GRACE GOODHUE COOLIDGE – MY FAVORITE FIRST LADY AND A LOYAL MEMBER OF THE VERMONT BETA CHAPTER OF PI BETA PHI

Grace Goodhue Coolidge (center) with Pi Phi friends. This was taken while they attended the 1915 Pi Beta Phi Convention in Berkeley, California.

Grace Anna Goodhue was one of two freshmen women who, instead of joining Kappa Alpha Theta or Tri Delta on the University of Vermont campus, decided to align themselves with a group who were petitioning for a Pi Beta Phi charter. The petition was approved during the fall of her freshman year and the Vermont Beta chapter was installed on Thanksgiving night, November 24, 1898. The stores were closed on Thanksgiving day, the menus were printed all wrong and the Vermont Alpha chapter at Middlebury College braved a New England blizzard to partake in the installation festivities that were held at the Goodhue home. Today that home where Grace Goodhue grew up and where Vermont Beta was installed is part of Champlain College. If you’re ever in Burlington, Vermont, it’s worth a stop.

As a member of the chapter, Grace served as corresponding secretary and she was also the delegate to the 1901 Syracuse convention. There she would meet Anna Robinson, a member of Massachusetts Alpha at Boston University and a life long friendship would be formed.

There are many pictures that hang on the wall at Pi Phi headquarters. There’s one a good four feet long, a panoramic shot of the Eastern Conference participants as they joined the First Lady on the White House grounds. There’s another framed picture of Grace along with a letter she wrote and a change of address form for the Arrow as she moved from the White House back to Northampton, Massachusetts. All the pictures were identified except one. I was asked if I knew where the one unidentified picture was taken. It looked to be from the turn of the century given the clothes and the people I could identify. A few hours later, I was on different quest, looking for information about another topic, when I discovered that the picture was one of the 1901 Syracuse Convention. As soon as I knew that, the most marvelous thing happened, I suddenly saw, plain as day, something that I had not noticed before. Grace Goodhue, in the summer between her junior and senior years, was sitting the third from the left in the front row (see the photo that heads this blog). I am fairly certain that Anna Robinson is the first person on the left in the same row. At that convention held in Syracuse more than a 100 years ago could anyone have guessed that there sitting in the first row was a woman who would someday serve the country as a most gracious and loved First Lady?

After her marriage to Calvin Coolidge, Grace helped establish and was the first president of the Western Massachusetts Alumnae Club. Many of the club’s meetings were held at the Coolidge home on Massasoit Street. Several years ago, during a Grace Coolidge Day program at Smith College, there was a tour of the first floor of the that house. In my mind’s eye, I could envision the meetings of the Western Massachusetts Alumnae Club. According to the letters the club sent to the Arrow, its stated purpose was to get Pi Phis together. Their meetings were largely social in nature. They had thimble parties, luncheons and picnics, and it was, they said, very pleasant indeed to meet the Pi Phis of other chapters. In 1911, the club’s members represented 9 chapters, living in 11 towns covering a radius of 40 or 50 miles. According to the Arrow reports, no 2 meetings ever had the same people present. The club president, Grace Coolidge, seemed to be the glue that held the club together.

Although she did not attend the 1912 Evanston Convention, it was there that she began her career as Alpha Province Vice President overseeing several alumnae clubs in the New England area.

In 1915 a group of Pi Phis from Massachusetts began a cross country trek to attend the Pi Phi convention in Berkeley California. They boarded a train in Boston, bound for Chicago where they and the Pi Phis who came aboard along the way, would board the Pi Phi special, a train consisting of ten cars filled with only Pi Phis going to Berkeley.

Grace Coolidge was elected Alpha Province President. Her friend Sarah Pomeroy Rugg was elected Arrow editor and Anna Robinson Nickerson, whom Grace had met at the Syracuse convention in 1901, was appointed Arrow Alumnae Editor. The group that traveled from Boston visited the Pan American exposition in San Francisco and was scheduled to go to a house party in Glendale California.

