Sunday, October 17, 2010

Find Comfort in Warm Springs, Georgia

Dowdell's Knob in Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park. This was FDR's favorite picnic spot in Georgia.
Photo by Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR).
Excerpt From: Comfort by Joyce Moyer Hostetter, published by Calkins Creek
Tourism Attractions: Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation,
Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park
Location: Warm Springs, Georgia
Photos: Click to enlarge

Long before he became the iconic president that we read about in history today, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a New York senator who had just been crippled with a devastating disease: polio. The disease was so debilitating that he knew his dreams of becoming president someday might never be realized. Would anyone vote for a candidate with a disability? Then this New Yorker heard about a peaceful place down South called Warm Springs, Georgia, where the therapeutic natural springs there had made a dramatic difference in a polio victim’s recuperation.

The fictional Ann Fay Honeycutt in Comfort is one such young victim, who is struggling to recover from a polio outbreak in mid-1940s North Carolina. Although her hero, President Roosevelt, has recently passed away when she arrives at Warm Springs, Roosevelt’s presence is still strong. She is about to enter a place that she would have never dreamed possible and will change her life forever. Ironically, the place (now known as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation) would become a forerunner for innovations and laws that would change many lives for decades to come from all over the nation . . .

From Comfort . . .

When we arrived, Papaw took us right into the grounds of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. It seemed like it was open to just anyone. He drove real slow by a huge white building with tall columns and lots of windows. A girl in a wheelchair was going toward the building, and when she got to it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The door opened for her and she hadn’t even done a thing!

“Well, if that don’t beat all,” said Daddy.

FRD's statue at Dowdell's Knob,
Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park
Photo by GDNR
I thought how I had to struggle to get doors open while I was propped on my crutches. Was every door in this place so easy to get through? What would it be like to live in a place designed especially for crippled people?

FDR's statue gazes out over his favorite
picnic spot in Georgia, Dowdell's Knob.
While we sat there and stared, the door opened again and a man came through in a wheelchair. Not a big wooden one like all the ones I’d ever seen, but a shiny metal one. He must’ve thought we looked a little lost because he wheeled his chair over to the car. Papaw told him we just wanted a glimpse of Warm Springs. “We saw a picture in the paper,” he said. “And it made us want to visit Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite place.”

Mr. Shoes poked his head out the window, and the minute the man saw him he got a big grin on his face. He let Mr. Shoes sniff his hand. “You sure do bring up some good memories,” he said. “The president had a dog like this, you know."

A party at Warm Springs for polio patients.
Photo by Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute
for Rehabilitation (RWSIR)
Then Papaw told him about me having polio. And right then and there, the man invited us to park the car and join him for a tour! None of us ever expected that. He waited for us to get out and then he introduced himself.

“Fred Botts,” he said, shaking hands with every single one of us. “I’m the registrar here at the foundation."

Mr. Botts turned his chair toward the building with the tall pillars. “This building is called Georgia Hall.” He looked up at Ida and Ellie and asked, “Which one of you wants to open the magic door?" Of course they both wanted to. So he said, “Whoever steps first in the front of the all-seeing eye.” He pointed to the door, and Ida and Ellie about knocked each other down to get there first. Just like that, the door opened and Mr. Botts took us inside.

Georgia Hall today.
The lobby had tall windows that let in lots of light. It was a grand entryway that stretched way out from side to side but wasn’t very deep. There was sofas and chairs and potted plants and pictures in fancy frames hanging on the walls. Mr. Botts led us to a big dining room off to the right. He showed us just where the president would’ve have sat if he’d been there for Thanksgiving dinner. “We always looked forward to our Thanksgiving meal with the president,” he said. “This year we left an empty space at the table to honor him.”

I asked him what it was like to actually talk to President Roosevelt.

“Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like meeting your next-door neighbor. That’s what he called us. ‘Hi ya, neighbor,’ he would say when he drove up to people’s houses or saw folks in town. He loved to talk about farming and trees and horses and fishing.”

After we toured Georgia Hall, Mr. Botts wanted to show us the rest of Warm Springs. So he talked to a man in a bow tie at the desk in the lobby of Georgia Hall. “Ed, could you call for the trailer?”

The historic quad at the campus of the Roosevelt
Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation
The man picked up the telephone right away.

“We’ll just wait here for a few minutes. Someone will come get us,” said Mr. Botts.

And sure enough, before long a bus pulled up out front. The driver opened some doors in the back and pulled out a ramp. With his help, Mr. Botts rolled his wheelchair right into the back of that bus. And we followed.

We sat on seats that were lined up against the walls facing each other like sofas in a living room. While we rode, Mr. Botts showed how the bus had places to store crutches and even room for people on stretchers to ride along.

Polio patients receive warm water therapy at the
Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. Photo by RWSIR
We stopped next to a big building with huge glass windows. “This is our new pool that we use for therapy,” said Mr. Botts. “We won’t go inside, though, because I want to show you the original pools.”

