The 'Most Wholesome and Best in the American Boy'
By Dennis L. Peterson
Illustration by Joel Snyder
When Calvin Coolidge became President in 1923, his two sons became the first Boy Scouts to live in the White House. Then a tragic accident took the life of Calvin Jr.
The President and his sons often worked the family farm; Calvin Jr. was memorialized with a tree planted on the White House grounds.
Calvin Coolidge Jr. didn't tell anyone about the blister that had formed on a toe of his right foot during a strenuous tennis match with his older brother, John, on the White House court. As the son of President Calvin (Silent Cal) Coolidge, and a Boy Scout, he certainly wouldn't have complained about it.
But the next day, the 16-year-old awoke with a stiff and painful leg. The doctor was called, and his examination revealed that a septic infection had spread to Calvin's bloodstream and throughout his body. In 1924, penicillin and other revolutionary infection-fighting drugs were yet to be discovered, and Calvin's condition was critical.
During the next several days, seven doctors tried stomach washings, blood transfusions, an operation, and other methods in desperate efforts to save the teenager. But Calvin only grew weaker.
By July 7, he was delirious. Finally, his body began to relax. He said weakly, "I surrender," and lapsed into a coma. Four hours later, at 10:30 p.m., he died.
The entire nation had anxiously followed on the radio the plight of Calvin Coolidge Jr. Now it joined his parents in mourning the loss of a most promising young man.
The image of his father
Calvin Jr. was born on April 13, 1908, and he was the image of his father in appearance and wit. Observers noted that he was "a very human boy" who was "full of pranks" but studious and conscientious, a voracious reader.
Perhaps his greatest quality, however, was his humble but realistic perspective on life.
For example, in August 1923, the eldest son of the Vice President of the United States was working on a farm in Massachusetts, earning $3.50 a day, when his employer brought dramatic news. President Warren G. Harding had died; Calvin Jr.'s father was now President Calvin Coolidge.
To this, young Calvin replied simply: "Yes, I suppose he is. In which one of the sheds do you want me to work this morning, Mr. Day?"
Calvin learned the value of hard work from his father. When a fellow worker later said to him, "If my father was President, I wouldn't work in a tobacco field." Calvin responded, "If my father were your father, you would."
Calvin had always been weak physically, but news reports frequently mentioned his courage in the face of death.
One witness said, "Only a fortitude of will and character unusual at any age ... kept him alive so long." Another reporter wrote, "The boy's courage met the test many times when it was required that he submit to [medical] tests."
Scouts honor 'one of their own'
An honor guard of six Marines and six sailors watched over the body as it lay in state in the East Room of the White House. The service was "simple but impressive," and one newspaper noted the "overwhelming floral offerings," one of the most prominent of which "was that sent by the Boy Scouts of America, of which Calvin was a member."
The floral arrangement was not the only role Boy Scouts played in the services.
Later that evening, enormous crowds gathered outside the White House as the family prepared to take the body to Vermont for burial. One newspaper reported, "Boy Scouts assisted in keeping the lines open for the party to proceed through on their way to Union Station."
When the funeral train arrived in Plymouth Notch, Vt., the six Marines in the honor guard, accompanied by Boy Scouts, carried the casket to the graveside.
The minister read Psalm 23 and described Calvin as "a boy on whom one could depend, willing to work hard and play the game." He summarized his character: "What was most wholesome and best in the American boy, he was...."
As the service ended, "the Boy Scouts...filed by the grave, each dropping a rose as he passed" in a tribute to one of their own.
A high price to pay
Calvin's ordeal was over, but that of his parents had only begun. His mother, Grace Coolidge, was visibly tearful at the funeral. His father, legendary for his silence, became "more silent than ever." The couple returned to Washington with a spruce tree, which they planted near the White House tennis court in memory of Calvin.
Although Grace eventually "burned like a glowing altar flame to duty" as hostess of the White House, the President never quite regained his zest for public service. He easily won the election of 1924 but frequently seemed preoccupied with the memory of his son. As his four-year term neared its end, he announcedin typically few, but emphatic, wordshis decision regarding reelection in 1928: "I do not choose to run for President in 1928."
Reflecting on his son's death, Coolidge later said, "When he went, the power and glory of the Presidency went with him."
And in his autobiography, he lamented, "I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House."
Freelance writer Dennis L. Peterson lives in Powell, Tenn.
