By MIMI BAIRD
Special To The Standard
I met Howard Coffin on June 6, 2010 in the cafeteria of the State Capitol Building in Montpelier, a favorite gathering place during those years of testifying for legislative appropriations. I wanted to know about some of the individuals who made a difference in the early years of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Howard was game.
Howard made it very clear that in the founding era of the1960s, John Coolidge, son of President Coolidge, Vrest Orton, Chairman of the Vermont Historic Sites Commission, Deane Davis, Governor of Vermont, and Edward Connery Lathem, close friend of John Coolidge, author and eminent librarian at Dartmouth College, were the main luminaries who got the organization “up and running.”
Those early years were full of enthusiasm and determination. The memories of Calvin and Grace were fresh as yesterday. Both Mr. Orton and Mr. Lathem produced books on Coolidge. At one point, Mr. Lathem helped John Coolidge with the business aspects of the country store as well as the Cheese Factory. Howard recalls that Mr. Lathem’s mother briefly ran the store. Governor Davis became President of the Board of Trustees from1962-1973.
As the years passed, the organization languished, but up stepped a new Executive Director Sally Thompson and trustee extraordinaire, the man from Woodstock, publisher Frank Teagle. Sally brought energy to the organization and Frank provided the funds. Around the time Howard’s first Civil War book was published, Frank realized the Foundation needed some good publicity. Howard had written numerous articles for the Rutland Herald on Plymouth. Howard grew up in Woodstock but was living at that time just over the hill from Plymouth, in Shrewsbury. He knew Marjorie Pierce whose father did the interior work on the church, her cousin, Aurora Pierce was the Coolidge’s housekeepe,r and another cousin Midge Aldrich ran the Top of the Notch tearoom. Other than financial support, Frank understood that the Foundation needed trustees who were interested, could write, and knew people across Vermont. President Coolidge and the Foundation needed to be better known. Frank knew Howard cared and brought him on the Board in 1992, the same year that Frank, after serving 17 years, became Emeritus Trustee.
James L. Barngrove, Jr. from Reading served as the loyal and dedicated President of the Board for several years until1994. Mr. Barngrove was a friend of John Coolidge’s from their railroad days in New Haven, Connecticut. The organization needed some re-vitalization. Senator Robert T. Stafford from Rutland had retired from the US Senate. Howard had known Senator Stafford quite well from all those years he covered politics for the Herald and suggested to the Foundation that he might fit the bill. Senator Stafford indeed became the next president in 1995. Senator Stafford realized the board needed strengthening. Along with the current director, he brought new trustees on the Board. Monk Martin of Rutland and Plymouth was a tremendous help, along with Frank Teagle, with maintaining the Union Christian Church owned by the Foundation. He saw to it that a sprinkler system was installed as well as a generator. Monk also was instrumental in preventing a handicapped accessible door to be cut in the back wall of the church. Wilmer Schmell also of Plymouth oversaw the construction of the Foundation offices in the basement of the church and other necessary construction projects involving the building. Up until that time, there were very few women on the Board. But along came Florence Coolidge, Susan Webb, Mary F. Rockefeller, Virginia Hornung, Vivian Blanchard, Polly Billings, Carolyn Miller and Allison Lockwood.
Cyndy Bittinger, from Hanover, New Hampshire was appointed the Executive Director in 1990 and served 18 years. Sally Thompson served during the 1960s-1970s and Cathy Donald from 1970s-1980. Cyndy’s devotion, energy, history and teaching background, and just plain good humor served the organization well. She also was determined to again bring Grace Coolidge into the spotlight and did so with the publication of her book Grace Coolidge, Sudden Star. It was a best seller for NOVA Publications. When interviewing Howard, State Senator Bill Doyle joined us. Cyndy was a guest lecturer in one of his history classes. He said the following: “She was a remarkable class presenter. She showed film clips and had a great sense of humor. Cyndy once told a class that â€˜Silent Cal’ was silent in five languages.” And there is Karen Mansfield, the devoted Office Manager for many years. She was quiet, efficient and always very helpful. The office could not have run without her. Karen is about to retire and she will be greatly missed. Bill Jenney, whose attention and care of the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site is unparalleled. He is a quiet, capable gentleman who has made himself an essential part of Plymouth Notch. “A job well done,” said Howard, “when it wasn’t always easy.”
