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  • svanderschaaff

Harvard with the Roosevelts

A few posts ago I wrote about my great-grandfather Wallace Brockman Porter, the son of a railroad tallyman who won a scholarship at age 16 from the railroad and would be able to attend college.

The newspaper article announcing Wallace's scholarship said he had not yet decided where to attend college.

He would go to Harvard. Graduating in 1913 and winning honors along the way.

When he left Harvard, the family story goes, he was so grateful to the rail road for its financial assistance that he worked for it for his entire career, retiring after 47 years as a Civil Engineer.

Who else was in the Harvard class of 1913 and who else studied engineering? One of the certainties of looking through old yearbooks of that era is that among the names of men you will find a who's who of America's powerful families.

In this case, there were a few Roosevelts in the class of 1913, including Gracie Hall Roosevelt, Eleanor's youngest brother. I have no doubt that my great-grandfather Wallace did not socialize with Gracie.

(Photo of Gracie Hall Roosevelt above)

The societal and financial differences between them would have been profound. And yet, there is much to learn from the secretaries notes for the class of 1913, and much to see about how life, despite opportunities and connections, can be a tough. Gracie's fate is an example of this.

The Roosevelt house at CUNY says this about Gracie:

Gracie Hall Roosevelt (1891-1941) was Eleanor Roosevelt's younger brother. ... She took pleasure in Hall's brilliant performance at school, and was proud of his many accomplishments, which included a graduate degree in engineering from Harvard. Hall married twice and had a total of six children. His second marriage ended in divorce in 1937, by which time his life was plagued with alcoholism. He spent the remaining few years of his life near his sister, living in a small building on on the Roosevelt place in Hyde Park until his death in 1941.”

My great-grandfather Wallace had a difficult time during the Great Depression. But he persevered. And he raised the man who would lift my grandmother Pasty out of a working-class life after her father died in a tragic accident.

As I look for how the path of The Judge and my own intersect, I am learning to see the experiences of these past generations with a more humanizing view. This "wish list" of experiences for the graduating class of 1913 at Harvard is interesting because it reveals the aspirations and frustrations behind the degree. You cannot make out a single face in the photograph below.

In some ways, it hardly matters. They were all men. Most were white.

One was my great-grandfather.

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