James Fowler has managed to combine two things he enjoys – history and acting.
“If you’re a history teacher, you have to develop a sense of the dramatic,” Fowler said. “You have to infuse drama into your lectures to make them more interesting.”
After a few stints as a movie extra in Georgia, the Wiregrass native put his skills to work portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt for re-enactments around Georgia. Now, he will appear as the country’s 32nd president in a documentary about FDR’s time in the southern state.
“FDR: A President in Our Midst” will air on Georgia Public Broadcasting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST. Developed with the Georgia Humanities Council and Georgia State University TV, the documentary film is based on the book by Kaye Lanning Minchew.
The film focuses on Roosevelt’s time in Georgia. Roosevelt first visited Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1924 to seek relief from the effects of polio.
Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio at age 39. The viral illness caused Roosevelt’s nerve damage and paralysis. A friend owned a therapeutic resort in Warm Springs and touted the warm natural spring water, a constant 88 degrees, as having helped a young polio patient walk again.
Hoping for a miracle, Roosevelt visited the resort and swam in the pools fed by the spring. He eventually bought the property and established a therapeutic center, which is still open today.
Roosevelt didn’t find a miracle cure for his paralysis, but he did improve and found the strength to re-enter politics, winning the presidency in 1932.
His one-story Georgia cottage, known as the Little White House, is a National Historic Site and many of Roosevelt’s programs were influenced by the people and places he encountered in rural Georgia – the Rural Electrification Administration and the Farm Security Administration, for example.
Roosevelt died at his Warm Springs cottage in 1945 while sitting for a portrait.
A native of Houston County, Fowler graduated from Wicksburg High School in 1974. He attended Wallace Community College and Troy State University and got his Master’s degree from Auburn University.
In 1982, Fowler was teaching in South Georgia and visited Kolomoki Mounds in Blakely. He was fascinated by the history but also by the idea of working in such a park. Fowler wrote a letter to the state’s Department of Natural Resources district office. The letter was received on the same day that the tour guide at the Little White House in Warm Springs was leaving her job. Fowler was hired and throughout the summer and fall, he was the tour guide at the Warm Springs pools where Roosevelt and others had their therapy.
Fowler left the tour guide job to teach high school history in Senoia, Georgia, south of Atlanta. He spent the next 27 years as a teacher. Over the years, he would touch base with staff at the Little White House to inquire about any kind of permanent position until someone mentioned the park occasionally needs a Roosevelt re-enactor.
“The little light bulb went on in my head because by that time I had worked as an extra in a few movies in my area – there’s a lot of movies being made in the Atlanta area,” Fowler said.
He had been an extra in the Kevin Costner movie “The War.” He was also an extra in an HBO movie about Roosevelt called “Warm Springs” starring Kenneth Branagh as FDR.
Fowler offered his experience as both a movie extra and a history buff.
His first job as FDR was to re-enact the reading of the president’s D-Day prayer from 1944 when Roosevelt led the country in prayer via a radio broadcast.
“I listened to a lot of recordings of Roosevelt’s voice from YouTube,” Fowler said. “I got my hair cut extra short; I put a little gray in it. I found some old suits from thrift stores, double-breasted suits. I got a copy of the D-Day prayer, and I would say June of 2009, I performed that prayer several times that day, and it was successful.”
Fowler was invited back again and again. He re-enacted FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech and other speeches at the Little White House. He was invited to do reenactments for different electrical cooperatives in Georgia as they were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration, which Roosevelt pushed after seeing the hardships in rural areas without electricity.
“Roosevelt fell in love with Warm Springs, he really did,” Fowler said. “He saw the problems that people were having, and many of his New Deal policies came from that.”
Peggy Ussery is a Dothan Eagle staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-712-7963. Support her work and that of other Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.