Harry Hopkins

Sioux City native Harry Hopkins, left, worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the implementation of the Works Progress Administration as well as the U.S. entry into World War II. Monday marks the 125th anniversary of Hopkins' birth.

SIOUX CITY | When histories of the World War II are written, Harry Hopkins (1890-1946) seldom takes on a leading role.

Nor does the Sioux City native get enough credit for being the chief architect behind the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed millions of people to carry out public works projects during the height of the Great Depression.

That's the opinion of Gary Lipschutz, a Sioux City businessman who has long been fascinated by the life and legacy of the man who became one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's closest advisers.

"(Hopkins) always seemed like a real-life 'Zelig' to me," he said, comparing Hopkins to the enigmatic lead character of a 1983 Woody Allen movie. "Here was this son of a harness maker who would eventually rub shoulders with some of the most important people of the 20th Century."

On Monday -- the 125th anniversary of Hopkins' birth -- Lipschutz will be remembering Hopkins. So will Tom Munson, archival clerk for the Sioux City Public Museum's research center.

"Hopkins was diagnosed with (stomach) cancer while Roosevelt struggled with polio," Munson, who is also an admirer of Hopkins, explained. "I think the two men may have bonded over their (respective) health issues."

Yet Lipschutz said the "blue blooded" Roosevelt was also likely intrigued by Hopkins' "straight-forward Midwestern attitude."

"Hopkins thought for himself," Lipschutz said. "That earned him Roosevelt's complete trust."

It served Hopkins well when Roosevelt appointed him to oversee the WPA as well as when the 32nd president sent him as a personal emissary in order to assess the situation in a Blitz-era England during World War II.

While visiting some of England's most battered cities, Hopkins soon earned the respect and admiration of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

"Churchill, another 'blue blood,' is quoted as saying, 'In the history of the United States, few brighter flames have burned than (Hopkins),'" Lipshutz said with a smile. "Isn't that incredible?" 

Lipschutz said Hopkins' most compelling legacy comes from the Depression-era WPA projects that are still utilized to this day.

"Every year, 25,000 to 35,000 people come to Saturday in the Park," he said. "I bet very few people realize that the Grandview Park Bandshell was a WPA project approved by Hopkins."

Likewise, Lipschutz said athletes and spectators who crowd into Sioux City's Elwood Olsen Stadium every year seldom think about its origin as a public school stadium, another WPA project.

"Practically every school, bridge or roadway from the 1930s was built or improved due to Hopkins' help," he said.

Munson agreed, adding that Hopkins was the ultimate "behind the scenes" person.

"Roosevelt may have had ideas but he needed someone capable of implementing those ideas," Munson allowed. "That was what Hopkins excelled at."

Being "the behind the scenes guy" probably kept Hopkins from having the recognition he deserved, Munson speculated.

"That and an early death (at age 55) sealed Hopkins' fate," Munson said. "He led an incredible life, though people seldom take the time to look at it."

This isn't true for Lipschutz, who continues to be fascinated by Hopkins.

"(Hopkins) is the ultimate 'local boy makes good' story," he said. "He had a fascinating life and it all started in Sioux City."

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