My Dad, Polio and Now

I think as human beings we tend to think about others struggling when we struggle through a strenuous time to make us feel that we are not alone.

During this time that we are all in together with the coronavirus and social distancing, I can’t help but reminisce about what my late, dear father Ben Bradlee (1921-2014) went through during the polio epidemic. While COVID-19 and polio are different, they both have long-term effects for people and are life-threatening viruses. My dad wrote about his experience with polio in his autobiography, A Good Life, Newspapering, and Other Adventures. As Editor-in-Chief at the Washington Post, my dad was a man of modesty and truth. I remember once asking him what the symptoms of polio felt like. He told me in very simple terms that it felt like you got the flu one day and then the next day you woke up and you were paralyzed. In his case, he went to bed sick one night thinking he had the flu and the next morning he was paralyzed from the waist down. My father, his family,* and the rest of America were also going through the Great Depression at the time. As my dad says in his book, he was born a golden boy, and yet he almost lost everything.

my dad talking about getting polio from a video interview we did in 2012

With my love of genealogy, I have been able to trace back even more about this time. My grandfather, Frederick Josiah Bradlee, Jr. (1892-1970) or “Be” as they simply called him, played a big role in my dad’s life. When dad was paralyzed from the waist down, it was my grandfather who carried him up and down three flights of stairs for almost a year and when my dad was starting to move his legs a little bit at a time, “Be” would take my dad into the woods to clear brush and to cut wood with a two-man saw. I have always held to the belief that it was that action of my grandfather taking my dad into mother nature that cured him. My Dad would also tell me the story of when he and his best friend were rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and his best friend at the time died right next to him. That was something he told me he would never forget.

My father survived polio but he said he was never able to run as fast after that. He also felt after polio that he could survive anything including World War II for which he fought in a total of thirteen naval battles. One of his mottos in life, which my dad always told me in Latin was Non Illigitimi Carborundum, which means “don’t let the bastards get you down.”

He just kept on going no matter what and that’s what we have to do right now.


*Just to give you a little background history, the Bradlee’s were amongst a society in Boston, Massachusetts that became known as the Boston Brahmins. The phrase was coined by writer Dr. Oliver Wendell Holms, Sr. (1809-1894), comparing the elite of Bostonians to the Bramins of India who the leading group in that society. The funny part is that the Bradlee family were never really considered Boston Brahmins even though they were. The first member of the Bradlee family was Nathan Bradley who was born in Dorchester, Boston, Massachusetts in 1631 and died and died in the same place on 26 Jul 1701. It is from him that my family descends from. I don’t mean to get off point here, but the Bradlees have experienced the good and the bad in this country for almost four hundred years, but this country still prevails no matter what. I believe this is where my dad got his perseverance from and to always fight for your will to live no matter what.

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