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Say hello to the community’s new first lady –

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

There is a new first lady in town.

Through their portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, Delmas Wood and Susan Phillips bring to life the events of 77 years ago when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor during World War II in a way that no textbook can rival.

Wood, 87, a lifelong resident of Sandy Spring, has personified FDR, the 32nd president of the United States, through portrayals and public speaking events for more than 30 years.

His dramatization of the famous “Declaration of War” speech has been seen by more than two million people, including the King of Norway and President Bill Clinton, he estimates.

“I eat, breathe, live and sleep for Franklin Roosevelt,” Wood said. “Doing this has given me opportunities that I never dreamed I would have.”

For the past 25 years, Ladelia “Deal” Becraft was by his side, portraying beloved first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

When Becraft died in February at the age of 101, Wood not only lost a dear friend, but was also tasked with finding someone new to step into her shoes as Eleanor.

Susan Phillips of Olney first met Wood 13 years ago when her son Nick was cast in local production of “Annie” to play the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She knew there was a Franklin D. Roosevelt Living History Museum in Sandy Spring, but had never visited it. Wood has operated the museum out of a small barn on his property since 1995, housing documents, photographs and artifacts.

Phillips contact Wood, who not only offered to coach her son, but also loaned him a cigarette holder, glasses and a fedora.

The pair reconnected a few years ago when Wood’s wife was a patient at Brooke Grove, where Phillips works as the life enrichment and community coordinator.

During their chats, Wood asked Phillips if she would consider portraying Eleanor, since Becraft’s health no longer allowed her to be outside in the heat.

“I have a lot of admiration for Delmas and was extremely honored when he asked,” Phillips said. “I just said yes right away.”

The agreement resulted in a crash course on American history for Phillips, with Wood coaching her in what to wear and how to act.

For the past three years, she has accompanied him, as Eleanor Roosevelt, to the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s annual World War II weekend in Reading, Pa.

Wood tasked Phillips with learning one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s speeches to deliver. She found the radio address Eleanor had given to the nation on the night of the Pearl Harbor attack, as part of her weekly radio show, “Over our Coffee Cups.”

“Eleanor actually addressed the nation before the president did,” Phillips said. “As much as Delmas knows, he had never come across that speech before.”

Woods and Phillips practiced weekly until Phillips had memorized the speech and had Eleanor’s mannerisms down pat.

Her speaking debut as Eleanor was at the MedStar Montgomery Medical Center Women Board’s Annual Picnic and Bazaar in July.

“It was the first time I performed it for anybody other than Delmas,” she said.

Wood had prepared her well. She was wearing reading glasses and he reminded her that since Eleanor was left handed, she should use her left hand to take them on and off.

Phillips said she tried to channel Eleanor Roosevelt’s spirit while giving the speech.

“She had to impart to America her bravery as the first lady, a wife and a mother,” Phillips said.

The speech was well-received by a full audience that was captivated until the end, even though a thunderstorm loomed.

Phillips said she is grateful for the opportunity to work with Wood and to share this part of history with people of all ages in a unique way.

“I am blessed to work with the patients and residents at Brooke Grove because they lived this history,” she said. “And, I think it is important to portray such a strong woman to young people and women of all ages.”

“People just love Eleanor Roosevelt,” Phillips added. “She was a partner to Franklin in a way that was uniquely powerful, due to his physical limitations and the fact that she was extremely well educated and personable.”

Even though he is not ready to hang up his fedora just yet, Wood said he is “grooming” Phillips for when he is no longer able to give his “Declaration of War” speech.

“Susan is such a talented and humble person,” Wood said. “She’s been a great student and I like working with her. I am glad someone will carry on the work I have been doing for the last 30 years.”

Phillips said she would be honored to continue his mission through the perspective of Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Delmas is a person who likes to delegate and organize, so he is planning for the future,” she said. “He wants to keep bringing history alive, especially this period in history and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.”

Now that Wood has secured someone to continue speaking engagements, he is looking to secure the future of his museum.

“I want to find a person or corporation to take it over and run it,” he said.

Wood is headed to Florida for the winter, where he has several speaking engagements scheduled.

When he returns, he and Phillips have two speaking engagements lined up. In June they will speak at the World War II weekend in Pennsylvania, and in July, they will speak at the Women’s Board 99th Picnic and Bazaar.

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