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Bremerton came together for FDR ball
When Bremerton native Bob Lamb thinks about birthday parties, he thinks about one that happened two years before he was even born.
It was the first-ever Birthday Ball for Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Jan. 30, 1934, in Bremerton. And his parents, Harold and Vera Adele Lamb, were there.
“Looking back at it now, what’s amazing is that everybody came together for it,” said Lamb, now 78. “It didn’t matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat, an Elk, a Legion member, in the VFW, part of the labor unions, or just lived in town, everyone celebrated.”
Perhaps that was because this birthday party was more than just a party. It was the beginning of what would become annual parties to raise funds for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation for Infantile Paralysis which today is known as the March of Dimes.
Lamb’s interest in the first Birthday Ball in Bremerton came about when he found a souvenir program from the event among his parents’ things. The program explains that the American Federation of Labor began the movement for the balls, to honor a president that they thought deserved thanks for all he did to help the nation. Parties were planned across the nation on Jan. 30, 1934, to celebrate his 52nd birthday. To honor him, those who came together were to donate money to help the foundation he began.
But the party and the foundation also has special meaning to Lamb, who battled polio just as President Roosevelt had.
“When I was four, I had polio,” he said. “But it was a very mild case and I outgrew it. I had problems with a curved spine, but later it seemed to straighten itself out. I guess you’d say I had the best surgeon possible — the man upstairs.”
Lamb went about his life, attending and graduating from schools in Bremerton. He went to Olympic College and then to the University of Washington where in October of 1956, he was stricken with polio again.
“Oct. 12, 1956,” Lamb said. “I know the date because it was a Friday and the university was giving polio shots on the following Monday.”
But by Monday he was fully paralyzed and in isolation at Harrison Hospital in Bremerton.
“It came on like a bad case of the flu,” he said. “I told my Dad I couldn’t go to school and when I tried to sit up, nothing moved.”
For the first six weeks, only his physician could come into his room. He could see his fiancee standing on the other side of the window, but couldn’t wave. But by the third month, he began to regain some feeling in his body.
“I asked my doctor what he was doing,” Lamb said. “He was standing at the end of my bed and I could feel something in my feet. “All he said to me was that I was going to walk again.”
Later, Lamb learned that the doctor had been testing his response by sticking needles in his feet.
“For a guy who just wanted to get married, it made for a pretty nice day,” Lamb said.
At about four months, he was walking with crutches, then a cane and within weeks, he could walk on his own. By the spring of 1957, he was back in school and headed toward a degree. He worked 34 years for the Navy Department of Defense and was assigned “everywhere but here,” he said.
“That’s why, when it came time to retire, we came back home,” he said.
Since 1993, he and his wife have lived in Manchester. During his career, he was the director of Human Resources for the Department of Defense.
“I did the same job under about 25 different titles,” he said. “Every time another president got elected, they’d change the title.”
Lamb realizes that if it wasn’t for President Roosevelt and the work he did with Warm Springs, a cure for polio may never have been found.
“It was through the work that his foundation did that Jonas Salk was funded for his research,” Lamb said. “What Roosevelt did directly brought about the end to a terrible disease.”
According to the program for the Birthday Ball in Bremerton, when the announcement was made that communities were joined in to have birthday celebrations, the Bremerton City Commissioners “immediately fell in line to do their share toward making the event a success.”
It was Commissioner Carl S. Halverson that took on creating the souvenir booklet. He sold advertising for it and the proceeds were given to the Warm Springs campaign. Just about anyone who was anyone, including Chief of Police J.W. Tribble and Mayor J.A. MacGillivray bought an ad. So did all the local businesses.
There were several places in Bremerton where people gathered to celebrate. The largest was at the Elks Club at 5th and Pacific, where his parents attended. The program stated that at exactly 8:15 p.m. Pacific Time (11:15 p.m. East Coast Time) the President would address all those at parties across the nation via the radio.
In Washington D.C. the President and Eleanor attended a party at the Statler Hotel. Red Skelton, William O. Douglas and Lucille Ball were among those who attended.
The FDR Library records show that 4,376 communities hosted parties and raised more than $1 million that first year. To increase awareness of the foundation, radio personality Eddie Cantor urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”
By 1945, the foundation Roosevelt started became the March of Dimes and in 1955 Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine.
It was the following year when Lamb had planned to go to get his vaccination, that he came down with polio.
“When I returned to school one of my advisors told me there was one good thing about me having polio,” Lamb said. “He told me that he came to class on that Monday and asked how many students had gotten their polio shot. When no one raised their hand, he told them their classmate ‘Mr. Lamb’ was in Harrison Hospital in Bremerton.with polio.
“The following day he asked the question again and he said every student raised their hand,” Lamb said.
Although polio was thought to be a childhood disease, President Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39. He was paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair throughout his life. He could stand with the aid of leg braces, according to FDR library files. He was committed to finding a way to rehabilitate himself and others afflicted with infantile paralysis. In 1924, FDR visited a rundown spa in Warm Springs, Ga., where buoyant mineral waters were thought to have therapeutic powers.
In 1926 when the spa faced hardship, FDR purchased it for $200,000 creating a center called the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. It opened its doors to patients from all over the country. Throughout his governorship and his presidency, he returned to the springs for the therapeutic nature of the warm springs water.
Interestingly enough, Lamb actually met FDR when the President came to Bremerton on Aug. 12, 1944. Lamb was about 8 years old and came to visit his mother who managed the officers club at the base.
“At first the bartender told me I couldn’t come in and I was disappointed because whenever I showed up, the officers would buy me candy and coke and ice cream,” Lamb said. “I went outside and just sat down and soon a man came out and told me there was someone who wanted to talk to me.”
Lamb went inside and spent an hour talking to the President who bought him ice cream.
“I think he was just happy to talk to someone who didn’t know who he was,” Lamb said. “He asked about me and my mother and dad and my great-grandmother who was helping raise me. And then two guys in uniform came up to him and he told me ‘I’ve gotta go to work now.’”
What Lamb likes most about the history of the Birthday Balls is that everyone came together.
“There was no politics involved,” he said. “Everyone was just there to help those with the paralysis. They were concerned and compassionate.”