Mention FDR, and most people talk about the Great Depression, the New Deal and fireside chats.
But when Joseph Plaud talks about the longest-serving president, he comes up with enough material to fill a museum. Which is exactly what he's done.
Scores of handwritten letters, personal belongings and even hand prints that were analyzed by a "palmist" are displayed in Plaud's Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center & Museum, located in a seemingly unlikely spot: Worcester's Union Station.
Plaud was in junior high school living in nearby Shrewsbury when his collection began with a picture he bought of Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR Jr. for about $50. He found it in a Boston bookstore, and picked it up after being inspired by his grandmother's countless tales about the 32nd president.
"She was a young woman during the Depression, and she talked about him like he was a close personal friend of hers," said Plaud, a 41-year-old forensic clinical psychologist who wears bow ties, French cuffs and suspenders.
Plaud owns thousands of FDR-related pieces, spanning Roosevelt's public service from his time as a New York senator through 12 years in the White House that reshaped the country with programs of the New Deal.
"It's a remarkable achievement," Jim Roosevelt, one of FDR's 26 surviving grandchildren, said of Plaud's collection. Roosevelt, who lives in Cambridge and is president of Tufts Health Plan, says he's visited the museum several times.
"He's taken an extraordinary collection of real, tangible history and placed it in a very accessible and attractive place," he said.
Among the most impressive pieces are documents of signatures from the nine Supreme Court justices and most of the U.S. representatives and senators sitting in Congress during FDR's 1936 re-election bid. The autographs were reprinted by the president's campaign in a flier that billed the signatories as members of the "Franklin D. Roosevelt for President Club."
There's also a handwritten letter that Roosevelt sent to Jouett Shouse, chairman of the Democratic National Executive Committee and the leader of the "Stop Roosevelt" group that failed in its mission at the 1932 nominating convention.
"I am not one to hold any rancor towards the give and take of battle during the pre-nomination campaign, and as you know, I was wholly ready to support and work for the nominees and the party if someone other than myself had been chosen," Roosevelt wrote.
There are a number of other, better-known sites related to FDR around the country, including his home in Hyde Park, N.Y.; his summer home on Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada, just across the FDR Memorial Bridge from Lubec, Maine; and the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Ga., where FDR sought relief for his polio by swimming in the warm local spring waters.
"Every person who walks through the door asks why the museum is here," says its director and sole employee, Cyrus Lipsitt.
And they're all given the same quick history lesson about the New York native's ties to Massachusetts. Roosevelt attended boarding school in Groton before going to Harvard and made several train stops at Union Station. But that history almost seems like more of a fortunate coincidence for Plaud.
Until 2004, the documents, pictures, books and knickknacks that Plaud alternatively categorizes as "ephemera" and "stuff" were hanging on walls and filling bookshelves and safes in his home in nearby Whitinsville.
"This is my home," he said. "And this is my stuff. This is where I want people to be able to see it."
With the collection outgrowing its domestic space, Plaud established the nonprofit heritage center in 2002. Two years later, he opened the museum on the second floor of Worcester's refurbished Union Station.
The collection includes many items that offer unusual insights into FDR's public and private life, such as the letter Roosevelt sent in 1927 to a man who was seeking treatment for his nephew stricken with polio. Roosevelt had been diagnosed with the disease six years earlier, just after his 1920 vice presidential loss.
"A year ago I had great difficulty in walking with braces and crutches but now get around with a good deal of ease with one brace, one crutch and one cane," he wrote in the year before he was elected governor of New York.
That letter gives a more honest accounting than one sent by a Roosevelt political adviser in 1921 to allay any fears that polio might be an obstacle to FDR's political rise. The letter downplayed the illness as a "very mild" case that would have "no permanent effects."
But the pictures showing FDR wearing leg braces and one of the canes he used prove otherwise.
Along with displays of FDR's statesmanship, Plaud's exhibit includes a set of hand prints that a so-called palmist used for a character sketch of the president. The work done by Nellie Simmons Meier came at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, who realized that any leak of the arrangement could cause her husband significant embarrassment.
In a series of letters exchanged between Eleanor Roosevelt and Meier, the palmist assures the first lady that she wouldn't publish her findings while FDR was in office.
Meier honored her word, but put her findings in an essay that is part of Plaud's collection.
She concluded that Roosevelt was a "mental explorer with the inquiring mind of a research worker interested in experimenting in varied laboratories of unlimited possibilities."