As many of you know, I have been a high school science teacher for the past twenty-five years. Every student deals with these teenage years differently, but one thing that almost every student has in common is that need to be noticed in some way. You know, to stand out from the crowd. Some do this by getting good grades, some by being great athletes, or by being – I hate to say it – incredibly immature.
Take birthdays for example. I can’t begin to tell you the number of students that will say something like “Only 37 days until my birthday.” And in case I may forget, they will remind me in some way every few days. Of course, when the actual date of their birthday finally rolls around, they take the day off, so I can’t wish them a happy birthday anyway.
Now, I am the complete opposite. I try to hide on my birthday. I’ve never liked being the center of attention. But for the purpose of this podcast, I do need to let you know that I recently had a birthday on August 4th. And you may be surprised to hear this: there were other people born on this day also. That includes musician Louis Armstrong, baseball’s Roger Clemens, and actor Richard Belzer. But there is one person whose fame far exceeds that of any other celebrity born on this day. I happen to have the same birthday as President Barack Obama.
And because we share this special day, I think that I should be invited to the White House each year so we can celebrate our birthdays together. You know, chat a bit over a nice meal and then each enjoy a large piece of cake.
Sounds a bit far-fetched, but something like this really did happen in January of 1941. A thirteen-year-old girl from Gary, West Virginia named Anna Sklepovich wrote a letter to the late President Franklin Roosevelt to let him know that they were both born on January 30th. Of course, FDR was a wee bit older: He was about to turn 59 years of age.
The president’s private secretary sent Anna a reply on his behalf. It said, “The President thanks you for your birthday greeting, and wishes you also many happy returns of the day. Sincerely, Margaret LeHand.”
Below the typed message was the following handwritten postscript: “He would like to have you come to the White House and meet the President.”
Next thing you know, members of the local press are snapping photos as Anna is boarding a train to make the nearly 400 mile (650 km) trip to Washington, DC.
Upon her arrival on January 28th, Anna wasted no time and headed right over to the White House. It was there that she was informed by members of the Secret Service that while the letter of thanks from Ms. LeHand was indeed genuine, the postscript to meet the President was not.
Instead of meeting FDR, she was whisked away to spend the night at the Police Receiving Home, which was basically a city-run home for abused and orphaned children. Attendants at the home contacted Anna’s mom, who confirmed that she had indeed given her permission to travel to DC alone to meet the President. They told Mrs. Sklepovich that they would be sending Anna right back home. Talk about a big letdown.
But it didn’t take long until the national press took note of the story. Supposedly, the President had read about Anna’s situation in the next morning’s Washington Post and decided to turn the tables on whoever the prankster was that caused this mess.
He instructed the White House Press Secretary Stephen Early to make the arrangements to bring Anna to the White House. Early then contacted George Allen, a former district commissioner who was in charge of the President’s Birthday Ball celebration.
Allen moved quickly and got Anna out of the police receiving home and, instead, put her up in a luxurious room at the famous Mayflower Hotel. For supervision, a police matron named Rose Myrtle Richardson was assigned to be her chaperone. Next up was a meeting at 11:40 AM with the man himself – the President of the United States.
The meeting only lasted for five minutes, but it was one that Anna would remember fondly for the rest of her life. And what did they discuss? World peace. You see, Anna had a brilliant solution to bring a quick halt to the World War that was raging around the globe, and FDR was all ears.
Okay. That never happened. They actually discussed fishing. FDR showed Anna his collection of trophies and stuffed fish that he collected while deep-sea fishing.
He said, “But I’ll bet none of these is as big as the fish in West Virginia.” They exchanged birthday greetings and she was on her way.
Ms. Richardson and Mr. Allen then took Anna on a sightseeing tour of Washington, DC, which included a trip out to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon. This was followed by a stop in a department store to pick up a gift to bring home to her mom: a small replica of the US Capitol. The day also included an appearance with Red Skelton on WJSV radio.
The press quickly coined her “Cinderella Girl” and the next day – January 30th – her birthday – would be a day like a scene lifted from a fairy tale. Anna, donning a new evening gown and silver slippers, was escorted from one presidential ball to the next. Not only did she get to meet the celebrities of the day, but she was treated like one herself. Onlookers asked her for her autograph and one person snatched her handkerchief as a souvenir.
At the Mayflower, master of ceremonies Arch McDonald introduced her as “The most courageous girl of the year.” The crowd erupted in applause as Anna stood to make her short speech. She said that I am “proud and happy to be born on the same day as our great President.”
She was then whisked off to another celebration at the Shoreham, before ending up at the Wardman Park hotel to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. Newsmen and photographers gathered around as Mrs. Roosevelt prepared to cut the oversized birthday cake. Lana Turner, Deanna Durbin, and Anna were asked to move in closer so that they could all be part of the cake-cutting image.
The next day the press reported that Lana Turner was not happy with Anna stealing the limelight, so she supposedly told Anna to “move over please” before jabbing her to get out of her way.
Anna told the press, “She poked me in the ribs and tried to get me to move out of the way.” She also added that Lana “isn’t so pretty. She artificial looking.”
Mrs. Roosevelt played politician and tried to smooth things over in her newspaper column a couple of weeks later. “I am quite sure that no one tried to get anyone else out of the picture because what we were trying to do was to get everyone into the picture and not have them hidden by the most gorgeous and monumental cake I have ever seen, which threatened to hide everyone except me.”
Before the evening was over, Anna collected autographs from all the stars that she met. The one regret that she had was not getting Mrs. Roosevelt to do the same.
By midnight Anna was back in her room at the Mayflower reflecting back on the past two days of fun and excitement.
The next morning, she hopped aboard an Eastern Airlines plane on her way to NYC to appear on Gabriel Heatter’s “We, the People” radio program. After a wonderful weekend in the Big Apple, Anna hopped the train back home to Gary.
But a homecoming party that her family had arranged for her on Friday, February 7th was postponed. Why? Just as the party was beginning, the authorities shut it down due to a scarlet fever quarantine that was in effect in Gary. It was lifted a few days later. What I find interesting is that the schools in Gary had been closed for several weeks and there was a quarantine, yet somehow Anna was able to board a train to go to see the President.
Anna was presented with several offers for personal appearances and performing on stage, but she ultimately decided that staying in high school was her best bet. She eventually married, became Mrs. Howard Farley, and moved to NYC in the mid-1960s.
No one ever admitted to being the one that pulled this hoax on Anna, but she almost immediately concluded that it was her 18-year-old brother Steve. He never confirmed or denied the allegation, but Gary, West Virginia Police Sergeant Vilsack was fairly certain that it was a prank conceived by Steve. With the help of seven or eight other boys, they were able to raise enough money to purchase a round-trip ticket to Washington. He noted that when Anna received the Presidential letter, the envelope had already been opened, the postscript invitation added, and the ticket had been inserted.
During a 1972 interview with Anna’s sister Brenda, she stated, “Anna could have killed her brother when she found out what he did. But to this day, Stevie has never admitted that he put that note on the bottom of the President’s letter.”
So, President Obama. You. Me. Same birthdays. Where’s my invitation? I’m waiting.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.