Resident historian Clifton Potter remembers the time he met Eleanor Roosevelt.
“She was quite tall,” says the Lynchburg College history professor, who met the first lady when he was a youngster. “I wish I’d been older, but it was a momentous event. … It was winter because she was in a coat [with] a massive fur collar.”
Roosevelt’s spirit returns to the Hill City on March 14 when 1970 LC alumna Jane VanBoskirk performs her one-woman show, “Eleanor Roosevelt: Across a Barrier of Fear,” at her alma mater.
“She understands the inner life of Eleanor Roosevelt,” says Sharon Whitney, who wrote the play specifically for VanBoskirk almost two decades ago. “She understands the insecurity, the intention of finding her own voice.”
“Across a Barrier of Fear” follows Roosevelt through much of her life, beginning with her early years and concluding with her instrumental role in helping draft the Declaration for Human Rights — what many consider her greatest achievement — while delving into her troubled childhood, marriage and various works.
Even before she took on the role of the famed first lady, VanBoskirk was no stranger to history-based performances; she says she has been stepping into the shoes of female pioneers, activists, immigrants and missionaries onstage since 1980.
“I’ve always been interested in making history come alive, so to speak, because sometimes it eludes people,” says VanBoskirk, who, among other roles, has brought to life union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway and America’s first saint, Mother Frances Cabrini.
“And with the dramatic form of history, I think it’s a very meaningful way to educate as well as to understand our past.”
Even with previous experience in historical theater, VanBoskirk says Eleanor Roosevelt encompasses all 30 of the women she has tackled in the past as the former first lady faced her share of both hardships and victories throughout her life.
“She really accomplished much and that’s why the play is really called ‘Across a Barrier of Fear,’” says VanBoskirk, who has been portraying Roosevelt for just under 20 years. “[Eleanor] says ‘Today you must do the thing you think you cannot do.’ … She was quite a maverick that way.”
From her work with organizations like the Women’s Trade Union League to her extensive volunteering, Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as first lady from 1933 to 1945, has a legacy that matches that of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“A lot of people have no idea what she did,” says VanBoskirk. “They knew who she was, they knew she was a president’s wife, but they had no idea of her past. I hope to give people that understanding and to look at her as a role model.”
In addition to her political accomplishments, which include lobbying and policy shaping, Roosevelt campaigned for human and women’s rights as well as racial equality, eventually becoming a representative to the United Nations and chair of its Human Rights Commission.
“She was a remarkable woman, particularly in the time in which she lived. If she was living in our day, she would probably be running for president,” Potter says. “… She spent her entire life trying to uplift those who were less fortunate than her family. She went down in coal mines, she visited soup kitchens. Mrs. Roosevelt was everywhere. She was possibly the most active first lady we’ve ever had.”
Like many of the Baby Boomer generation, VanBoskirk grew up in a family of “Roosevelt people.”
“I heard her voice on the radio as a child and on television and I’ve always had an interest in Eleanor just because of my parents,” she says. “They were Democrats and they were ministers and so much of her work was ministry in a way, that she helped people.”
VanBoskirk’s fascination with Roosevelt didn’t combine with her theater background until the late ’90s when Whitney, who had seen some of her one-woman shows, began searching for the perfect vehicle for a new VanBoskirk-led play.
“It just hit me: Jane could do Eleanor,” Whitney recalls. “It was a sudden insight.”
By the time Whitney began writing the piece, the actress already had her costume picked out. She also listened to recordings of the former first lady speaking, the playwright adds.
“She has grown more deeply into the role because of aging, because of inhabiting the role for quite a while now and because she continues to research Eleanor’s life in order to deepen her understanding of it,” Whitney says.
The LC grad eventually stepped away from the play for five years after performing it off and on for just under two decades, but she recently returned to the role, saying it was still relevant in our current political climate.
Eleanor, she says, called out to be heard.
So VanBoskirk listened.
“We need to remember that there have been people in our past that have pointed the way to what’s right, and she’s one of them,” Potter says. “… She did not let convention stand in the way of her doing what she felt was right.”