John Fetterman, then Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, talks with supporters during a meet-and-greet session Aug. 25, 2021, at Our Gang’s Lounge in Sharon.

During a veterans’ event, organized by then-U.S. Rep Keith Rothfus, about a decade ago at a now-shuttered ice cream shop in Beaver County, Leo Sicard, a past commander of the local American Legion Post, sidled up to me.

“I’ve got good news!” he said. “The VA approved my claim of the hernia I got in 1943 as a wartime injury.”

“That’s great, Leo,” I said.

“You know how I got the hernia, don’cha?”

Now, I’d known Leo’s backstory, so I had the answer.

“Lifting President Roosevelt out of a bathtub?”

Leo just smiled and nodded.

Leo served in the Navy during World War II on the USS Iowa battleship, which transported FDR to the 1943 Tehran Conference.

On board the ship, Leo was the president’s body man. Incidentally, U.S. Navy battleships weren’t typically equipped with bathtubs, but workmen retrofitted one in the Iowa for President Franklin Roosevelt.

The accommodation was necessary because Roosevelt hadn’t walked unaided since a bout with polio 22 years earlier.

To those of us familiar with the 24-hour news cycle and the intrusive nature of today’s political coverage, it’s unimaginable that a man could win the governor’s office in New York state, followed by four presidential elections while keeping his paraplegia a secret from the American voters.

In a bygone era, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman might have been able to address his ongoing bout with depression privately. But coming on the heels of the stroke last year that hampered his U.S. Senate campaign, “private” was probably off the table.

We’re probably better off for it.

Every fall, Penn State Shenango holds “Stamp Out Stigma,” which promotes the message that mental illness, including depression, is not a character flaw.

By fighting his battle against depression in public, Pennsylvania’s junior senator has a golden opportunity to reinforce that lesson.

And it’s a lesson that needs to be amplified. Most — if not all — of us are either living with depression or care about someone who does.

Whenever someone of Fetterman’s status acknowledges their own battle with depression, it bolsters the resolve of everyone whose similar struggles take place outside the spotlight.

If he allowed himself to be forced out of the Senate, that would tell everyone wrestling every day with mental illness that it should be allowed to limit their dreams.

Fetterman will be off the Senate floor during his recovery. That will have an impact on Pennsylvania’s representation in the federal legislature’s upper house, but not an unprecedented one.

Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner was absent from the Senate for more than three years from 1856 to 1859 after fellow Sen. Preston Brooks, of South Carolina, very nearly beat Sumner to death with a cane.

Brooks was enraged when, two days before the beating, Sumner, an equal-rights abolitionist, gave a speech in which he called slavery “a harlot” and accused slavery supporters of keeping the “peculiar institution” as “a mistress.”

But that’s only part of the story. Sumner, by all accounts a strapping man, recovered quickly from his physical injuries.

But not his mental ones.

“He was in pain for much of the rest of his life. Now, we know now today that some of it was psychological. He found that if he went back to try to work at his desk, he just couldn’t concentrate,” said two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough.

Sumner needed a two-year sojourn in France to recover emotionally as well as physically.

By all indications, Fetterman won’t need that much time.

Mental illness, including depression, is no different from any other physical illness, like cancer. And depression, like cancer, can be fatal if left untreated.

Fetterman is encouraging other people suffering from depression to get help, which will save lives.

ERIC POOLE is Editor of The Herald and Allied News. Contact him with news tips, complaints and mental health resources(like the 988 crisis text line) by email at epoole@sharonherald.com or by phone at 724-981-6100 ext. 247.

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