A Day to Remember - Part II
By Robert Eltinge Lasher
The cars moved slowly toward the village through a George
Innes landscape of sun slanting against elm-graced meadows and onto the wild
purple asters which the old people called Summerís Farewell. An aroma of
ripening apples, Concord grapes, hay and barnyards drifted through the windows,
prompting the president to ask the princess if the air was too much for her.
Would she like the windows raised?
"No, thank you, sir," the princess responded and,
with a mischievous glance, "Surely, Mr. President, with all your influence,
could you not control the winds?" which brought yet another presidential
There was a last vista of fields and beyond them the
blue-shadowed Shawangunk mountain ridge. The lavender Catskills were a distant
backdrop as the cars dipped down the long hill leading into the village of New
Paltz. At the corner of Main and Chestnut streets, the presidentís car paused
to let traffic pass. This was the hour when villagers fetched their mail at the
post office. They did double takes when they saw the limousines and recognized
the president. He waved to them and called out cheery hellos. Spotting a friend,
I waved as well.
Arnold directed the driver to the old street on the western
edge of the village where the lowlands called the Flats meet the Wallkill River.
This was where, on a slight rise, the Huguenots had built their houses, first of
log, later of stone. Most of the latter remain. With their high-pitched roofs
and low eaves, they resemble the old houses in northeast France where the
settlers had lived before fleeing from 17th century religious persecutions.
Roosevelt explained all this to Princess Martha, occasionally asking us to
confirm a point or to expand on one.
I suggested stopping at my cousin Lanetta Elting DuBoisí
house, originally built in 1694 and hardly changed after an addition in 1724.
Not only was this one of the most interesting houses on the old street, but so
was its occupant, whom I was confident would rise to the occasion.
The front door open, I went in, calling to Cousin Lanetta, who
answered from the basement kitchen where she was putting up grape jelly. When I
told her who was on her doorstep she responded airily, " Oh, yes, Bobby -
Stalin and Churchill too, I suppose." But after she took a peek out the
window she muttered, "GraciousÖwell, well!" and followed me out to
Cousin Lanetta with her black velvet neck ribbon, bushy
eyebrows and angular face, had an unmistakably French appearance and a courtly
manner to go with it. I made the introductions and she responded with the little
bow she reserved for special circumstances.
"Itís a great honor you do me by coming to see my
house, Mr. Roosevelt," said my cousin.
"I didnít come to see your house, Mrs. DuBois, I came
to see you," the president replied. It was this remark, Cousin Lanetta
later admitted, which succeeded in melting her Republican reserve.
Cousin Lanetta entertained Roosevelt with two or three stories
about the house and family, a subject which led to genealogy and the mention of
a Dutch forebear. "Well, well, I think heís an ancestor of mine,
too," responded Roosevelt. "We are either fourth cousins three times
removed or third cousins four times removed." We all laughed, and she
invited everyone inside. All accepted except the president.
I sat with him alone, except for a Secret Service man who
stood near the open car door. The other security men had fanned out around my
cousinís house and up and down the street where they blocked off traffic.
(Only later did Arnold and I learn that before the arrival of the president, we
had been investigated. Agents had visited friends and neighbors and questioned
people at the college, at stores we patronized and even at our favorite tavern.)
By then a small crowd had gathered on the opposite side of the
narrow street. The president said hello to them and waved. Several of the
bystanders smiled back and returned his wave. Not so another of my cousins, Bob
Deyo, whom I had noticed was sitting on his front stoop across the way. Cousin
Bob, and antiques dealer well-known for his outspoken Republican views, was
glaring at the president who, luckily, didnít appear to notice.
"This street has not changed at all," said
Roosevelt, looking at the buildings. "I remember visiting several of these
houses years ago. Some didnít even have electricity."
"Cousin Lanetta still hasnít," I said, "not a
telephone either. She wonít have them."
"She is a real traditionalist," the president
observed as he offered me a cigarette and fitted one into his holder. The car
lighter failed, so I dug a kitchen match out of my pocket. After a slight
hesitation, I scratched it on the sole of my shoe, lighting his, then my own
"I see youíre a real countryman, Bob," the
president said with a smile as he accepted my light. At this, Cousin Bob rose
from his chair, stamped across his stoop, went in and slammed the door.
Roosevelt, oblivious to this lamentable display of temper,
went on to ask me about the local economy. Did many tourists come to New Paltz
in the summer? What freight did the Wallkill Valley Railroad carry? What was the
state of farming here? He also asked about the political leaders he had known in
Ulster County - but most of them were before my time. In the end he brought the
conversation back to two of his favorite subjects, history and architecture.
Glancing out the window, he joked, "Well, hereís my
cousin," as Cousin Lanetta came out of her house with the princess.
"Now please donít go just yet, Mr. Roosevelt," she
said, and hurried back into the house, returning with a basket of shiny red
Princess Martha accepted one and began to eat it as did the
others, including the children and the security guards. The president, however,
slipped his into his jacket pocket. "These are my favorites," he said
to Cousin Lanetta, "but Iíll save mine until after supper." Cousin
Lanetta out the basket with the remaining apples in the car by the presidentís
feet, giving us all a big smile and a final bow before the cars moved off. (My
cousinís house is now a museum open to the public as the Bevier-Elting house.)
The president asked the chauffeur to drive by the New Paltz
State Teachers College (now a branch of the State University of New York) where
he had laid the cornerstone for one of the buildings when he was governor. I
remembered it well, having been an 11-year-old bystander in the small crowd of
spectators that day.
Arnold asked if there were other places the president would
like to visit, but after a look at his watch, he answered, "Iím afraid I
must go - my telephones are waiting for me." We hastened to say he could
leave us there at the college, but the president would have none of that,
insisting he take us back home.
I hoped on the way back that Mother might have a chance to
meet the president, but as we got out by the horse block, I saw that the car and
Mother were gone. As we said good-byes, the president urged us to visit him the
next time he was a Hyde Park. Due to war-time secrecy about his travels,
however, we never knew when he was home. He died a year and a half later.
The president and his entourage were barely out of sight
before I rang up Aunt Frank.
"Aunt Frank, who do you think came here this
afternoon?" I asked.
"Well, who, Bobby?"
When I told her, she said, "I do hope you invited them
"Yes, I did. I showed them around, and since they seemed
interested, I explained how the Franklin works."
Aunt Frankís only comment was characteristic: "Well,
they must have been impressed."
(Mr. Lasher resides in New Paltz, Ulster County, NY. He is a former war
correspondent for Voice of America and a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.
We thank our dear friend very much for his kind permission to reprint this