Monday, Jun 24, 2019

The 'New Dealer' visits Harvard

Harvard resident Ed O’Brien portrayed FDR Feb. 11 at Harvard Diggins Library. HML PHOTO BY MARJIE REED

Sitting in his wheelchair with his traditional cigarette holder clenched in his teeth, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his way to the front of the meeting room at the Harvard-Diggins Library Feb. 11.

Acting as if he were adjusting 20 pounds of braces on his legs to stand on crutches behind a podium with the seal of the President of the United States on the front, FDR shared his privileged childhood of wealth, his battle with polio and how he led the United States through years of depression and war.

Harvard resident Ed O’Brien, an FDR impressionist, physically resembled the president and spoke in the first person while consistently articulating the president’s New York accent.

“Mr. O’Brien did an excellent job and knew his stuff,” said attendee Joe Sutera. “He had to do a lot of work to prepare.” Throughout his career with the school system, O’Brien taught U.S. history, and, even after he became a principal and administrator, he often voluntarily reentered the classroom to teach 20th century history.

Interspersed among the serious subjects, O’Brien told stories about FDR’s beloved Scottish terrier, named Fala. The dog became such a part of Roosevelt’s public image that he was included as part of a statue of FDR in Washington, the only presidential pet ever so honored. Fala was buried next to FDR later at his childhood home of Springwood in Hyde Park, New York.

“[The presentation was] awesome,” said Jim Miller, “He shared insights of side things in Roosevelt’s life and dog stories. I wish more young people had come tonight.”

To help understand the frame of mind of people during the Great Depression when one-third of the population was unemployed, O’Brien played a melancholy recording of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” sung by the well-loved pop crooner of the time, Rudy Vallee.

O’Brien shared that, because of all the president had learned in his day-to-day hardship with polio, FDR had become mentally and emotionally equipped to lead the country through the Depression. Roosevelt was told he would never leave his bed, but with hard work and resolve he did. With that same resolve, he realized “anything is possible” and got the country back to work.

“Getting polio was the rebirth and redirection of FDR,” said O’Brien. “For the first time in his life, he had to depend on others for help. It caused a man born into privilege to be able to become the champion of the common person.”

A saying attributed to FDR is, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” O’Brien spoke with candor and a mild voice as he shined a verbal spotlight on FRD’s speeches. He played one of FDR’s famous fireside chats in the president’s own voice. The performer’s demeanor and voice resonated as he read with passion FDR’s speech to the country after the bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. “A date,” FDR declared, “which will live in infamy.” O’Brien said this was the only speech Roosevelt wrote with no help from speechwriters.

O’Brien gave insights of his own father’s view of FDR, which attendee Anna Marie Platt-Miller enjoyed. “We are very glad we came,” she said.

The evening with FDR ended with a lively question-and-answer session. Audience member Jerry Stermer said, “I found that particularly interesting.”

After the program, Andy McCauley said, “[The program] was excellent and well-presented. I enjoyed it all, especially his reading of the speech. [O’Brien] really got into character.”

For information on other upcoming events at the library, visit or call 815-943-4671.