8/3/1923 – A Phi Gam and a Pi Phi Become President and First Lady

When Grace Goodhue Coolidge fell asleep on the evening of August 2, 1923, she was the wife of the Vice President. In the middle of the night, she awoke to news that President Harding was dead. She dressed and went downstairs to join her husband in the parlor. Her father-in-law, Colonel John Coolidge, a Windsor County notary, administered the oath of office to his son Calvin, her husband, by the light of a kerosene lamp, she suddenly became the First Lady of the United States.

President Harding was in a San Francisco hotel when he died suddenly late in the evening. The Coolidges were in Vermont at the family homestead in Plymouth Notch.  President Harding’s death happened four hours before news was delivered at 2:30 a.m. to the Coolidge homestead. 

Colonel Coolidge’s home did not have a telephone. President Harding’s secretary telegraphed the initial message of Harding’s death to White River Junction, Vermont. The public telephone operator who received the message sought out Coolidge’s stenographer, W. A. Perkins, and Joseph N. McInerney, his chauffeur. They alerted a reporter. Much activity ensued in a short amount of time. Colonel Coolidge answered the door and received the news. He trudged up the stairs to wake his son.  The President recounted the night in his autobiography:

…I noticed that his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred.

He placed in my hands an official report and told me that President Harding had just passed away. My wife and I at once dressed.

Before leaving the room I knelt down and, with the same prayer with which I have since approached the altar of the church, asked God to bless the American people and give me power to serve them.

The oath administered by Colonel Coolidge was taken in the 14′ x 17′ parlor. Electricity had not yet reached the house and the oath was taken by the light of a kerosene lamp. President Coolidge’s mother’s Bible was on the table at his hand. She died when she was a young boy.

First-hand accounts vary as to the people in the room when the oath was administered. That is understandable given the haste of the activity, the darkness of the night, and the solemness of the occasion.

If you’re ever near Plymouth Notch, Vermont, you can stop by and see the room where Grace Coolidge became First Lady by the light of a kerosene lamp. And on that night, Grace Coolidge, a charter member of the Pi Beta Phi chapter at the University of Vermont, and Calvin Coolidge, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta Chapter at Amherst College, became the first President and  First Lady to have been initiated into Greek-letter societies as college students.

Grace Coolidge in her official portrait. It was given to the Nation by her Pi Phi sisters.

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