The Final Journey of President Harding
On Aug. 3, 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the sixth Vice President to succeed a President who had died in office.
History has not held in high regard the political record or the personal life of the man he replaced, Warren G. Harding. However, at the time of his death, Harding was much admired by the American public, and especially by the Boy Scouts of America.
At a White House ceremony held shortly after his inauguration in 1921, the new President agreed to serve as honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America. Eight uniformed Eagle Scouts, Chief Scout Executive James E. West, and other BSA national dignitaries attended the event.
It was a tradition begun with President William Howard Taft and continued with Woodrow Wilson. And Harding accepted the honor with enthusiasm. "I am with the Scout Movement heart and soul," he declared. "It is an organization teaching the spirit of service and honor which we must always have in our citizenship. ... I wish every boy in our America could have the advantage and the honor of being in the Boy Scout organization. ..."
A fateful trip
In June 1923, the President and his wife, Florence, set out on an extended train trip from Washington, D.C., to Alaska. Harding had been in office less than three years and the corruption that would be the legacy of his administration was still mostly rumor; the scandals in his personal life would not become public knowledge until decades later.
On the trip, Boy Scouts greeted the President's train at each stop. In Kansas City, a thousand Scouts watched Mrs. Harding present awards for heroism to two of their compatriots. And in Butte, Mont., the President awarded Honor Medals to five Boy Scouts for lifesaving actions. "I do not know of anything that has occurred on our Western journey that has afforded me greater pleasure," Harding said.
The return from Alaska had just begun when the President became ill. He developed pneumonia, which was complicated by a heart ailment, and on Aug. 2 he died in San Francisco.
The death of the popular 57-year-old President shocked the nation. In San Francisco, 20 Eagle Scouts marched in the funeral cortege as the President's train prepared for its sad journey eastward. Along the route, Scouts who weeks before had turned out to greet their leader, now gathered to pay their final respects.
"By station platforms, alongside of tracks, in mountains, valleys, and plains, the draped coaches passed through the line of Boy Scouts standing at salute at all hours of the day and night," observed Joe Mitchell Chapple, one of the many journalists on the train.
Serving in a 'Scoutlike manner'
In Ogden, Utah, 200 Scouts at summer camp assembled a wreath of wildflowers. At the Ogden station, and elsewhere, Scouts were the only group allowed to board the train and present their floral tributes to the President's widow, sitting near the flag-covered casket.
In Salt Lake City, 25,000 people gathered and Scouts formed a security line around the funeral train. In Kearney, Neb., the train passed through without stopping, and a hundred Scouts helped control more than 10,000 people who lined the tracks.
At the funeral in Washington, D.C., BSA officials presented a floral wreath. Later, in Harding's hometown of Marion, Ohio, reporters noted how Scouts performed crowd control during the burial service "in Scoutlike manner, thoughtfully, and without ostentation."
At locations throughout the country, Scouts planted memorial trees to honor President Harding.
"What Lincoln was to the older men, Harding is to us," a Scout told reporter Joe Chapple, in explaining how highly all Boy Scouts regarded the President.
Jon C. Halter
Meet the Brothers Coolidge
"President Coolidge and His Boys," an article by W. H. Clagett, in the October 1923 issue of Boys' Life, introduced readers to the recently inaugurated President and his two sons, John and Calvin Jr.
Like his predecessor, Coolidge enthusiastically endorsed Scouting. In a letter to BSA president Colin H. Livingstone on Aug. 16, 1923, accepting the honorary presidency of the BSA, Coolidge noted that "Both my sons are Scouts, and my observation of the benefits they have derived from their affiliation has strengthened my conviction of [Scouting's] usefulness."
The article assured BL readers that even though John and Calvin Jr. were now "first boys of the land," they were still regarded by their close associates as "just reg'ler fellers."
Both Coolidge sons had "joined the Boy Scouts of the Edwards Congregational Church" in their hometown of Northampton, Mass., and "had just started on what promised to be an interesting career in Scoutdom when the family was called to Washington."
The brothers enjoyed "long hikes with their father, or a dip into the water with their mother, who is an expert swimmer." John was "quite proficient" on the violin, while Calvin played the banjo and was "considered an expert at checkers."
Both boys were nearly six feet tall. While John resembled his mother in many ways, Calvin bore "a striking resemblance to his father, even to the color of his hair, which is red...."
October 2000 Table of Contents
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