Enter US Senator James M. Jeffords. Senator Stafford realized the Foundation needed an influx of funds to be able to accomplish the new direction visualized by the current trustees. Howard had worked with Senator Jeffords as his Press Secretary. Jeffords was also his neighbor in Shrewsbury. Howard approached Senator Jeffords to see if he could get an appropriation from the federal government. Jeffords asked: “How much?” Howard replied, “$500,000.” Jeffords said: “In Washington it is easier to deal with a million, but we need to have a reason.” After a brief discussion between the two and the Foundation, it was agreed to honor Senator Stafford. Stafford was tremendously revered by the US Senate and, as mentioned before, had just retired. “Everyone down here loves Bob Stafford. If we make it in his honor, there will be general support,” said Jeffords. Jeffords got to work.
In the late fall of 1996, Howard and I were visiting John Coolidge in his home in Plymouth. Cyndy called us on the telephone. There was an urgent message from Senator Jeffords’ office. Before racing down to the Foundation office, Howard couldn’t resist telling Mr. Coolidge that there might be some funding coming our way from the federal government. Mr. Coolidge stated right away that federal money shouldn’t be used in this manner. He said: “This is pure 100% pork.” The federal grant for 1 million dollars did come through and the Foundation has been grateful ever since.
But the glow from Senator Stafford’s presidency didn’t stop here. In late 1996, early 1997, the Foundation realized that the 75th anniversary of Coolidge becoming president was upon us. It was the general feeling of the trustees that we should wait until the 100th anniversary to celebrate. It would be too much work. Well, with a little encouragement from a few, Senator Stafford saw the wisdom of such an event and announced to a winter board meeting that indeed we would honor the 75th anniversary in 1998. Senator Stafford remembered Howard’s statement that the Foundation needed to capture the imagination of the younger generation in regard to Coolidge history and now is that time.
As an aside, Howard remembered the early morning of August 3, 1998 when we were about the re-enact the Homestead Inaugural. As many luminaries were reading from Coolidge’s Autobiography in the church, while waiting for the magic hour, Howard had gone to one of the little cabins to take a quick nap. When he walked back to the Homestead, he came around the corner of the Cilley Store, and there were a few old cars and people dressed in period costume. Howard stopped and said to himself; “Gosh, it is 1923.” He was just astonished. He was transported back in time. In the end, celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Homestead Inaugural was the re-birth of the Foundation and a farewell to John Coolidge. Mr. Coolidge died two years later.
In retrospect, the historical re-evaluation of President Coolidge by the 75th celebration was as much to do with JFK scholar and historian Sheldon Stern as anyone. Dr. Stern presented a paper, at the Annual Meeting of the Foundation in 1995, he had written about Coolidge as part of a JFK project of examining presidents who scholars had put in the background. The Annual Report 1995-1996 states the following: “Dr. Stern made an eloquent and scholarly presentation with respect to Calvin Coolidge’s presidency. Dr. Stern emphasized the achievements of Calvin Coolidge’s administration and how history has not presented a true picture of President Coolidge. Dr. Stern was extremely effective in painting a more accurate history of President Coolidge.” Thus was born the two-day symposia at JFK in Boston in conjunction with the 75th two-day celebration in Plymouth.
And what review of these years could be written without the inclusion of Jerry Wallace, a long time trustee and now National Advisory Board member, living in Oxford, Kansas. Jerry is retired from his job in the National Archives and Records Administration but not retired from his unending interest, support and dedication to the Foundation. Jerry’s knowledge of Coolidge is extensive and he is always willing to share his vast well of information. Jerry was available to Cyndy Bittinger on the telephone. As Cyndy always said, he was her “life line.” Jerry was also generous in offering sage advice, observations and solutions to thorny issues. He wrote numerous essays, especially for The Real Calvin Coolidge, the Foundation’s scholarly publication. And now with the wonders of the computer, Jerry continues to watch over the Foundation and again is answering questions facing the organization’s current president, Bob Kirby.
And so as my interview wraps up, Howard recalls that out of the more than 300 talks he has given in Vermont, none were more thrilling than the two July 4th presentations he was honored to give. Thank you, Howard, and thank you to all the wonderful people mentioned in this reminiscence.
Mimi Baird has served on the Board of Trustees of the Coolidge Foundation since 1994. She was a member of various committees and participated in numerous events. The opening of the President Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center is her proudest moment.