Meeting him, said Winston Churchill, "was like uncorking your first bottle of champagne." He thought he could charm anyone - Stalin, De Gaulle, Huey Long. Fifty years in the grave, he still charms us.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt could not walk unaided across his office, but he led his nation through its worst depression and greatest war. We have never been able to forget him, not as Truman failed to extend his legacy, not as Johnson failed to revive it, not as Reagan failed to dismantle it.Even though his framed photos have yellowed, even though he has no monument larger than his desk, FDR has come to occupy a Mount Rushmore of the mind.

In death, he has become all things to all pols. Republicans say he never meant government to grow so big, and he would have curbed it had he lived; Democrats say he would have completed the New Deal, with full employment and national health care.

Newt Gingrich had the band play Roosevelt's theme song on Election Night, and he reads everything about him, down to news conference transcripts.

President Clinton promised a legislative flurry like Roosevelt's first 100 days, quoted FDR in his inaugural speech and placed his own bust of the great man on a credenza in the Oval Office.

We still miss him, still mourn his passing. To understand the durability of this appeal, you must return to the moment when it first became dramatically apparent - the day he died.

Everyone of a certain age can tell you exactly where they were and how they felt the moment they heard the news. The death of Roosevelt is one of our nation's unforgettable stories.

* * *

Thursday, April 12, 1945. The president has retreated to his white clapboard cottage in Warm Springs, Ga., to gather strength for the final push of World War II. He is 63, but looks a decade older.

At 1 p.m., he is sitting in his study, posing for a portrait and doing paperwork, when he suddenly raises his hand to his left temple, grimaces and says, "I have a terrific headache." They are his last words, for he is suffering a massive stroke.

Two hours later, at 3:35 p.m., he stops breathing. Fala, FDR's black Scottie, dashes out the screen door and scampers, barking, to the top of a hill. There he waits silently, as if standing guard.

The calls go out: to Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking at a luncheon in Washington; to Vice President Harry Truman, sipping bourbon in Speaker Sam Rayburn's Capitol office; and, finally, to the news wire services.

AP sends this: FLASH - WASHINGTON - PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT DIED SUDDENLY THIS AFTERNOON AT WARM SPRINGS, GA.

Many people can't believe it: He's The President, the only one some of them have ever known. This, thought the journalist I.F. Stone, is how the Romans felt when word came Caesar Augustus was dead.

Asked if she'd heard the news, a New York woman replies, "For what do a I need a radio? It's on everybody's face." On Park Avenue, a man riding in an elevator sneers, "So he's finally dead." The wife of a prominent Wall Street lawyer surprises herself by slapping him across the face.

Tributes come from unexpected sources. Radio Tokyo quotes Premier Kantaro Suzuki saying, "I can easily understand the great loss his passing means to the American people, and my profound sympathy goes out to them."

Mrs. Roosevelt messages her sons at war that their father did his job to the end and would want them to do the same. Off Okinawa, Lt. John Roosevelt, standing watch on the carrier Hornet, receives a call from Lt. Cmdr. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.

"Are you making it home, old man?" asks FDR Jr.

"No," replies his brother, "are you?"

"Nope," he says. "Let's clean it up out here first."

* * *

It was fitting FDR's life should end at Warm Springs, for that is where the one we celebrate really began. He came looking for a cure, and found himself.

Until he was stricken with polio at 39, Roosevelt was widely regarded as a lightweight, a rich mama's boy for whom things came easy. That included his political career, which culminated in the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1920.

The following year, Roosevelt got polio, which destroyed his leg muscles. For the rest of his life, he would have to be lifted in and out of the bathtub, in and out of bed. He could not dress himself, or use the toilet without help. Crutches were no help.

Why, he asked, has God forsaken me? He fell into despair, and disappeared from public view.

In 1924, he visited Warm Springs, a mountainside resort with waters which, he hoped, could revive his dead legs. Day after day, he sweated and strained through his exercises. Only his spirits improved, but that was enough. By 1927, he was ready to go back to politics.

It was unthinkable, however, that a cripple could hold high office. So Roosevelt became a master of illusion. He deflected concern about his discomfort with jokes and small talk; he made sure no one photographed him in his wheelchair; and he learned to appear to walk.

He did this by balancing on his heavy, locked steel leg braces and shifting his weight back and forth from the cane in his right hand to the man whose arm he was holding with his left. The strain left his suit soaked with sweat and his cane hand trembling; his escort's arm often was bruised where FDR's fingers had dug in.

In his infirmity, Roosevelt had stumbled on the keys to political leadership in the age of mass media: public image and popular opinion.

His attempts to compensate for his disability, such as his deskside news conferences and fireside radio chats, let him talk directly to the people.

And polio also sensitized FDR to how they perceived him. He learned to read the electorate the way a great actor reads his audience. He could lead the people where they needed to go before they knew it - sometimes before they wanted to.

* * *

On Friday morning, thousands of villagers gather at the Warm Springs train station to say goodbye to their neighbor. They cluster together, heads down, crying. A sailor plays "Going Home" on the accordion and the presidential train rolls north toward Washington.

