Scouting October 2000

The Way it Was The Way it Was

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 announced—in typically few, but emphatic, words—his 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.

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