The bus took us to some other swimming pools and we got out and walked around. A man was crawling to the pool. “See that gentleman?” asked Mr. Botts. “Before he was president, when he had more time to spend here, that could have been Franklin Roosevelt. At Warm Springs he was a polio like everyone else. If he needed to get somewhere and crawling was the easiest way, then that’s what he’d do.”
That really surprised me. In every picture I’d seen of the president he was standing or sitting at a table. I just couldn’t imagine him on his hands and knees.

Mr. Botts told us to put our hands into the water. “Feel how warm it is? Almost ninety degrees.”

I could see why the place was called Warm Springs—on account of the water, of course. But everything about this place seemed warm. There was a breeze, but even though it was late November it wasn’t the kind of wind to make you shiver.

Camp Dream at the Roosevelt Warm Springs
Institute for Rehabilitation.
On top of that, everybody was real friendly. A couple of patients came up to me and asked when I had the polio and if I was coming there to stay. Mr. Botts said, “Oh we’re working on that.” He looked at me. “You really should come.”

All the way back to Papaw and Mamaw’s house I kept hearing him say that line. You really should come. Even the tires on Papaw’s car were singing those words. You really should come . . .

--Excerpted from COMFORT Copyright © 2009 by Joyce Moyer Hostetter. All rights reserved.

Tourism Guide
A view from Dowdell's Knob
This novel had a strong personal appeal for me because I was born with a severely clubbed right foot. After multiple surgeries and casting, I started kindergarten wearing corrective braces. Naturally, this drew some teasing—that is, until my best friend explained to everyone that the braces were “action boots.” That sounded pretty neat to a bunch of five year-olds.

Sometimes the support of friends is the only thing that makes life bearable. My short time as a cripple was nothing compared with the hardships that so many young children, men, and women endured for the rest of their lives in the days before the polio vaccine was developed. The novel Comfort is a story about how the joy of friendship can overcome even the emotional devastation of a crippling disease like polio. Although a fictional character, Ann Fay represents the real experiences of thousands of young children in the first half of the 20th century.

FDR and Eleanor at the McCarthy Cottage, his home in
Warm Springs before building the Little White House.
Photo by RWSIR
Ann Fay’s cruel nickname at school was “Click,” but at Warm Springs, she found comfort in the companionship of a new family, one made up of children who shared her condition. For many who attended the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, meaningful life began again. None of this would have been possible without the fierce dedication and leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. In his war against the dreaded disease, he demanded the same terms that he offered the Nazis: unconditional surrender.

The McCarthy Cottage today, also where the movie
Warm Springs was filmed in 2005.
Photo by RWSIR
A wonderful companion to the novel Comfort is the HBO movie Warm Springs, starring Kenneth Branagh as a younger Roosevelt. The magic of Joseph Sargent‘s artful direction shows how Roosevelt found his soul again at Warm Springs. Cynthia Nixon puts in an outstanding performance as a younger Eleanor Roosevelt taking her first steps towards becoming an inspiring public speaker in her own right. The movie also tells the tale of Roosevelt’s inspiration and building of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, the world’s first rehabilitation center for polio victims. In this film, viewers will see a very intimate, rare look at Roosevelt the man, including all his faults and weaknesses, both physical and otherwise. However, they will also see the powerful spirit that would make him iconic in the near future. In a very direct sense, Roosevelt’s experiences with polio and Warm Springs prepared him better than any other president to lead the nation through the great trials that lay ahead.

There are many connections between the novel Comfort and the movie Warm Springs, although both were independent projects. The real life historical character of Fred Botts in the novel is portrayed as a younger man in the movie. The movie, set in the twenties, was partially filmed in the McCarthy Cottage, where Roosevelt lived before building the Little White House. The historic pools that first drew Roosevelt to Warm Springs became a central part of the rehabilitation institute.

The movie shows how Roosevelt traveled from a place of cold darkness to a place of warm light. This was not just a physical journey but a journey within his soul to a place many still call the Spirit of Warm Springs. He didn't want his work with the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to just benefit the people he knew in life; he wanted the foundation to have a positive impact on many generations to come. The novel Comfort is the fulfillment of that dream after his passing, told through the spiritual journey of Ann Fay. The Spirit of Warm Springs continues to live on in places like Camp Dream, a beautiful outdoor recreation program for children with disabilities.

Today, the institute is a living memorial by serving as a rehabilitation hospital and an innovative vocational center for those with severe disabilities. Readers of the novel can tour the historic quad and buildings where Ann Fay found her place in life again and learned to walk. Georgia Hall, where she and her friends played games and sang songs, is now a beautiful exhibit with many period photographs from the storied institution’s incredible history. The public can go on guided tours of the historic area, which was designed to feel more like a pretty college campus than a cold medical facility.

FDR's Ford on display at the Little White House.
FDR converted this car with hands-only controls.
Photo by GDNR
The original pools that Roosevelt swam in are a separate museum right next to the institute. Around the corner is the spectacular museum of the Little White House, which includes a large exhibition building with items such as Roosevelt’s automobile that he converted to hands-only controls. The Little White House offers a 13-minute movie about Roosevelt, which is a must-see for its powerful presentation.

These three tours take up about half a day, but the Warm Springs area offers many more attractions. The little town itself has a wonderful block of antique and gift shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, and even a historic hotel right next to the visitor center. Roosevelt often visited the ice cream parlor in the hotel.