There is a crowd at every crossing. Men hold their hats over their hearts or salute. People are kept away from the Atlanta station, so they climb on roofs for a look. Near Gainesville, a group of black sharecropper women kneel in the middle of a cotton field, hands clasped.

At Greenville, S.C., a Boy Scout troop starts singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," raggedly at first, but it spreads and swells through the crowd.

In most places, the races stand apart, with whites singing hymns, blacks singing spirituals. Most of the latter never got a chance to vote for him, one reporter thinks, but they've all come to pray for him.

The train chugs slowly through the warm Southern night. Roosevelt's big mahogany casket, an American flag draped over it, sits high on a bier in the last car. The car's lights are on and its curtains open, so all can see the fallen commander in chief.

Riding in the next to last car with the shade up, Eleanor Roosevelt marvels at the crowds. She often differed with her husband over political tactics, how fast to push reform. Only now does she realize how direct FDR's dialogue with the people had really been.

At 9:56 a.m. on April 14 - the 80th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination - the train pulls into Washington's Union Station.

* * *

A dozen years before, FDR rolled into the same station. Then, too, he rode alone, in the last car.

He'd been elected president four months earlier following a campaign in which he had given no real specifics on how he would end the Great Depression.

On Election Night, as his son James lifted him into bed, FDR told him: "All my life I have been afraid of only one thing, fire. Tonight, I think I'm afraid of something else."

"Afraid of what, Pa?"

". . . afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job."

On Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933, a third of the nation was jobless. Thousands of farmers had lost their land. In the cities, people stood in soup lines and lived in shanty towns and dreamed of revolution.

"We are at the end of our string," President Hoover admitted that morning. Out in the street, where 100,000 gathered for the ceremony, troops set up machine guns in case of a riot.

As Roosevelt struggled to the podium, banks in all 48 states were closed or closing, as worried depositors withdrew their savings.

In the accent and cadence of his class and region, he cut through the panic. "The only thing we have to feah," he told the 100,000 before him and the millions by their radios, "is feah itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

In the next 100 days, Roosevelt saved American capitalism from itself. He declared a bank holiday, signed 15 major bills, gave work to about 30,000 people and hope to uncounted others.

"Take a method and try it," he told his aides. "If it fails, try another. But above all, try some-thing."

The Depression, as things turned out, was not even Roosvelt's greatest challenge; Adolf Hitler took power the same year.

FDR wanted to stop him, but most Americans were isolationists, and Congress passed neutrality laws. After Germany overran France, he wheedled, prodded and bluffed a reluctant nation into accepting innovations like Lend-Lease, which kept bankrupt Britain in the war.

Pearl Harbor staggered him. He held his head in his hands, asking "How did it happen?" At a Cabinet meeting that night, he had trouble talking.

The next day, he found his voice. Dec. 7, 1941, he said, was "a date which will live in infamy."

Years earlier, when others romanticized or discounted Hitler, Roosevelt saw him for what he was. Now, even though Japan was the aggressor, Roosevelt decided to beat Germany first.

In a century when tyrants killed tens of thousands of people by war or purge or farm policy, Hitler killed millions and stuffed them into ovens. Franklin Roosevelt, more than any other man on the planet, stopped him.

* * *

As the funeral procession moves from Union Station to the White House, the crowds stretch out of sight down the side streets. The avenues are lined with helmeted soldiers, here this time to honor Roosevelt, not protect him.

The casket sits on a black caisson drawn by six white horses. A seventh horse, symbolizing the fallen warrior, walks alongside, eyes hooded, stirrups reversed. Arthur Godfrey, broadcasting on network radio, begins to sob when he sees it.

The procession has so many soldiers and so much equipment that when the 800-pound casket finally passes by, people are surprised. Somehow they expect it to be bigger, like the man was.

The funeral begins that afternoon at 4, and the nation almost shuts down. Buses pull over, planes nearing their destinations circle overhead. In New York, subway trains stop in the tunnels. There is silence over the airwaves, silence over the telephone lines. The wire service teletypes slowly tap out S I L E N C E.

In the East Room of the White House, 200 people attend a simple service. Eleanor Roosevelt seems the most composed, even as she beholds the empty, armless wheelchair sitting near the improvised altar.

At 10:05 p.m., the funeral train heads north from Union Station, "a lonesome train on a lonesome track," the same track that carried Lincoln's body home at the end of another war.

At New York, the train turns north up the east bank of the Hudson. At Garrison, a village across from West Point, a man waits with his shivering son.

"You've got to remember everything you see today," the father says. "It's awfully cold," replies the boy.

More people arrive, and finally the train is coming. For a moment, they all see it, the big casket covered with the flag.

The crowd breaks up slowly. As the father and son walk away, the boy says, "I saw everything."

"That's good," says the father. "Now, make sure you remember it."

* * *

His doctors had known since March 1944 that the president was sick. His heart was enlarged, his blood pressure far too high. He was told to cut down on his drinking and smoking (he smoked a pack of Camels a day) and get more rest.

