No ordinary man for no ordinary time

Published 9:43 pm Friday, August 14, 2015

By Thurman Hayes Jr.

One of the great joys of my life is reading, and one of my favorite things to read is biography.

When we lose ourselves in a good biography, we see the challenges that others faced. When we see how God enabled others to meet the need of the hour, we are encouraged in our own journey.


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On a recent vacation I read “No Ordinary Time,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of President Franklin Roosevelt, and his leadership during World War II.

During my lifetime, my favorite president has been Ronald Reagan. But Reagan’s favorite president was FDR, and no wonder. There was a lot in his life to admire.

First, FDR overcame the adversity of polio. As a healthy, vigorous, 39-year-old, FDR went home one day, got in bed, was stricken with polio, and never walked again. He was encouraged by many to simply retire from public life. After all, he came from a wealthy family and was financially set for life.

But FDR refused to let his crippled limbs become a liability. Instead, they became an opportunity to grow, as a person and as a leader. Before polio, he was cocky and not so empathetic toward the suffering of others.

But polio changed him and prepared him to lead with both his head and his heart. After polio, he saw people differently. “Far more intensely than before, he reached out to know them, to understand them, to pick up their emotions, to put himself in their shoes,” Goodwin wrote.

One of the most moving parts of the book was about the president’s visits to servicemen who had been wounded during the war.

Throughout his entire presidency, FDR was never photographed in a wheelchair. As a result, most Americans had no idea that he had lost the use of his legs. But when the president visited military hospitals, he insisted on being wheeled to the bedside of every wounded man.

His aide said, “He asked a Secret Service man to wheel him slowly through all the wards that were occupied by veterans who had lost one or more arms or legs. He insisted on going past each individual bed. He wanted to display himself and his useless legs to those boys. With a cheering smile to each of them, and with a pleasant word, this man who had risen from a bed of helplessness to become president” wanted to inspire others who faced adversity.

The adversity of polio prepared FDR for even greater adversities down the road. During the two years prior to America’s entry into the war, Hitler was raging across Europe.

FDR could see that he had to be stopped and was desperate to provide Churchill and the free world with help. But he was leading a nation that was committed to isolationism. Americans wanted to stay out of the war.

FDR knew that was not even an option. He knew the war was bound to come to us, and that we were unprepared. He knew that whole industries had to be transformed to meet the need for weapons and that an entire generation would have to fight.

How would all that possibly get done?

Somehow, it did. But it was no ordinary time. And this was no ordinary book. I commend it to you.

Dr. Thurman R. Hayes is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Suffolk. Follow him on Twitter at @ThurmanHayesJr.