Grace cut her trip short when she learned that her husband was running for the Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor’s position. A Round Robin letter was started by the Massachusetts Alphas at the house party along with the two Vermont Betas, Grace Coolidge and Edith Carpenter. A Round Robin letter is actually a packet of letters – one from each participant or Robin as she is called. The letters were mailed from Robin to Robin with the recipient taking her own letter out and replacing it with a new one, usually within a three or four day turnaround. Through the foresight of one of the Robins and with Grace’s permission, some of the Robin letters she wrote exist today. One of the letters has a postscript. It reads “My interest in my letters, also my responsibility, ceases with the last lick on the envelope. My advice is to consign them to oblivion. Burned letters tell no tales.” Lucky for us that many of the letters Grace wrote survived. It would be wonderful if we had all the letters each of the Robins wrote, but as it is, with only the ones we have, almost all written by Grace Coolidge, a special insight emerges. They contain everyday information – books read, trips taken, recipes, anecdotes, observations of daily life that provide a glimpse of the private Grace Coolidge as she wrote friends, some of whom had known her since her college days.

In August of 1915, she wrote the Pi Beta Phi Grand President to tell her that she could not perform the duties of Province President. Although she resigned her office, she continued to be active in her alumnae club.

In August 1923, when Calvin Coolidge was sworn in after President Harding’s death, it heralded a fraternity first. The nation had its first couple that had both been initiated as collegiate members of Greek letter societies. President Coolidge was a member of the Amherst College chapter of Phi Gamma Delta.

On Tuesday Aug. 21,1923 from The Willard Hotel in Washington, Grace wrote:

All you dear Brood,

I don’t know where the Robin has been since Amy sent it to me but I suppose it may have gone to Northampton and roosted a spell before it resumed its flight. Anyhow, it lighted on its perch here at the Willard last Saturday. I have kept it until the third day because I thought maybe you’d all like my contribution to be the first letter I wrote in the White House. Just now it occurred to me that I would begin my letter here in the only home I have known in Washington, take it with me as I go and finish it in that great white house on Pennsylvania Ave. – one which must now become my home to me for a year and a half. I wish I could tell you all that is in my heart at this moment – but there is so much that even I am bewildered. I want you all just to love me and pray for me.

Wednesday morning in the White House. 9 o’clock. Good morning to you all. Alice in Wonderland or Babe in the Woods however you wish to regard me – I’m here and nothing has happened to me. I wish I could describe my varied sensations as we came in and took up our residence here. Our first meal was dinner last night at 7:30. Mr. Stearns was our only guest Mrs. Stearns had to go home last Thursday but she came back last night and arrived this morning. I think likely they will spend the night and be here for a few days.

I must not tarry longer writing to you now but I send you all my love and I hope Robin will find his way in many times during the year and a half.

One of the Brood, Grace

Three months later, the Robin envelope arrived again. On November 26, 1923, she wrote:

Dear Knightresses of the Robin Round,

. . . . I had an evening off for the President is diligently at work on his message to Congress – his second week at it – and there were no guests in for dinner. This came very opportune for good old Robin flew in this morning and I had been longing to get at it all day. At 8:30 I made myself comfortable on the couch before the open fire, in my room which I call Abraham Lincoln’s room, for it was his long before it was mine and with a sigh of contentment and relaxation proceeded to devour the bird. . . In the three months that I have lived here in the great white house I have become greatly attached to it and there is much that is sacred about the associations connected with it. The one thing that is uppermost in my mind is the wisdom and great foresight of those who built it over a hundred years ago. As you probably know, John Adams was the first President to occupy it and it must have seemed a very large house in those days. But l must not undertake to go into all that or the bird will become weak for lack of exercising its wings.

Thanksgiving Day – I’m afraid you will cut me out of the circuit for it is three days since I received Robin and typed the first sheet. Since that evening I have not had one minute and now I had to flee to the typewriter in the President’s study in order to continue for he’s asleep before the fire on the couch in my room where my machine is. . . We are seldom alone for a meal, except breakfast which I have served for the two of us in my dressing room. Houseguests have their breakfast served in their rooms at whatever hour they wish. And most of the time there are house guests. . . Daily I am impressed anew with the responsibility and opportunity that have been given me in coming to this wonderful old mansion. In no sense does it overwhelm me, rather does it inspire me to increase my energy and I am so filled with the desire to measure up to this God-given task that I can almost feel strength poured into me. Please, every one of you, pray for me and love me.

Yours in the bonds of friendship, Grace

When Grace Coolidge became First Lady, the Pi Phis were indeed proud and plans were set into motion to honor her. Arrangements were made to give the Howard Chandler Christy portrait and funds were quickly raised for its purchase. A gathering was planned with more than 1300 Pi Phis coming to Washington for the Eastern Conference.