Family-friendly attractions very close by include the beautiful Callaway Gardens, Wild Animal Safari at Pine Mountain, Butts Mill Farm, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park. Learn about these attractions in the Tourism Links at the end of this article. One of Roosevelt’s favorite picnic spots on Pine Mountain was Dowdell’s Knob, which offers a spectacular view of the valley. He often drove there in his converted car, and now his life-size statue sits atop the mountain resting quietly on the spot that gave him so much peace. Dowdell’s Knob is a must-see attraction.
A rental cabin in the beautiful Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park.
Photo by GDNR

Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park today also offers many hiking trails, rustic lodges and cabin rentals, and scenic restaurants to eat in. Driving through the park is all it takes for one to realize what drew Roosevelt to return to this gorgeous area so many times in his troubled life.

The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation helped not only to change the way our nation heals the disabled but also how we view those with disabilities in general. I was reminded of this fact on the tour when the guide pointed out the brick exercise platforms where children like Ann Fay learned to raise their wheelchairs over curbs. Back then, the children had to return to a society that was not handicap accessible. Many of the graduates from the institute went on to play profound roles in transforming our nation to allow access for handicap citizens. Readers can learn more about these remarkable men and women at the end of Comfort in the resources section. Joyce did a great deal of research for her novel, which is a sequel to the award-winning novel Blue.

One testament to Joyce’s powerful writing is the way the tour guide kept referring to Ann Fay as a real person during my research trip to Warm Springs. At one point, the guide had to stop and assure me that she did know that Ann Fay was not a real person. However, I completely understood her passion because I felt the strong connection myself. When I first entered Georgia Hall and the door automatically swished open, the story leaped to life. Indeed, the novel holds a prominent place in the Little White House gift shop because it tells the story of Warm Springs so well.

Fortunately for me, my foot was rehabilitated by the time I entered first grade. Comfort made me wonder what my life would have been like if I had been born in a different era not so long ago when those with defects and disabilities were looked down upon and ignored by society rather than being welcomed and encouraged to achieve, as they are today. In a very real sense, I am one of the many beneficiaries of the Spirit of Warm Springs, which sought to redefine how our society deals with the challenges of all disabilities.
An adult polio patient receiving therapy in the
same pools that Ann Fay used.
Photo by RWSIR

Another major theme of Comfort is how Ann Fay’s family deals with her father’s Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome after he returns home from war in Europe. Much like polio at the time, there was no formal or effective treatment for this disorder. Today offers a sad connection as the families of many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are still facing the largely misunderstood affliction. I’ve been hearing the radio commercials about families trying to deal with this disorder in a loving way, and perhaps Comfort could help them cope with the isolation that normally develops. Many fathers from these wars never returned home at all, but others returned as different men, souls that were torn in half by the horrors they faced on the battlefield. Comfort offers a beautiful explanation for this syndrome and also a sobering challenge to the family on dealing with its effects.

Comfort is the fourth young adult book featured on SELTI. The others are the Maggie Valley series by Kerry Madden, Upclose: Harper Lee (a biography, also by Kerry), and Alabama Moon by Watt Key. Alabama Moon was made into a movie starring John Goodman. Please check out these prior features at the links below.

Hollywood Visits Monroeville: Up Close with Harper Lee

Today’s Tom Sawyer: Camping Under an Alabama Moon:

Vampires Vs. Pancakes: Maggie Valley

Join SELTI on Facebook for an introduction to all posts and email alerts whenever new posts get published.!/group.php?gid=289783765813

Tourism Links

Joyce Moyer Hostetter (Order the books, learn about the author)

Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation (Home to Georgia Hall)

Roosevelt's Little White House Historic Site and Historic Pools

Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park (I could spend a week here!)

Town of Warm Springs

Callaway Gardens (includes a man-made beach!)

Butts Mill Farm (includes pony rides for kids and much more)

Explore all that the beautiful state of Georgia has to offer

Calkins Creek (publisher of Comfort and other great books)

Author Links

Joyce was already on the same page with me (even before we met) when she wrote Comfort. She included a great resources section at the end of the novel for readers who wanted to learn more about the real story of polio, Warm Springs, and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The links she provided in the novel are below, but the book also offers more recommendations for other books and related videos. Whatever Happened to Polio? – A Smithsonian Institution online exhibit about polio, the epidemics, and vaccines. - The Disability is Natural website provides insight and resources for understanding how alike we all are and how disabilities do not define the individual. - Site of Kids Together, Inc., an organization formed to provide resources for people with disabilities. This Veterans Administration site provides information about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This page contains links to Frequently Asked Questions, a fact sheet about PTSD, and a video. - The official website of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation (formerly known as the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation).


  1. I really enjoyed this. I have lived in Warm Springs 30 of the last 40 years. I am a historical reenactor of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It has been my privilege to call Joyce "friend" for several years. Both "Blue" and "Comfort" are great reads.

  2. I was fortunate to visit Warm Springs and the Little White House with my family when I was a child. Reading this article and the excerpt has awakened my interest once again. I look forward to reading "Comfort" very much!