May 2012

I paid a visit to the UK in the second half of May. One of the highlights of my trip was a day spent in Oxford on May 23rd, where my brother and I viewed a room at Oriel College dedicated to our father. I was also able to renew contacts with officers at the Bodleian Library.

Earlier this year, I had read Fullness of Days, the memoir by Lord Halifax, the British politician and His Majesty’s Ambassador to the US during WWII. One episode described by Lord Halifax is the conversion of Harvard into Oxford, so that the latter could confer an honorary degree on President Roosevelt in 1941. This required that ‘all who could be discovered in the United States with Oxford Doctors’ or Masters’ Degrees were got together; two Masters became proctors for the occasion’. The black and gold gown of Lord Halifax (sometime Chancellor of Oxford University) was brought over, etc. etc.

Unfortunately, the President was indisposed and unable to attend, so he asked General Watson (Pa) to deputise for him, which meant that Pa had to read the President’s speech. Halifax then states that “After his death Mrs Watson gave me the typescript from which her husband had read
the President’s acceptance speech and which is now lodged in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It is historically interesting, not only for its connexion with what I believe to be a unique occasion in the history of Oxford University, but also for the marginal note by the President near its end. ‘Here Pa will sing ‘Take me back to Old Virginny.’” I could find no reference to this speech in the many biographies of Roosevelt on hand at the UNCW Library in Wilmington, and emailed the Bodleian to determine whether the document was inspectable. They were at first very surprised at my request, but, after a few weeks, were able to locate the document – in good condition, and I was thus privileged to be able to view it in the temporary vault set up while the New Bodleian is restructured.  It does not reveal much of significance, the bulk of the address consisting of a quotation by the then US Ambassador to Great Britain, John Winant. An obvious incongruity is the note of levity introduced by Roosevelt’s marginal note, which is in sharp contrast to the very solemn tenor of the speech.                        More on my visit in next month’s report.                                                                                                                          (May 31, 2012)

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