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Professor opens history book on FDR

By Victoria Slater
On February 14, 2014

A familiar face in Williams Hall, journalism professor James Tobin is perhaps best known at Miami University for his Journalism 101 lectures and narrative nonfiction Capstone course. However, the Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist is also an award-winning author, and will be presenting his latest biographical book, "The Man He Became: How FDR defied Polio to Win the Presidency," at a discussion and Q&A session next week. The event will take place at 4 p.m. Feb. 18 in the Shriver Heritage Room.

Tobin's book, published this past fall, chronicles President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's struggle with the debilitating disease polio, which he developed at the age 39, resulting in his paralysis from the waist down. Tobin said most are aware of FDR's triumphs as president, including the radical New Deal programs he established, like Social Security, to ease America out of the Great Depression. However, his medical condition is often forgotten. Tobin said his book aims to change this.

"FDR had an incredible comeback from polio and that is story that has been overlook and forgotten," Tobin said. "I wanted to tell this story."

The book was written throughout a 10-year period, in which Tobin took frequent trips to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, to peruse the archives for information about FDR's life and disease. He even took two semesters off to assemble his novel, supported by the funds of two research grants he received, one from Miami's College of Arts and Science, and another from the National Endowment of Humanities.

"I couldn't do my research online. I couldn't even do it all at a library. I had to look at real documents about FDR and his life, so I had to go the archives," Tobin said. "The FDR library has millions of papers about him. I didn't look at millions, but I looked at a lot."

Since its publication, the book has garnered positive appraisals from various news sources such as the Wall Street Journal, whose Dec. 27 review reads, "Mr. Tobin presents [the story] skillfully and with admirable empathy." The book received four stars out of five in USA Today.

While the book may gather an older audience of readers, Tobin said it would appeal to those students interested in reading and writing about history.

"This matters to students who like American history and those students who are interested in writing and taking historical events and transforming them into a story," he said.

He said he hopes students will use his book discussion on Feb. 18, which will feature a Q&A session, as a time to ask questions about the book's writing and research process. He will also discuss how FDR's illness became less known throughout history.

"I hope people will have questions about FDR and his recovery," Tobin said. "Why in recent years have people believed that his disability was covered up? That's a myth. It is an interesting case study, how our knowledge of past events changes over time."

While he is yet to start a new project, Tobin said another historical narrative could soon be in the works. For now, he is content with seeing 10 years of his work displayed in bookstores across the country.

"It's a great source of satisfaction," he said. "The great thing about a book is all that work becomes one physical object that you can present the world and say, 'Look at all the hard work I did.'"


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