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Stepping into the President's Shoes
Coolidge Foundation receives a gift Cal gave to his doctor
By SUSAN SMALLHEER
Southern Vermont Bureau
President Calvin Coolidge was the epitome of Vermont thrift. So the latest donation to the Coolidge Memorial Foundation should come as no surprise: It’s an old pair of shoes.
But the shoes, which were worn by Coolidge while he was president, have an interesting history.
Coolidge gave the shoes 65 years ago to his White House physician, Dr. Joel Boone, and it was Boone’s son-in-law, Milton Heller of Stowe who donated the shoes to the foundation.
They are not just any old pair of shoes, but are shiny black, high-lace dress shoes, with four hooks at the top. They are small and almost dainty, they look like a woman’s boot.
The small silk label inside reads: “Calvin Coolidge, Washington, D.C.”
Heller has been guarding the shoes for many years. Heller was married to the political doctor’s only daughter, Suzanne.
Heller wrote a book about his famous father-in-law, “The Presidents’ Doctor: An insider’s View of Three First Families.” The book describes the gift Coolidge made to his doctor.
Coolidge made Boone try the shoes on before he would let him have them, according to Heller, who based his book on his father-in-law’s written notes. According to the book, he brought out the new Stacey Adams shoes and showed them to Boone. “‘I want to see if they will fit little Dr. Boone,’” Coolidge said.
The shoes pinched a bit, but Boone kept quiet, eager for the gift.
Heller says the full story reveals just what a skin-flint the 34th president was.
As Dr. Boone took off the gift shoes, he reached for the wooden shoe trees that had been in the shoes.
“With this, the president speaking more rapidly than usual, said, ‘Dowling, get those shoe trees away from Docky Boone! Afraid he’ll take those shoe trees away with him, also,’” the book relates.
The shoes, without trees, were bestowed on the doctor by his grateful patient. As he left the White House living quarters, Boone encountered First Lady Grace Coolidge.
“‘Mighty few people can step into the president’s shoes!’” she joked with the doctor.
Dr. Boone was a naval officer and physician, who got the job of treating presidents because of his distinguished service during World War I. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor and came to the attention of Warren Harding.
He was with Harding when he died in 1923,which led to Coolidge’s famous homestead inaugural in Plymouth.
Boone was on call all the time for President Coolidge, and Coolidge insisted on having his pulse taken twice a day.
“He was a bit of a hypochondriac,” Heller reported from his father-in-law’s notes. “He had strange ideas of medicine.”
Coolidge believed that cocaine applied to the ear was a cure for seasickness, he said.
Heller never met President Coolidge, but he did meet Grace Coolidge in the summer of 1938, when the Boone family visited her in Northampton, Mass., where the Coolidges retired after the White House years.
“I’ll never forget that experience. We had lunch with her at Wiggins Tavern in Northampton. There was no Secret Service,” he recalled during a recent interview in Montpelier. “I was 19 years old and she was incredibly gracious.”
He added, “The Boones and Coolidges were fast friends.”
It was Dr. Boone who attended the Coolidges’ youngest son in his fatal illness, Heller said. “If only they’d had antibiotics,” he said.
Cyndy Bittinger, executive director of the Coolidge Foundation, said the shoes were the first article of the president’s clothing it had received.
“My whole philosophy of donating is to encourage people to donate to any of the repositories, either the state Division for Historic Preservation, the foundation, the Vermont Historical Society — then it is saved for history,” she said.
Those particular shoes, made by a firm in Brockton, Mass., were a favorite of Coolidge.
In fact, Vermont historian Howard Coffin, a Coolidge Foundation trustee, recently purchased a campaign poster and Coolidge was wearing the same shoes — or their twins — along with a three-piece tweed suit.
Coolidge, for all his thrift, left plenty of shoes behind. And according to William Jenney, the site administrator for the Division of Historic Preservation at the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, the president’s shoes are not that rare.
The state historic site owns several pairs of Coolidge shoes and several suits of clothing, including the famous farmer’s smock, which Coolidge wore over his suit to do farm chores when he visited Vermont.
And Jenney said that the company that made the Boone shoes is still in business, and making the same style.
Stacy Adams Shoes is now part of a large shoe conglomerate based in Milwaukee, and President Coolidge’s favorite style is now called Madison, appropriately presidential.
Contact Susan Smallheer at email@example.com.
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