For many, the people who have played a part in shaping U.S. history are icons, or chapters in a history book. Eleanor Roosevelt is one of those icons, but to Tucson’s Nina Roosevelt Gibson she is also known as just grandma.
Gibson, who currently resides in Vail and has lived in Tucson since 1988, said she learned a lot about humanity, kindness and strength from Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I don’t know that I have the strength that she did,” she said. “When you grow up with them you absorb a lot of things. My grandmother really taught me to respect and value everybody. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, educated or uneducated — everyone has something to offer. You can learn something from everyone.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s impact on history will be featured in a special series being presented in September by Arizona Public Media. “The Roosevelt’s: An Intimate History” will air on PBS beginning Sunday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m.
The seven-part, 14-hour documentary by Ken Burns will feature Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – three members of one of the most prominent and influential families in American history.
In watching a preview of the upcoming series, a humbled Gibson said early on she never realized the notoriety the family name Roosevelt had achieved. To Gibson, Roosevelt must have been a popular American name because roads, streets, libraries and buildings carried the name. Now, knowing what her grandmother and family did to shape the country is a source of pride.
Gibson, the granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, is featured in the series, sharing family stories and intimate moments about her grandmother.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving First Lady of the U.S., serving between March 1933 to April 1945 during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office. While now respected for her service, at the time Eleanor Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady, she advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees.
With death threats, controversy and constant criticism, Gibson said in private the daily trials and tribulations did get to her grandmother, but she was taught that at the end of the day there was still a job to be done and the well-being of the country was a priority.
“My grandmother was the type of woman who taught you that you can have your five minutes of crying, but you get up, pull it together and move forward in a positive way,” Gibson said. “Grandmother was a master politician and she believed in the Democratic Party and what they stood for. But the bottom line is, all the work was about the country and the country’s well being.”
When it came to politics, dinner at the Roosevelt’s family table could be “booming”, Gibson said while stressing there was a mutual respect for principles being discussed.
Gibson’s father, John Roosevelt, played a unique role in the family because he was the lone Republican among the Democrats.
“While there were disagreements, for our family it was never about personal power,” Gibson said. “They argued with fact, not emotion or opinion.”
Despite public criticism, Gibson recalls personal moments with her grandmother and traveling the world.
“She was my grandmother,” Gibson said. “It took a long time for me to realize, even until after I was an adult, that she was so famous. She was always laughing, she would fall asleep just like that. In the end, she truly cared and wanted the best for anyone she met.”
Recalling a 1957 trip to Israel, Gibson laughed as she remembered traveling with Eleanor Roosevelt in a world dominated by men.
After visiting a marketplace where she was given a baby camel, Gibson said they moved on to another location where a tent with a red carpet was set up.
Inside the tent, was an elaborate set up of fruits and food in silver dishes with men sitting at the table. Behind the men were pictures of women from publications such as Playboy, and in the center of those pictures were two photos of Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth fully clothed.
“After looking at all these pictures, I began to giggle,” Gibson said. “Of course I immediately got the grandmother look. So, I stuffed my laughter and went on and had a lovely time.”
In that meeting, Gibson said her grandmother was propositioned to become one of the men’s wife. He didn’t feel she had should have been traveling alone without a male companion or security. As his wife, the man told Eleanor Roosevelt that she would be allowed to travel, but never alone.
“This was funny because my grandmother was so independent,” Gibson said. “She of course declined the proposal. My grandmother didn’t care about self. She didn’t care about money or power. For her, it was taking what she had learned and the advantages she had in life and using it to help others. Man or woman, she used to say, ‘We all put our trousers on one leg at a time.’”
While some didn’t believe she had the right to host press conferences, travel the world alone and stand up for the rights of African Americans and women,
Gibson said her grandmother didn’t care.
“She was courageous in that sense,” she said. “She wasn’t going to let it bother her.”
Carrying on her grandmother’s example to make an impact on society and help people, Gibson went on to graduate with degrees in psychology, working with Southern Arizona organizations such as the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona.
Under the leadership of Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, Gibson also became the founding member and Board Chair of the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center.
Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” will air in the following order, starting Sept. 14, all episodes air from 8 to 10 p.m.:
Get Action (1858 – 1901) - Sunday, Sept. 14 – Examines the early lives of Theodore Roosevelt and his younger cousin, Franklin.
In the Arena (1901 – 1910) – Monday, Sept. 15 – Theodore’s presidency and FDR and Eleanor’s courtship and marriage.
The Fire of Life (1910-1919) – Tuesday, September 16 – The effects of World War I on the lives of the Roosevelts.
The Storm (1920-1933) – Wednesday, Sept. 17 – FDR’s battle with polio and his response to the Great Depression.
The Rising Road (1933-1939) – Thursday, Sept. 18 – FDR’s New Deal and Eleanor’s growing political activism.
The Common Cause (1939-1944) – Friday, Sept. 19 – FDR’s leadership during World War II, while Eleanor tends to wounded servicemen.
A Strong and Active Faith (1944-1962) – Saturday, Sept. 20 – Eleanor’s role as civil rights and U.N. champion after FDR’s death.