There was a banquet whose keynote speaker was noted suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, an early initiate of Iowa Gamma. Two of the fraternity’s 12 founders, Inez Smith Soule and Jennie Horne Turnbull, in their mid 70s, attended as well. Anna Robinson Nickerson, whom Grace had met in 1901 at the Syracuse Convention and who was a member of the Round Robins, was Grand Vice President of the Fraternity, and she played an integral role in the planning of the event and acted as the banquet toastmistress.
The Robins presented the First Lady with a diamond arrow badge. Anna Nickerson later told the story that Lloyd Balfour, Sigma Chi and owner of a fraternity jewelry business, wanted to present a badge to the First Lady. The Robins insisted that they wanted to purchase one as a token of their friendship and esteem – knowing that the one they gave her was likely not as ornate as the one Mr. Balfour would have presented her, but knowing that one from her old friends would mean so much more.

On May 14, 1924 from the White House, Grace wrote her friend Anna:

I do not believe anyone here had a more enjoyable time then I when the fraternity paid me a visit. The portrait is now in place in the lower corridor with the other White House ladies. Mr. Christy wants a light placed over it but, naturally, I would not so embellish my portrait when those of the other ladies must remain in outer darkness.

Please do whatever the majority wishes in regard to the photograph money. I will undertake to sign as many of them as are saleable! If I can get a dollar for the settlement school by signing my name I’ll work over time, and sell them to anyone you can.

I wear my Robin arrow every day and love it for all that it expresses. When it comes to my position here, I feel very humble but when I think of my friends I am proud and haughty. How truly rich I am.

I have the picture of the 1300 framed. I think it is the best large group picture I ever saw. There are no blurs and it seems to me every face can be recognized.

A few weeks after she wrote Anna, her world was shattered. On July 7, 1924, her son Calvin Junior died of blood poisoning from a blister he developed after a tennis game. It has been said that the President never recovered from his grief. His wife saw it as her duty to go on.

Grace Coolidge and Edith Carpenter were the only Robins who did not attend Boston University. In December 1924, an honorary degree from Boston University was conferred upon the First Lady and one can only try to guess the influence the Robins had upon their alma mater’s decision.

In a Robin letter written from the White House, the First Lady wrote:

Dear Birdies,

You have to sit and pay attention to me now that I am a full-fledged alumna of your own university. Having felt like a rank outsider when the invitation came from Mr. Murlin to be present at the induction into the office of the first Dean of Women and to receive at his hands an honorary degree. I want to tell you that I got all wobbly when he announced the magnitude of the degree as I stood before him there in the New Old South Meeting House. And I have not yet recovered. It never occurred to me that I should rise to the heights of an LL.D (Doctor of Laws)… I had not given any consideration to the particular degree that would be bestowed upon me but in thinking it over afterwards I decided I very likely expected a new one to be created to fit my case and it seemed to me to that D.D. would have been a good one, standing not for Doctor of Divinity, oh no, but for Doctor of Domesticity! The fleeting glimpse of about half our little band was very tantalizing at the tea which followed the induction ceremonies but you who were there will never know how good you looked to me as you gathered on the balcony. My life now seems made of tantalizing glimpses. It is terrible to have to spread out so thin.

The members of the fraternity took and still take great pride Grace Coolidge’s membership. I have found many references to chapters greeting the First Lady as the Presidential train traveled the country. Chapters often brought wine carnations for the First Lady and she was often serenaded with a fraternity song or two, and sometimes she joined in.

Boston University President Lemuel Murlin painted a vivid portrait when he said of her, upon conferring the honorary degree, “Grace Goodhue Coolidge, student, university graduate, teacher; daughter, wife, mother; in every station exemplifying the finer qualities of mind and heart we most admire in women; your own works praise you; you have gained the confidence, admiration and love of the American people.”

In a note to Pi Phi’s Grand President Amy Burnham Onken, written during her years as First Lady, Grace Coolidge identified herself as “one of the fraternity’s loyal members.”

We Pi Phis are grateful that Grace Goodhue, as a University of Vermont freshman, decided to become a charter member of the Pi Beta Phi chapter and we are appreciative of her life long loyalty and service to the fraternity. In 1924, Pi Beta Phi was able to show Grace Coolidge how much she meant to the Fraternity. Throughout her life Grace showed how much Pi Beta Phi meant to her. We as a fraternity are honored to call her one of our own, a wearer of the golden arrow and the wine and silver blue, a true Pi Beta Phi.

From a talk I gave to the St. Louis Alumnae Club of Pi Beta Phi on the occasion of its 99th anniversary.


 

Grace Goodhue Coolidge, 1912


 

(c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2012. All Rights Reserved.