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Hope Springs Eternal at FDR's Old Haunt for Healing

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Chicago Tribune


WARM SPRINGS, Ga. - It had been more than 70 years since Suzanne Pike first dipped her feet into the warm, soothing waters that helped her, she insists, begin to walk on her own when she was a child.

Over the weekend, as the outdoor pools at Warm Springs reopened to the public for the first time in 30 years, Pike returned to assist others who paid $20 a piece to swim in the therapeutic pool as a fund-raiser to build a $6 million museum that is planned for the grounds of the Little White House Historic Site. For two days, 71-year-old Pike had eagerly waited her turn to slip into the water pool, but at the end of the day on Sunday, she said, her feet and legs were too sore for her to enter.

"I had really wanted to get in, but I'll have to wait until the next time," she said Sunday after assisting more than 400 people who came to the pool during the two-day period.

She had first come here when she was barely 2 months old, for treatment of her clubfeet after receiving a special invitation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Pike, who lives in Warm Springs and works as a ranger at the site during special events, said she was the first non-polio patient treated here. Her orthopedic surgeon had been selected to run the hospital, and when he met Roosevelt, the doctor shared her story with him.

"Mr. Roosevelt's reply was, `By all means, bring her here,'" said Pike, who still wears foot braces and walks with the aid of a cane.

Years before, Roosevelt had discovered the benefits of the waters and had traveled to this town nestled among thick forests of Georgia pines to float in the buoyant crystal-blue water heated to 88 degrees year-round by a thermal spring 3,800 feet beneath nearby Pine Mountain.

Rich in minerals such as bicarbonate, silica, calcium, magnesium, sulfate and potassium, many believe in the spring's medicinal powers, insisting that it can cure anything from gall and kidney stones to gout and diabetes. But what most people, including Roosevelt, came here for in the 1930s and 1940s was to ease the discomfort of polio, which rendered his legs useless.

Since polio was eradicated from the U.S. in 1979, the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation that the president helped to develop is still used for treatment of other forms of paralysis. And just as they did more than a half-century ago, patients, who now swim in an indoor pool, believe the water has special powers.

"When you get in there, the water lifts you up and it's like you are standing," said David Burke, a 44-year-old park service ranger who has been confined to a wheelchair for 20 years. "The water is so smooth, it feels like lotion all over your body. It's a tropical blue jewel."

Though officials do not promote the healing qualities of the water, hundreds of thousands of people travel to Georgia's seven natural springs every year, filling plastic jugs with the warm water. In the past, Indian warriors used the water in Warm Springs to heal injuries sustained during battle, and during the Victorian era, the rich vacationed here, using the springs as a health spa.

Though the three public pools, once used for therapy, have not been used by patients in 60 years and were closed to the public 30 years ago because of disrepair, people still come to stick their hands and toes in the spring water that sprouts from a valve in the ground. Some are drawn by the mystique of the water; others are lured by the history here.

"The main thing is that the water was just good for the soul," said Lonice Barrett, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the site, which includes the Little White House, the retreat built by Roosevelt. "These were people who were bedridden, and it was a great opportunity for them to have some fun. Whether the healing qualities of the water were real or imagined, they got a benefit from it. They felt better just being in it."

For Roosevelt, Warm Springs was more than a vacation getaway. Here, he was among friends - people who often were ostracized for having polio and often were not allowed to swim in public pools because people feared they could catch the contagious virus. It was here that he developed some of his best-known policies, including the New Deal, which established recovery programs for the agriculture industry and other businesses affected by the Depression.

"He identified with the poor and downtrodden and he was such an inspiration, especially to the people down here," Barrett said. "He was sensitive about people in Washington seeing his leg braces, but here he felt like he was among friends. He could relax and enjoy being himself."

Odie Burke, 40, of nearby Pine Mountain Valley, said he came with his wife, Sarah, 40, to experience history.

"When you walk through the gallery and see all the black-and- white pictures of President Roosevelt at the pool, there is a sense of nostalgia. To come here where he was and swim in the pool he swam in is like seeing it in color," said Burke, who moved to Georgia from Montana 14 years ago. "It's like reliving a piece of history."

John Norris, 58, of nearby Greenville, learned to swim in the pool as a child. His father had been paralyzed from the waist down, and the two of them came here almost every day.

"What I remember is that there were always young people swimming and playing water polo. They were patients here, but they were always having fun," Norris said. "All of us thought this was the best thing since the invention of water."

"Looking back on all this, it has meant so much to me," Pike said. "I have seen this go from a place that treated polio to one that treats all kinds of illnesses. It helps people become as independent as they can and live rewarding lives. I think if the president were here today, he would be real pleased."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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