If the president knew how sick he was, he didn't act it. In the next 12 months, he traveled 50,000 miles, ran for re-election, directed a world war. Everything fell to him, from naming a Supreme Allied Commander to deciding whether to cancel the Army-Navy game.

By year's end, he looked wasted: eyes sunken and darkly circled, hands unsteady, suits a size too large. His ivory cigarette holder, once jauntily atilt, now sagged from his blue lips. Sometimes, he fell asleep in meetings he was conducting.

The president returned from the Yalta conference in February so weak that he had to address Congress sitting down. He delivered a long, unfocused speech in what one observer called "an invalid's voice."

And when it was over, Congress rose as one, cheering, stomping, whistling.

Some later claimed that a sick Roosevelt conceded postwar Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta. The charge has been discredited, but attending the conference probably did shorten Roosevelt's life. The president did not sacrifice Poland at Yalta, historian William Manchester would write. He sacrificed himself.

"One man simply could not do it all," said War Secretary Henry Stimson. "Franklin Roosevelt killed himself trying."

* * *

"All that is within me," FDR once wrote, "cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River."

He is almost there. At 8:40 a.m. Sunday, the locomotive veers off onto a siding on the edge of the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park. A cannon roars 21 times. The West Point Band leads the caisson and horses up a steep, unpaved road toward the big brick manor house where Franklin grew up.

A fresh grave has been dug behind a hedge in the garden. White lilacs are in bloom. As the pallbearers lower the casket into the ground, an Episcopal priest recites these words:

"Now the laborer's task is o'er;

Now the battle day is past;

Now upon the farther shore

Lands the voyager at last."

A squad of cadets fires three rounds in the air, terrifying Fala. The little dog yelps, rolls over and is still trembling when the bugler blows taps.

The next day, the New York Post begins its daily war casualty list with this name:

ROOSEVELT, Franklin D., commander-in-chief.

* * *

Having conquered his fears, Roosevelt greeted the future. On the day before he died, he returned to that theme in a speech he was writing for Jefferson Day.

The war was almost over, and Americans must "conquer the doubts and the fears . . . which made this horror possible," he wrote. "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."

We have not always done that over the past 50 years, and that is when we have missed him the most.

"He was the only person I ever knew, anywhere, who was never afraid," sobbed Lyndon Johnson on the day Roosevelt died.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Artist Elizabeth Schoumatoff was sketching the President when he was stricken. The portrait remains unfinished.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born near Hyde Park, N.Y., Jan. 30, 1882. In 1921, polio paralyzed his legs. Throughout his political life, he wanted to make it appear that he could walk with leg braces and a cane.

By 1932, a third of the work force was out of work. Some 400,000 jobless nomads rode the rails. Surplus apples were sold to the unemployed on credit, and soon shivering men and women were on street corners, hawking apples for a nickel.

The Depression and the promise to repeal Prohibition ensured Roosevelt's election in 1932.

First term - 1933-37

WAGNER ACT: Gave labor many advantages in organizing and collective bagaining.

NEW DEAL: Provided public funds for relief and public works, resulting in government deficit. He greatly expanded the federal government's regulation of business. By an excess profits tax and progressive income taxes, redistributed earnings. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was formed in 1933. Two million men were served.

Roosevelt was the first president to use radio for "fireside chats.'

Second term - 1937-41

When the Supreme Court nullified some New Deal laws, he sought power to "pack" the court with additional justices, but Congress refused to give him the authority.

Third term - 1941-45

He wrote the principles of fair dealing into the Atlantic Charter, Aug. 14, 1941 (with Winston Churchill), and urged the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, from fear) Jan. 6, 1941.

He was the first president to break the "no third term" tradition (1940) and was elected to a fourth term (1944).

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. entered the war.

On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt was at his cottage in Warm Springs, Ga., sitting for a portrait, when he collapsed. He died two hours later. On the European front, the Allies were closing in on Berlin. In the Pacific, heavy fighting was taking place on Okinawa.

Fourth term - 1945

He conferred with Allied heads fo state at:

Casablanca, Jan. 1943

Quebec, Aug. 1943

Tehran, Nov.-Dec. 1943

Cairo, Dec. 1943

Yalta, Feb. 1945

Harry S. Truman, the vice president, was sworn in the evening of Roosevelt's death about 7 p.m.

Train route of funeral

1 Warm Springs

Casket departed at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 13.

2 Washington, D.C.

Train arrived at Union Station at 9:56 a.m. April 14, after making stops along the way.

3 Hyde Park, N.Y.

Arrived at Roosevelt Estate at 8:40 a.m. Sunday, April 15. The president was buried in his mother's rose garden.

Roosevelt's body arrives in Washington,

Full military honors were rendered from the station to the White House by motorcade. Funeral services were held in the East Room at 4 p.m. At 9:30 p.m. the casket was taken to Union Station and left for Hyde Park at 10:05 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, 1945.

Source: The World Almanac 1994; World War II, a 50th Anniversary History