Each President & First Lady Has a Story

National Council for History Education Conference, October 17 to 18, 2003, Los Angeles, California

Professor Barbara Bennett Peterson, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon:
Cyndy Bittinger, Executive Director, The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, Plymouth, Vermont
Thomas Lamont, teacher, Groton School, Groton, Massachusetts
Gail Rossier, multi-media producer, Executive Director of Rossier Productions, Inc., Tallahassee, Florida

The following presentations were given by Cyndy Bittinger and Gail Rossier at the National Council for History Education’s national conference. Their theme was “History and Biography.”

Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957)
Cyndy Bittinger

Grace Coolidge did not really set out to tell her full story in the articles she wrote for American Magazine from 1929 to 1930. As a modest person she did want to give a bare outline. Her emphasis was given to growing up as an only child in the bustling city of Burlington, Vermont with upwardly mobile parents. Her parents wanted the world for their only child but were willing to let her set her own course after she graduated from the University of Vermont. She left Burlington to teach hearing impaired children in Northampton, Massachusetts. There she met Calvin Coolidge, a man 6 years older, a local lawyer from Plymouth, Vermont who settled there after college, who sought her hand in marriage. As she said, “The wedding ceremony has seldom united two people of more vastly different temperaments and tastes.” She was the out-going vivacious teacher; he was the quiet, thoughtful, sincere lawyer. They married in 1905.

Grace and Calvin had two sons, John, in 1906 and Calvin Jr. in 1908. Grace “gave her entire time to it” meaning the raising of the boys and she “knew of no investment which yields such large and satisfactory returns.” (page 41) She was the parent left to raise the children as Calvin’s political career took him away from western Massachusetts, where they lived, and into Boston and the state capital.

Grace did not feel that she was part of the political equation until they moved to Washington, D.C. in 1921 as part of the new administration. Her husband won the Vice Presidency with Warren Harding as President on the Republican ticket. She wrote that she was grateful for the opportunity to “justify the love and devotion which had been invested in her training that she might, in her humble way, also serve.” (Page 53)

Her time in Washington was definitely a success. Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the acid tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, said there was never an unkind word about Grace. Grace credited her entrance into Washington society to be smoothed by the wife of the outgoing Vice President, Mrs. Thomas Marshall. Grace admitted that her preparation was lacking. She “was more proficient in setting up and operating miniature tracks and trains on the dining room floor than in receiving and entertaining guests in the drawing room.”

Her contributions at the White House were many. After Warren Harding died, the Coolidges became President and First Lady of the Land in August of 1923. Grace continued on the musicales of Florence Harding and wanted the White House to be a social and cultural capital as well. Movie stars came to the White House and sang the campaign song “Keep Cool with Coolidge” in 1924. Grace emphasized the traditions with Easter Egg Rolling and Christmas Carols. They were the first couple to light the community Christmas tree. Her interest in White House History inspired her to ask for a joint resolution by Congress to authorize acceptance of gifts of furniture. She wished to restore antiques to the building and treat it as a living museum.

Grace and Calvin Coolidge weathered one of the worst personal stories to ever come to the White House, the death of a young son. Their composure during this fast moving septicemia which took their 16 year old from them was to be admired. Grace did not write about this death in her articles, but I have read her letters and in them she refers to his death and how she found comfort. She also wrote poetry about this loss.

I brought one of the poems she wrote for you to read today and perhaps use in your teaching.


        A quiet place, amid enfolding hills,
        Green grass beneath my feet
        And overhead, blue sky
        With in between long, distances
        To dream about;
        Within a green-roofed house,
        Sweet memories blessing every room;
        Across the road, a small white church
        Whose open door invites to prayer;
        And, just around the turn,

        On yonder hill, God’s plot
        Where sleep His dead-and mine-
        Beneath two guardian pines;
        So dear a place on earth,
        So near the home called heaven;
        And yet, the unwise ask,
        Where is thy God.

