FDR: Love of the Sea and the Working Mariner

Mar 25, 2009

by John B. McGrath, Senior Development Officer

Through 175 years of service to mariners, the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey (SCI) has benefited from the counsel and guidance of wise leaders in the maritime community. For almost four decades President Franklin D. Roosevelt was among them. 

SCI celebrates FDR’s love of the sea and his commitment to the welfare of the working mariner in a special program on Tuesday, April 21, 2009. Cosponsored by the South Street Seaport Museum, the program is part of the Anniversary Lecture Series during SCI’s 175th Anniversary in 2009. Nancy Roosevelt Ireland, a granddaughter of FDR, will introduce the keynote address presented by Lynn Bassanese, Deputy Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Before the presentation, Herman Eberhardt of the FDR Library will offer a guided tour of the South Street Seaport Museum’s special exhibition of Roosevelt’s ship models and naval art. The honorary co-chairmen for the event will be Clarence F. Michalis and the Reverend Franklin E. Vilas, both sons of former SCI Board Presidents.

FDR joined the Board of the Seamen’s Church Institute in 1908 and served in different capacities until his death in April of 1945. Although he withdrew from many other commitments, he chose to remain on the Board after he contracted polio in 1921, and he continued to serve as a Lay Vice President after he was elected Governor of New York in 1928 and throughout his Presidency. He began his tenure at SCI under the direction of Board President Edmund L. Baylies, who was a partner in the law firm of Carter, Ledyard & Milburn. FDR had joined Carter, Ledyard as a young lawyer in 1907—his first job after attending Columbia Law School.

The early decades of the 20th century were an important era for SCI. Under the leadership of the Reverend Archibald Mansfield, the Institute addressed many serious issues confronting the safety and well-being of seafarers, who often fell victim to “crimps” and unscrupulous boarding houses in the Port of New York. Mansfield, Baylies and SCI’s Board led many battles to obtain protection for seafarers, and FDR joined the fight when he became a Board member. One of SCI’s achievements during this time was the construction of the building at 25 South Street, which provided safe, comfortable and inexpensive accommodations for almost 600 men.

When Baylies died in 1932, after serving almost five decades on the Board and 27 years as Board President, SCI continued to benefit from strong leadership, maintaining commitment to the welfare of mariners. Succeeding Baylies as Lay President, Clarence G. Michalis devoted almost as many years to SCI, retiring in 1958 after 26 years. His successor, Franklin E. Vilas, served as President for more than two decades. Together, these three leaders worked with SCI’s executive directors for more than a century to advocate and provide for the well-being of seafarers in an ever-changing, dynamic industry.

FDR supported these efforts at SCI throughout his life. An exchange of letters between Archibald Mansfield and Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, tells the story of SCI’s accomplishments and FDR’s commitment in this era:

On October 22, 1929, Roosevelt wrote in his letter to Mansfield:

“It makes me very happy to learn of the continued progress which the Seamen’s Church Institute is making in the providing of more and better accommodations for the seamen of the Port of New York.

When I look back twenty years, it seems almost that the impossible has been accomplished in the providing of the splendid building and extension of the work of service. I know, however, that our goal is not yet reached, and I hope that the coming year will see the completion of our plans.”

Mansfield responded two days later:

“My dear Governor Roosevelt,

The Board of Managers at its Meeting today expressed its great delight and satisfaction at being able to give publicity to your letter to me referring so intimately to this Society and its work. It is our hope that we may throw our great combined Buildings, Old and New, open to the public sometime next Spring and I am certain it will be the Board’s desire that if possible you be present with us on this great occasion. Your deep interest in the practical side of the work and your assistance to me in those days when you were an attorney in the office of Carter, Ledyard, & Milburn will always be gratefully remembered.”

Today SCI continues to fulfill and expand its mission to the maritime community begun in 1834, sustaining the heritage of leadership and assisting the world’s over 1 million mariners with innovative programs and services. According to the Reverend David M. Rider, SCI’s Executive Director since 2008, the Institute’s ongoing commitments in “chaplaincy—to minister to the mariner’s soul; education—to minister to their professional advancement; and advocacy—to minister to their dignity as human beings, are focused on strengthening the maritime workforce that oftentimes goes unrecognized.” 

These are needs that Franklin Roosevelt recognized. SCI is honored to count FDR among its leaders who have devoted their energies to the welfare of the working mariner.