Eleanor Roosevelt’s last visit as first lady to WNC

Special to The Black Mountain News

Eleanor Roosevelt was a prominent part of Mary Bannerman Wheeler’s childhood.

“She was just always there,” said Wheeler.

While the two women were likely in each other’s presence briefly in 1945, Wheeler’s memory is not tied to a personal encounter.

“It was the write-up and the picture of mother and daddy with Eleanor Roosevelt looking at a schedule,” she said.

The photo ran with a March 13, 1945, multipage story in The Asheville Times.

Roosevelt’s visit centered on the Council of Southern Mountain Workers meeting in Montreat. For two days, the first lady focused on education and work in the mountains. Wheeler’s father and mother, Warren Wilson College president Arthur Bannerman and his wife, Lucile, officially hosted the excursion, according to the paper.

A robust schedule saw Roosevelt attend meetings in Montreat, greet students from around the region and tour the U.S. Army’s redistribution station in Asheville.

At the end of the first day, Arthur Bannerman’s passion for mountain education took center stage. His conversation focused on education through work, a concept that is still synonymous with Warren Wilson College. In her nationally syndicated column, “My Day,” Roosevelt noted Bannerman took so much time discussing the merits of the work program that the second speaker had to be rescheduled.

The next day, Roosevelt traveled with the Bannermans to Warren Wilson College. Her speech, “The Challenge of the Future to American Youth,” was delivered off-the-cuff, according to The Asheville Times.

“If I prepare them in advance,” she told the paper, “I soon find that I am only reading a collection of words. I like to think it through as I talk.”

While Wheeler does not have a personal recollection of the speech, she and her husband, singer-songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler, recently welcomed Ernst and Pat Laursen to their home in Swannanoa to discuss Roosevelt’s visit. Ernst Laursen was a high school student in Warren Wilson’s program in 1945.

Laursen recalls Roosevelt dining with the Bannermans in the Laura Sunderland Hall, which used to house the college cafeteria.

“My mother was the campus dietitian,” Laursen said. “There were chickens being raised on campus, and they were on the menu that afternoon.”

Later that day, Roosevelt returned to the White House. It would be her last trip to the Asheville area as first lady. Her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in Warm Springs, Georgia, less than a month later.

“I feel that I learned a great deal in these two days,” Roosevelt wrote in her column, “and am very grateful that I was asked to take part in the discussions of the Council of Southern Mountain Workers.”

Wheeler said she doesn’t recall a specific conversation with her parents about Roosevelt’s visit to Warren Wilson College.

“It was so much a part of our history,” she said, “that I just always knew about it.”

For Arthur Bannerman, Roosevelt’s visit was another high point in a career of high points. By 1945, he had served as Warren Wilson’s president for three years. He oversaw the school’s transition from Asheville Farm School to junior college and would move it to a four-year institution two decades later.

“My father was wonderful,” Wheeler said. “There are not enough superlatives to describe my father and the work he did to improve the lives of mountain people. To have a close encounter with people like Eleanor Roosevelt was a normal part of his life. That was just daddy.”