By David Cogger
Special To The Standard
WOODSTOCK – On a recent warm July afternoon, retired judge Franklin S. Billings, Jr. sat on the porch of his boyhood home in Woodstock. It was the same porch where Billings had been photographed in 1925 when he was 3 years old, sharing the stage with President Calvin Coolidge, a close friend of his father, Franklin S. Billings, Sr., then governor of Vermont.
Along with many vague memories, Billings recalled Secret Service around Woodstock that he described as “strange characters” who he thinks were probably responsible for bringing him out for the picture and then shuffling him back into the house.
Billings later became a member of the trustees of the Coolidge Foundation and currently is the oldest surviving member of the original board.
“I became one of the founders of the foundation because of my father’s connection with the president.”
He also knew John, President Coolidge’s son, and his wife Florence. Both were very involved in the foundation and the preservation of the Plymouth site.
In 1933, when President Coolidge died, Billings was 11 years old. The burial service for the president was held in Woodstock, and his father took him along.
“My father was not well,” he said. “But I remember sitting on a little rise in the road just before the grave watching with my father.”
“I also remember him (the president) being here for lunch on a particular day – the first time he came to town after he had become president.”
In 1935, Billings’ father died of a heart attack. “I had planned to go away to boarding school, but my mother was from Milton, MA, so we moved south where I became a day student at Milton Academy.”
“I finished at Milton, but the Woodstock High School class of 1940 has always included me in their class reunions, and I appreciate that.”
After Milton, Billings attended Harvard, where he was a member of the ROTC and commissioned as a second lieutenant. “I flunked my physical due to a heart murmur and they said, â€˜you’re out.'”
He then worked in the Navy in a civilian radar program at General Electric, and later went on to join the American Field Service ambulance corps serving in Italy where he was wounded during battle.
“After my discharge, I attended Yale University School of Law for one year, I did alright, but I just couldn’t concentrate.”
One year later, Billings returned to law school at the University of Virginia. Yale had told him that he could come back, but he would have had to wait until the following September to start classes. UVA would let him start in
Billings headed home to Woodstock after law school, and opened a small general practice with Elizabeth Sherburn above the current Chittenden Bank.
“We ran a successful and happy practice,” Billings recalled.
Later, he would serve as Vermont Secretary of State, Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs, and chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.
“In 1963, when Phil Hoff became governor, and I became speaker, I picked the cabinet and selected members of the â€˜Young Turks’ – a term coined by the press for a group of 11 of us moderate, young, progressive guys of all parties.”
In 1965, Billings left Vermont government and moved back to his law practice. Six months later, Sen. Stafford asked Billings if he wanted to be a U.S. District Court Judge.
“President Reagan held up the appointment for nine months. But between Senator Stafford and Senator Leahy, they convinced the president that there was not going to be another appointee. I was confirmed, and I stayed active as a judge until 2001.”
Today, Billings keeps involved, but he has cut back on his time commitment to the Coolidge Foundation. “I thought I would have lots of time on my hands when I retired, but I am busier than ever.”
“Our goal at the foundation was to preserve the homestead in Plymouth. I was on the board until they set up term limits. But Mimi Baird (former chair of the foundation) kept me on.”
“I think they’ve done a wonderful job in preserving the town.”