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Presidential visit caps rebirth

Franklin D. Roosevelt was part of dedication of new square

POSTED: April 4, 2011 1:52 p.m.

They hung from the rooftops and waved flags from window ledges, the men and women packed on street corners pressing on one another's shoulders, begging for a glimpse.

It was Gainesville's day - and all turned out to take part.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived in Gainesville at 11 a.m. April 24, 1938, and amid a 21-gun salute, exited his train and boarded the presidential motorcade. It had been two years since a tornado reduced the town to rubble, since Roosevelt made his first visit to Gainesville and a short speech of support on the back of a train platform.

On this visit, the president was attending the dedication of the new square that bore his name and honored the work he did to bring federal funds to the city's rebuilding effort.

"Oh, that was quite a fancy day," said Elizabeth Westbrook Smith, who was 16 at the time and one of nearly 25,000 in the crowd that day. "We were standing on the square over there next to Belk's department store and looking across on the square at the section he was in and there was a lot of jubilation going on."

The appearance had been scheduled for the previous December but Roosevelt canceled due to illness. The General Assembly, however, had already named Dec. 8 a statewide holiday and when the president rescheduled, they held a special session to remove that decree.

On the morning of his rescheduled visit, the president's motorcade preceded him in town and the cars were parked in Ed Dunlap's driveway.

"It was a big long Cadillac with the top down," Dunlap, now 85, remembers.

Dunlap's father, Edgar B. Dunlap, had been appointed by Roosevelt to the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and the two had become close over the years.

So as Roosevelt neared Gainesville that morning, his Secret Service men gave Dunlap's sister and her sorority friends a joy ride in that long Cadillac.

"The driver would take my sister's sorority members to ride and that created a great sensation," Dunlap said. "... That was a great thrill for them."

At the dedication ceremony, Jim DeLong, now 90, secured a spot just next to the stage, at the front of a deep sea of onlookers. Dunlap and his friend, Donald Quinlan, stood at each side of a curtain, and as thousands looked on, they pulled on two strings and unveiled the new Roosevelt Square, a three block stretch that encompassed the post office, federal building, county courthouse and city hall.

"In front of the city hall was a big tent ... and then they announced the unveiling and all we did was pull a string on each side and it unveiled," Dunlap said. "It was electrifying."

As Roosevelt spoke before the flag-draped Federal Building, he praised the town for its resilience.

"You determined in the process of rebuilding to eliminate old conditions of which you were not proud; to rebuild a better city; to replace congested areas with parks; to move human beings from slums to suburbs," he said. "For this you, the good people of Gainesville, deserve all possible praise."

But his message also carried a heavier political weight and The Gainesville Eagle the next day said the president had "hurled the gauntlet from the platform."

Many saw his speech as an attack on Sen. Walter F. George, who had introduced the president that day. Roosevelt said the federal government was trying to help the needy but that "national progress and national prosperity" were "being held back chiefly because of selfishness on the part of a few."

It wasn't a lengthy speech and the president was back on his train by 1 p.m. But many who remember that day say those few hours were ones of pure joy.

"It was quite a celebration to have the president in town, and the crowd, as you can imagine, was great," Smith said.

As the president left on his train, DeLong offered to drive the secretary of war and secretary of commerce to the Atlanta airport.

"I volunteered," DeLong, just 15 at the time, said. "I heard that we were going to do this and I said ‘Well I'd be glad to do it.' And I thought ‘Oh, man, I haven't been to Atlanta many times myself driving.'"

He drove to the airport in his mother's brand-new black Buick, two police cars in front and two behind.

"We went straight down through the middle of Atlanta and onto Spring Street and out to the airport," he said. "And I drove them right out to the plane that was waiting for them."

When DeLong later went to serve as a bomber pilot in World War II, the secretary of war whom he drove to Atlanta that day kept in touch and often wrote him letters.

"He must have just been a peach of a guy," DeLong said.

Today, the area known as Roosevelt Square sits between the Federal Building and Hall County Courthouse, surrounded by newer structures that have been built in the 73 years since the president's visit. At its center is the white stone monument that bears the date when Roosevelt first came to town in the wake of the deadly tornado.



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