Nearly 100 years ago, First Lady Grace Coolidge met a truly exceptional woman.
GC: Special Ed Teacher
Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957), a Vermont New Englander born to a middle class family, was the First FLOTUS who earned a full four-year college degree – from the University of Vermont in Burlington, where she graduated in 1901.
By the beginning of the 20th century, higher education for women was no longer the fringe issue it had been a generation earlier. Teaching, then as now, was one of the most popular (and socially acceptable) course of studies for women.
Thus, by the time she graduated, Miss Grace Goodhue had opted to become a teacher, but had become interested in what today would be called “special-ed.” Perhaps influenced by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who had pioneered the cause of teaching the deaf, Grace was fascinated by its needs and challenges.
Once graduated, she began working at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. The curriculum for the deaf at that time mostly focused on developing proficiency in American Sign Language. Young Miss G. had mastered ASL, and became a popular teacher – mostly for younger children. She maintained her skills and her interest in the deaf throughout her life.
Helen Keller, Inspiration
Helen Keller (1880-1968) was the same age as Grace Coolidge, an Alabama Southerner born to a middle-class family. Born healthy and particularly bright, by eighteen months she was toddling around exploring everything and could form dozens of words.
Then she became very very sick. Many modern sources believe it may have been a form of meningitis. She survived, but was left blind and deaf. Hers would be a permanently dark and silent world.
Arthur and Katherine Keller were naturally devastated by the crushing blow to their little girl, and spared no expense trying to find ways to help her. It became obvious early on, that while her sight, sound and speech capabilities were destroyed, her brain remained intellectually intact. She could learn – if there were some way, and someone, who could penetrate her disabled senses.
When Helen was around six, the Kellers became aware of, Laura Bridgman, a young girl similarly afflicted, but who had made prodigious strides to lead as normal a life as possible. Mr. Keller assiduously set out to find a means to unlock his little girl’s potential. He took Helen to consult doctors or specialized schools that could provide direction. This included an introduction and visit to Dr. Bell, considered the foremost exponent and devoted advocate for the deaf.
One road led to another and another, until finally it led to Anne Sullivan, a young woman recently graduated from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts. Miss Sullivan came to Alabama, and began what would become a 50-year relationship with Helen Keller. It took several months as the patient “Teacher” tapped finger patterns into the little girl’s hand. Then there was the miracle breakthrough when Helen realized that those finger games were words – and words had meanings. The door to her bright and inquisitive mind had been unlocked.
She learned Braille. Now she could read. She learned to use a typewriter. Now she could write. By touch-sensing a person’s lips and breath, she learned to speak fairly intelligibly.
Around the same time Grace Goodhue was attending the University of Vermont, Helen and her indispensable companion, Anne Sullivan, went to Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. She was the first blind-deaf student to earn a college degree – and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
While in college, she wrote The Story of My Life. Her achievements and accomplishments made her famous. The book became a worldwide perennial best seller, reprinted in dozens of languages. Helen Keller would be on every “most admired woman” list for the rest of her long life – and she lived to be 88.
Following her college education and her book publication, Helen became a star. She traveled extensively and lent her name and prestige to worthy causes from labor unions and woman suffrage to anti-militarism.
A Meeting of Consequence
The rise of Calvin Coolidge, mediocre lawyer, Massachusetts politician and husband of Grace, was in many ways, a fluke. As Governor of Massachusetts (from the western part of the state) following WWI, he was thrust into prominence during a crippling Boston police strike. It earned him the VP spot on the Republican ticket in 1920. The unexpected death of President Warren Harding in 1923 made the unassuming Coolidges the most famous couple in the country.
The Coolidge time in the White House coincided with the Roaring Twenties and the rise of pop culture as we know it today. Throngs of newly minted celebrities – vaudeville stars, recording artists, moving picture actors, sports figures, etc., flocked to the White House to shake hands with the POTUS and FLOTUS – and maybe stay for lunch.
The much-regarded Helen Keller, now in her mid 40s (the same age as Grace Coolidge), was far better known, and when the opportunity arose for her to visit the White House, Mrs. C., a long time advocate for the deaf, was delight to meet her.
Helen placed her fingers on the FLOTUS’ lips as Grace spoke words of pleasant greeting. A short film (silent) was made of that occasion. https://dcmp.org/learn/521-helen-keller
If the two women kept in subsequent touch, it is unknown, but certainly not unlikely.
Helen Keller continued to make appearances, write articles and lend her name to a variety of causes for the rest of her long life.
And after her tenure in the White House, Grace Coolidge reactivated her association with the Clarke School and served on their Board of Trustees for the rest of her life.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Wikander, Lawrence & Ferrell, Robert (eds) – Grace Coolidge, An Autobiography, 1992, High Plains