I do feel that much of the First Lady’s philosophy in life comes through in her private letters and poetry. Grace Coolidge was very religious and often turned to ministers at the churches she attended for support. Her deep faith kept her grounded as her son slipped away.

The poem also refers to her interest in the rural, natural world. Even though Grace had grown up in a city and lived in urban Northampton, she appreciated her husband’s hometown. She liked to walk their dogs in the village and picked berries with her father-in-law. She was the hiker in the family.

The “green roofed house” is the homestead where her husband grew up and where he was sworn in as president upon the death of Warren Harding on the West Coast. Memories there would be of her husband, his father, and the boys coming in from a day haying or fishing.

The “small white church” is the building across the street from the homestead. Her husband’s family helped build the church and worshipped there over the years. She attended and added her voice to the singing of hymns. Services were held there to remember her son, Calvin Jr.

“God’s plot” refers to the town cemetery where the Coolidge family members are buried. She found this a quiet, special place to remember her family just as her husband did. They both sent flowers to the graveside of their son on a regular basis from Washington. The president would find his final resting place there in 1933 and she would follow in July of 1957.

Teachers could use this poem to illustrate the Coolidge story and then ask students to write their own poems about special places. The use of poetry to teach history is an effective way to connect with your students.

Passages to the Presidents, their childhood stories
Gail Rossier

Good Morning! My name is Gail Rossier. I’m the Executive Director of Rossier Productions, Inc. which is located in Tallahassee, Florida. Rossier Productions, Inc. or RPI as we like to call ourselves is a non-profit production facility whose mission it is to educate and inspire. We have several passions when it comes to producing multi-media products but two of our favorites are those having to do with history and working with children. Our project, entitled: “Passages to the Presidents, their childhood stories,” has allowed us to enjoy both of these avenues.

I’m hoping each of you have received a green portfolio which will give you information about RPI, and more importantly, the purpose of Passages to the Presidents.

Passages is a multi-media presentation that depicts the childhood of each President of the United States. We feel “Passages” promotes children’s education by illustrating principles of family unity and strong moral character.

Students get a taste of the era and the environment in which the President was raised. Walking in the footsteps of each President when he was a child allows the students to hear and see the President in his youth.

We have been fortunate to incorporate the student’s assistance in each production of Passages. Besides using still photographs, video footage and archival footage, we solicit the help of children who live near the President’s actual hometown. We ask them to draw and submit sketches from their perspectives. We also costume them in the time period and recreate various childhood events that a particular president may have participated in. It is extremely rewarding to have the children experience the lives of our Presidents in this way.

The lesson plan we have provided for you, in your folder, gives you a brief summary of how the product can work in your classroom. As a suggestion, we offer the product as a stand-alone, self-pace tutorial for the student. The series of presidential stories can be used as an assignment or as an on-going opportunity for extra credit through-out the entire school year. Students watch the media presentation of a selected president, complete a required assignment, such as writing a summary or essay of the president, taking a quiz, or perhaps do recommended research. With approval of the teacher, the student then proceeds to the next president’s story until the entire series is completed.

The history-based curriculum is meant as a supplement to your existing program. Passages is not politically oriented. RPI has taken a strong stand to portray the life of a child in a way it can simply be shared and related to by another child. How many of your students have ever milked a cow? How many of them come from a broken home? How are your boys and girls dealing with the awkward adolescent years? Who is their mentor? What are your student’s ambitions, goals and dreams? Coming of age for the men who became presidents may have been in a time period very different than our children today but there are many aspects of these men’s lives which were very much the same.

RPI believes students can identify to these men. While learning their history in a delightful, fun fashion, they can become enlightened. Our goal is to open their minds to the possibilities. We would like them to realize that they too can walk a path to great accomplishments, perhaps even presidency.

As teachers, I’m sure you are engaged in a passion for presenting the best materials possible to your students. On behalf of our panel, we would like to show you a demo which exemplifies our unified passion for assisting in the work you are committed to doing. We share this same passion with you and look forward to passing it along to all your students.