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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Bittinger: First Lady Grace

Jon Gilbert Fox

For one of First Lady Grace Coolidge’s January birthdays, the bell ringer at Edwards Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts where she lived, rang out “Happy Birthday” in her honor. That was quite a tribute to a first lady who was usually so modest. She had grown up in Burlington and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1902 - where a dormitory is named for her and a room in Waterman Hall is dedicated to her. Champlain College in Burlington has saved her family home on upper Maple Street where she was married to Calvin Coolidge in 1905, but while her birthplace on St. Paul’s and her first home on lower Maple Street still stand, they're unmarked.

With more presidential libraries being added such as the one dedicated to Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois in 2004, and Obama’s about to be constructed, there’s fresh interest in presidents and first ladies today. CSPAN is airing a series on all the first ladies from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama entitled “First Ladies: Influence and Image” and I was privileged to participate in the one and a half hours of air time reserved for Mrs. Coolidge - which was equal to the amount of time given to the very famous Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy.

During the 1920s, Grace Coolidge wanted to contribute as first lady, but before Eleanor Roosevelt’s time in the 1930s and 40s, first ladies kept traditionally to the background. So Mrs. Coolidge presided over banquets and musical concerts. She reached out to veterans as her predecessor, Florence Harding, had done. However, she showed innovation at the holidays when she used the radio to showcase choirs singing Christmas carols at the White House and encouraged a sing along for the public by arranging for newspapers to print the carols they sang. She and her husband pushed the button for the first electrified holiday tree in the capitol.

Regarding the White House as a museum, she found appropriate antiques, secured funding from Congress, and appointed a committee to oversee its historic furniture. When the White House needed renovation, she designed a sun parlor for the rooftop thus ensuring privacy and solitude for the presidential family .

After the wild times and scandals of the Harding administration, Calvin and Grace restored confidence in the presidency and the first couple.

When their son, Calvin Jr., died from an infected blister that had festered into septicemia, Grace Coolidge could have taken to her rooms at the White House - as did First Lady Jane Pierce, after the sudden death of her son, little Benny, but Grace found solace in her husband’s accomplishments and her older son’s life.

She also found a passion in baseball. Whether in her own box at Fenway Park or listening to the play by play on the radio, she was a big fan. Last summer at the Coolidge Education Center in Plymouth Notch, they exhibited her baseball artifacts - yet one more way in which her legacy lives on.

Cyndy Bittinger is a writer and historian, who teaches at the Community College of Vermont. Her latest book is, "Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History."
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