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Franklin, Eleanor & Us
Washington College enjoyed a warm relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt courtesy of its board chair Hiram Brown, the top executive at RKO studios and a close friend of the President. Brown, who headed the Board of Visitors and Governors for nearly three decades, arranged for President Roosevelt to come to Chestertown in October of 1933 to receive an honorary degree and deliver remarks at the inauguration of Gilbert Mead as the 19th president of Washington College.
The visit is captured in an RKO newsreel from the day (above). In addition to the 1,600 seated spectators, thousands more crowded onto the lawn in front of William Smith Hall to see the President. His remarks were broadcast to a national audience over the NBC and CBS radio networks and Western Union maintained a direct wire to its newspaper customers. The RKO cameraman’s film of the event was seen in theaters across the United States. (View the full uncut video here.)
In his remarks, Roosevelt advocated for a sound education for every American, encouraged college students and graduates to use what they have learned for the betterment of society, and promised—as a new honorary alumnus—to follow the progress of the college and its graduates for the rest of his life.
Nine years later, Eleanor Roosevelt would return to Washington College to receive her own honorary degree. She was among three prominent women invited to participate in Commencement ceremonies on May 25, 1942, marking the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Washington College. Also honored that day were Mary Adele France, a member of the Class of 1900 who served as president of what is now St. Mary’s College, and famous novelist Sophie Kerr, who bequeathed the bulk of her estate to support the literary arts at Washington College and to endow the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation.
Above: Eleanor Roosevelt returned to Washington College in 1942 to receive an honorary degree and help celebrate the 50th anniversary of co-education at the school. Pictured from left: College board chair Hiram Brown, Maryland Governor Herbert O’Conor, Mrs. Roosevelt, College president Gilbert Mead, and other honorary degree recipients Mary Adele France ’00 and Sophie Kerr.