Bittinger: Traces Of Grace

Jul 13, 2015

Calvin and Grace Coolidge both grew up in Vermont. And most of us know that Calvin worked his way up the political ladder to be Vice President - then suddenly became the 30th U.S. President when Warren Harding died. The Bible and lamp from his early morning swearing-in ceremony are still on view at Plymouth Notch.

Now, thanks to their older son, John, some of Grace’s gowns and accessories, including purses, necklaces, hair combs, ostrich feather fans, jade jewelry, rhinestone shoe buckles, and a beaver skin and lace hat, are also on display – as well as the inexpensive gold bracelet that Grace’s younger son, Calvin Jr. gave his mother when he was just 4 years old – which his mother often wore in his memory after he died at age 16 on July 7, 1924.

Other first ladies have lost sons to accidents and illnesses – like Mary Lincoln and Jane Pierce – after which their stability and sanity were never quite the same. But Grace steadied herself through faith and her joy in life. She had a sense of play whether with a small child or a rambunctious dog!

July was significant in the life of the Coolidge family in other ways as well. President Coolidge was born on July 4th, 1872 and descendants of the couple gathered in Plymouth again this year to celebrate his 143rd birthday. It’s also the month when Grace Coolidge died just 58 years ago - on July 8, 1957.

As First Lady, Grace didn’t give many interviews or speak to the press on a regular basis. All that came one term later with Eleanor Roosevelt, making Grace a transitional presidential spouse. First Ladies before Roosevelt are often given short shrift in history books – which is unfortunate, because their letters, clothes, diaries, and stories have much to tell us about women’s history.

Even before Eleanor Roosevelt, First Ladies supported favorite causes, and since Grace had taught deaf children before her marriage she took an interest in their welfare throughout her life. She hosted Helen Keller at the White House to highlight the need for deaf education. Keller was then the most famous blind and deaf person in America, and Grace raised substantial funds for the Clarke School for the Deaf.

And while it’s fascinating to see her gowns and all their glitter, it was Grace who gave the state of Vermont the simple farmhouse where her husband grew up and was sworn in as president. I suspect she’d most like to be remembered for that.