Recalling her encounter with the nation's 32nd president in 1931, Mary Keirle pauses amid fragrant roses in the garden adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y. (pop. 20,851).
"I was 8 years old," remembers Keirle, 87, of Ballwin, Mo., during her visit last summer to the nation's first presidential library. "He was in my hometown of Alton, Ill., campaigning for the presidency, standing on the porch of the last car on a train."
While Keirle literally grew up while FDR was in the White House, she was eager to learn more about the four-term president, especially since his programs and policies from 1933 to 1945 forever changed the United States. "I was a freshman in college when Pearl Harbor was struck," she says of Japan's attack on the U.S. naval base on Dec. 7, 1941.
Keirle left the library with a deeper appreciation of Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor. "I was surprised that they really lived a far more humble life than I expected," she says. "And I thought the simplicity of FDR's library—and the fact that he built it himself—was very interesting."
Recognizing the need to preserve presidential documents, Roosevelt donated his papers to the federal government in 1939 and, with his mother, gave 16 acres from their Hyde Park estate to build a permanent repository for them.
"A nation must . . . above all, believe in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past," Roosevelt said at the library's dedication on June 30, 1941, "so that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."
Roosevelt became the only sitting president with such a facility and, since his death in office in 1945, his example has been followed by every subsequent president, making FDR the Father of Presidential Libraries.
"Before FDR, when presidents left the White House, they took their papers with them," says Lynn Bassanese, 58, the Roosevelt library's deputy director. "Some gave them to the Library of Congress or their universities, but lots put them in their attics, and they were lost to history. Roosevelt believed the papers should be in one place and people should have a chance to look at them."