In 1961 I was a sophomore at Harpur College, later the State University at Binghamton, then a very new small liberal arts college. About 20 sophomore students formed an International Relations Club, and I was elected vice president. At one of our meetings we decided to invite Eleanor Roosevelt to come to the college to make a speech in honor of United Nations Day, which is celebrated on Oct. 24. I was delegated to write the letter of invitation.
A few weeks later we received a response from her personal secretary letting us know that Roosevelt could come only if an honorarium and her air fare were paid. Since the club had no treasury, I wrote back saying that we were very sorry but we could not provide what was required. We were then surprised to receive a second letter from her secretary informing us that Roosevelt had decided she would come to the college anyway.
Now, we had neglected to let the college administration know that we had extended the invitation, and this caused quite a stir when we made a request for the college auditorium for Roosevelt's speech. To put this in some perspective, in 1961, Eleanor Roosevelt had been voted the Most Admired Woman in America for the 12th consecutive year. She was known and admired worldwide. So her coming to the college was a bigger deal than we had anticipated, and the college hastily made plans for her proper reception.
The college arranged for a limo to bring Roosevelt from the Binghamton airport, and the officers of the club were taken in the limo to greet her and escort her to the college. So with a police escort, we went to the airport, where she arrived on a small, propeller-driven plane operated by Mohawk Airlines. Roosevelt came slowly down the steps from the plane and walked to the terminal building. We escorted her through a throng of applauding people with flashing cameras, and spoke excitedly to her all the way through the terminal and into the limo.
Once inside the limo, she reached inside her coat and switched on her hearing aid! She explained that she always turned it off in crowded situations and just smiled and waved to everyone. Our conversation with her in the limo was amazing.
I had read quite a lot about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and it was remarkable to hear her say things like, "Now Harry [Hopkins] always used to say to Franklin . . ." She was talking about people she had known personally, but who were figures in history to us as students. She herself was living history.
Her speech at the college was a huge success and was delivered to a packed auditorium, with an additional crowd of people standing outside in the lobby and watching her on TV. It was very special for me when she signed a copy of her autobiography I had purchased as a gift for my mother: "With warm good wishes, Eleanor Roosevelt." My mother treasured the book, and now that she has passed away, it is one of my treasures.
Recently, as I reflected on this event, I wondered how old Eleanor Roosevelt had been in 1961. It turned out that she was 77. She passed away at age 78 in November 1962, the following year.
How remarkable it was that in the last year of her life, when she was undoubtedly ill, she got on a tiny propeller-driven airplane and flew from New York City to Binghamton, because a small group of college students without any funds thought that it was important and fitting to pay honor to her beloved United Nations.