On Life, Death and Fatherhood

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Yesterday, April 13, marked the birthday of Calvin Coolidge Jr., the second son of the Coolidges, who came into the world in 1908. As Margaret Fischer notes in her book on Calvin Jr., “As Calvin was born near Easter his parents called him ‘Bunny’ until a name was chosen. After some weeks Mrs. Coolidge told her husband she thought it time the baby was given ‘a fit and Christian name.’ ‘I was just waiting to see if he knew anything before we call him Calvin,’ he responded. So Calvin it was. But while he was small his father, always given to nicknames, often called him ‘Bunny,’ or ‘Little Bun,’ or ‘Benjamin Bun.’ The little family into which Calvin had been born was a close and devoted one…As a father [Mr. Coolidge]…was a strict disciplinarian, expecting unquestioning obedience, and, preoccupied by serious matters, was usually rather formal with his sons, but he was ever thoughtful and considerate with them. And despite his formality with them he sometimes had a great deal of fun teasing them. But Calvin, Jr., as his mother once wrote, ‘usually caught a joke in the making and sidetracked it with a laugh,’ leading her husband to say there was no use trying his fun there. Mr. Coolidge enjoyed taking the boys on long walks and he occasionally played Authors, Parcheesi or some other game with them. And in his undemonstrative way he was intensely proud of them.”

A reporter from The Washington Star wrote after a visit with young Calvin during his work in the tobacco fields in August 1923, “Calvin Jr. is a powerful reminder of his father, slender, taciturn, and with a love of the economy of speech that has marked his namesake. He flashes the same evanescent smile that comes and goes so quickly that one wonders whether it really has happened, but, as is the case with the President the smile lingers in the bright blue eyes.”

The headmaster of the Academy at which the Coolidge boys studied said of Calvin Jr., “Calvin, like his father, was quiet and taciturn, but under that calm, reserved exterior there was fire and eagerness and tenderness, hidden from mere acquaintances but which won the love and admiration of all who knew him well.”

When sixteen year old Calvin died from blood poisoning in July 1924, the loss of such a good and hard-working boy struck the entire country. There is no question that it profoundly grieved the family. The President told Chief Justice Taft that summer, “I believe he possessed great power for good that would have made itself felt had he lived.”

Even in the midst of that deep sorrow, the Coolidges demonstrated a strength toward death that left an enduring impression on those who were there. The White House social secretary, Mary Randolph, observed, “In all the great East Room,” where the service was held at the White House, “there were few who did not weep. But the President and Mrs. Coolidge and John were dry-eyed. Their dignity and courage never broke–never even wavered. They commanded the loving admiration and respect of everyone there.”

He remained, as his father would write years later, “[p]rivileged, by the grace of God, to be a boy throughout eternity.”

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