the
resolution to endure years of physiotherapy, enabling her to get around in a
Helynn remembers one special highlight during high school, "I was the envy
of my girlfriends when the football team was assigned to carry me in my
wheelchair up and down the stairs!" Helynn went on to graduate with her high
school class, took correspondence courses from the University of Chicago
and has never quite quenched her thirst for knowledge - reading everything
Helynn eventually became a nun, free-lance writer, artist, bookkeeper, art
teacher, sports reporter - and even ran her own print shop, publishing
company, as well as her own radio show. She also worked in Honolulu after
World War II.
But that's not all. Helynn has authored three books. One is a novel, one is
a volume of her memoirs, which she has just completed, and one is a guide
for the physically challenged entitled Yes You Can. Of this last book she
says, "All the encouragement I received from everyone, including my parents
and FDR, made a big difference in my life. I wrote this book to encourage
others just as I have been encouraged."
Fifteen years ago, Helynn contracted post-polio syndrome, which affects
some 30 percent of the three hundred thousand polio survivors in the United
States today. This syndrome involves the gradual loss of muscular strength
once regained through physical therapy. For the past decade Helynn has
spent up to sixteen hours a day in a 1928 model iron lung, which takes up
most of her small living room. She adds, "I call it the yellow submarine in
honor of my days as an ardent Beatles fan."
After years of traveling - to England, San Francisco, Baja, Hawaii, Canada
and Mexico - today Helynn rarely even leaves her house. But she refuses to
let long hours in the yellow submarine slow her down much. She explains, "I
spend up to four hours a day dictating my work to an assistant, who then
types the text on the computer." Helynn is a remarkable example of the
familiar saying, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Helynn has
indeed made the best of what life has thrown at her.
Calling herself a "smorgasbord scholar," she comments, "Education can't
be given; it has to be earned - it is just like everything else in life. If it's worth
having, it's worth working for. And, believe me, knowledge is worth working
for! Without it, we achieve little." Helynn believes so much in education that
among other efforts, she
was one of the pioneers who helped get Southwestern Community College
started. To show its appreciation for Helynn, this Chula Vista school
bestowed on her an honorary associate of arts degree.
Because of Helynn's untiring support of education and encouragement of
the physically challenged, she was featured on CNN and has received various
other awards. "Like FDR and me," Helynn says with a winsome smile, "people
should refuse to use their physical limitations as an excuse or an obstacle."
She elaborates, "The disability that cripples more people than any other is
ignorance. All of us are disabled in one way or another - some physically,
some economically - the list is endless. But if you can conquer ignorance, all
your other disabilities melt away.
"Simply to live, I have to spend time every day in the iron lung," Helynn
says. "But I'm just glad to be alive because life is an adventure - and I don't
want to miss any of it!" Helynn's determination, sense of humor and
enthusiasm for life get her through the hardest moments.
The only complaint Helynn voices is that she simply doesn't have enough
hours in the day to accomplish all that she wants to do. Recently some
friends dropped by her house to celebrate yet another one of her
accomplishments - and to have a piece of chocolate cake. As Helynn
enjoyed being with her well-wishers, her eyes sparkled. Then she said, "I've
met so many nice people along the way . . . including FDR when I was only
twelve years old. In my life, I have been very lucky!"
Sharon Whitley Larsen
FDR and Me