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McCallum: Green Mountains To White House

10/24/12 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) With election day nearly upon us, educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum is thinking about one of Vermont's local boys who made it big - very big - in Presidential politics.

(McCallum) Vermont is the birthplace of two U.S. presidents, each thrust unexpectedly into the seat of power while serving as vice president. Chester A. Arthur, born in Fairfield, completed President James Garfield's term when Garfield was cut down by an assassin's bullet in 1881. Eleven weeks later, Garfield died from infections caused by botched medical care. At the time, Calvin Coolidge was a nine year-old living in Plymouth Notch with no dreams of leaving the life of a farm boy for the world of politics.

That's about all I know of Chester Arthur, but this summer I learned a great deal about the boy from Plymouth Notch. As a summer tour guide at the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, I gained a window onto Calvin's boyhood and his journey to the White House. On the night in 1923 that Vice President Coolidge took the oath of office in his father's sitting room just before dawn, his tiny hamlet was home to just twenty-nine residents.

Today, visitors stare at the dimly lit room, preserved as it was when Calvin's father swore him in as our thirtieth president. The family bible and kerosene lamp sitting on a lace tablecloth are icons of a simpler time when a Notary Public father could actually administer the presidential oath of office to his son.

Visitors hear about the legendary housekeeper who worked for Calvin's father for fifty years and refused to allow the Coolidges to install indoor plumbing or electricity because they were too new-fangled. They marvel at the intricate bed quilt that Calvin stitched when he was ten, the horse carriage built by his father and the wooden shoulder yoke that young Calvin carved himself to carry two pails of milk.

There, too is the chair in which his mother used to rock Calvin and his sister Abigail to sleep when they were infants. As a guide, I would tell visitors about how Calvin lost his mother, sister, then later his teenage son to ailments preventable today; losses that shed light on the sadness carried within the unsmiling man in old photos.

In 1881, while President Garfield languished, Vice President Chester Arthur refused to move into the White House for more than two months, leaving a vacuum in the Executive Office. In contrast, in August of 1923, when word arrived at Plymouth Notch that President Harding had died, Calvin Coolidge took over in a matter of hours. A temperate man, he suggested they celebrate with a drink - a glass of non-alcoholic Moxie. Today the old general store that his father ran in Plymouth Notch still sells the strong tasting soda popular in the twenties.

President Calvin Coolidge was neither a political visionary nor a powerful policy maker, but he followed life principles that bear a second look: work hard, live simply, be persistent, spend only what you have, be true to your word and cherish family and community. I'm no fan of Moxie, but I would raise a glass of the dark brew to toast policy like that.

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