Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont and attended Black River Academy in Ludlow. Though he left Vermont for college and pursued his career as an attorney in Massachusetts, Coolidge never lost his affection for the Green Mountain State. In the years he served as president, from 1923 to 1929, Coolidge often thought of Vermont. “Vermont is I state I love,” the president said in his remarkable address at Bennington in 1928.
President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge had two sons, John and Calvin, Jr. As a boy, Calvin, Jr. displayed remarkable awareness of the obligation of the presidency and service generally. At one of his jobs, picking tobacco in Hatfield, Massachusetts, another boy told Calvin, Jr. that if his own father were president or vice president, he would not work in a tobacco field. “If your father were my father, you would,” Calvin, Jr. replied. Calvin, Jr. died tragically in 1923, while the Coolidges were in the White House.
The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation has therefore proudly established the Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth, a prize named after father and son for writers aged 19 years and younger currently living or attending school in the state of Vermont.
The first-place prize of $1,500 and the runner-up prize of $500 are awarded for the article, essay or poem under 1,000 words that best answers the prompt of this year’s contest: “Is higher education worth the cost to you and your family?” In letters during his youth Calvin Coolidge wrote often seeking money from his father. In these letters many of Coolidge’s expenses are related to his schooling – first at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont and then at Amherst College in Massachusetts. In other letters, Coolidge and his father discussed the possibility of Calvin attending law school. Ultimately the family ended up deciding Calvin would “read the law” as a clerk in the office of Hammond & Field in Northampton, Massachusetts, thereby skipping the cost of law school. Students were asked to use the letters of the young Calvin Coolidge and other Coolidge-related sources to compare and contrast their situation today to that of Calvin Coolidge in his time.
The essays, which will appear in The Reader in the coming weeks, were written by nine exceptional Vermont students who were selected as semi-finalists and finalists for the 2015 Calvin Prize. The Prize is sponsored by the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and made possible by the generous support of National Life Group.
Worth the World
By Kathryn Bassette of Hartland, VT
2015 Calvin Prize Runner Up
Jump after jump I drove my body into a pole hoping it would bend and that it would bend just right to shoot me high, higher than I had ever gone before. High enough to clear the bar and higher still to claim the Vermont pole vault record. I faced a twelve foot bar and felt the perspiration bead my brow. Four years of dedication to pole vault and it all came down to this—would this be the jump that could earn me a sports scholarship to attend a university? This year I chose to take a gap year while my friends study at prestigious universities scattered across the United States. I pass my days, waitressing, studying, and pole vaulting, hoping that by my efforts it will be enough to attend a university in the year 2016. My friends have already begun preparing for their careers. For me, dogged and determined, there is no issue of whether to go on to school, but of how to go on to school. President Coolidge and I share the same desire for independence, truth, and learning. A higher education teaches an individual how to think; it prepares the student for service; and it equips a person to influence the future.
“Human intelligence, the greatest of all natural resources—transform[s] the raw material of nature into something of use” (Magnet, 7). President Coolidge and I see the worth of an education. However, while President Coolidge’s father paid for his education, I must pay for mine. A gap year helps me prepare for the cost. Coolidge participated in what he called piecework. I waitress, houseclean, and work odd jobs. At the Hartland Diner, I cherish the people, the food, and my boss, but piecework is not a career. They contribute towards a future career. My grandmother never graduated high school, but spent years in a factory physically laboring. She held me in her arms the day I was born and wanted more for me. “Get a job where you use your mind.” Like my grandmother, Mr. Coolidge, too, wanted more for his son. President Coolidge said that even though “my formal period of education was passed…my studies are still pursued” (Coolidge, 79). Knowing how to learn is something obtained from higher education. It creates a subconscious desire to give back.
Higher education provides its learners with the skillset to serve and succeed in any occupation. My mother majored in music performance at the University of Vermont. She married and raised my eight siblings and me. Her life could have been filled with fame and the dazzle of the stage lights, but she chose a full-time humble career at home. She educated each of us through high school and demonstrated in her grace the ways of truth, beauty and goodness. Her education prepared her to serve as my mother. President Coolidge reflected, “As I look back upon the college I am more and more impressed with the strength of its faculty, with their power for good (Coolidge, 71).” My brothers decided that a four year education at the United States Military Academy was worth the cost of service to our nation, though they risk paying the ultimate sacrifice. As humbling as service is, there is a pride and desire to demonstrate learning. I have “a determination to get the best out of life and put the best into it” (Montgomery, 221).
Predecessors pave the way for the future: my professors, my mentors, and men like Calvin Coolidge. One day I, too, will lead the children of the next generation. I have a dream of raising my children the way my mother raised me. They will delight in the thrill of discovery when I tell them about the flicker of the fireflies and when they taste the sap from the maple trees. I will narrate to them the epic of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” recite Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and dramatize President Coolidge’s “Have Faith in Massachusetts” elocution. “the education of a child should begin several generations before it is born (Coolidge, 39).” It forms the foundation on which to build the prosperity of the whole people (excerpts from Have Faith in Massachusetts). “When we come into the world the gate of gifts is closed behind us. We can do nothing about it. So far as each individual is concerned all he can do is to take the abilities he has and make the most of them. His power over the past is gone. His power over the future depends on what he does with himself in the present” (Coolidge, 39).
President Coolidge’s story shows determination. Throughout his education his letters home spoke of the cost. Wisely, he did not “pay out except where the return is of more value than the money” (Excerpt from letter 2). “It takes considerable capital to do what little business I take in. I may get in some money, I never can tell” (Excerpt from letter 3). But one day he wrote, “Dear Father, to you I send a little birthday present. I hope you will not lay it away to keep, and I hope you will take it and spend it foolishly as soon as you can” (Excerpts from letter 4). He struggled, strove, and sought for independence. He succeeded and shared the success with his father. I reflect on President Coolidge’s past without confirmation that I will be able to pay for my future. I continue to struggle, strive and seek, leaping towards the hope of an education. Sometimes I leap with a long pole to jump a twelve foot bar. Sometimes I struggle to smile when I am exhausted and need to deliver a plate of food to a customer. In higher education I see an ability to transform my mind, to serve with readiness, and to shape the next generation. My Coach told me, envision your goals and make them happen, and when they do, that is worth the world.
Coolidge, Calvin. “The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge.” National Notary Association. ©June 2014.
Myron, Magnet. “The Founders at Home.” W.W. Norton & Co. Ltd. ©2014.
Maud Montgomery, Lucy. “Anne of Green Gables.” Crown Publishers Inc. ©1986
Excerpts from Calvin Coolidge’s “Have Faith in Massachusetts” speech.
Excerpts from “Calvin Coolidge’s Letters to His Father.”