Coolidge impersonator on final tour

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(Host) Jim Cooke, the actor who’s portrayed Calvin Coolidge around the country for 30 years, is on his final whistle stop tour. This week he’s touring Vermont on the 75th anniversary of Coolidge’s last official visit to his native state. The trip was the occasion for the president’s famous, “Vermont Is A State I Love” speech.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) It’s been 75 years since Coolidge made his celebrated whistle stop tour. At the Bethel train station, it’s clear that people in town are glad to have him back, even if it is only an illusion.

The podium in the White Church has been decked out with bunting. Jim Cooke, America’s most famous Coolidge impersonator stands beside it with gray felt hat in hand.

Soon Cooke will hang up that hat for a new role. But tonight he stands before the audience with the mix of composed reserve and pithy humor that earned Coolidge the nickname, Silent Cal.’ Speaking as Coolidge, he recalls a question from his final press conference in Washington.

(Cooke) “And that was,’what was my greatest accomplishment as president, and my response was minding my own business.”

(Keese) Coolidge accomplished more than that, of course. The purpose of his September 1928 visit was to survey Vermont’s remarkable recovery from the terrible floods of the previous November.

(Keese) “The lieutenant governor lost his life in the flood and numerous other people lost their lives but of course that was nothing compared to the loss of property and livestock. It was clear to me that Vermont needed help and the Red Cross pitched in and the federal government did too.”

(Keese) Cooke asks if anyone in audience was in the crowd that gathered when he came through Bethel the following September. Someone points to 87 year old Anna Washburn.

(Washburn) “I was a grade school student at that time. I remember very well of hearing all of this, this but I did not take any part in it.”

Washburn adds that Coolidge was immensely popular in Vermont, as he was throughout the country. He was one of ours, she says.

Cooke has had countless exchanges like this one since he first began portraying Coolidge nearly 30 years ago. A Montpelier native, he was working as an actor in Cambridge when he was cast as Coolidge in a play. The president was caricaturized as a narrow, rock-ribbed skinflint.

(Cooke) “I did a little research at the time, I looked through his autobiography and could instantly see that there was more to this guy than the play was revealing or history books represented.”

(Keese) By now Cooke has played his alter ego all over the country.

(Cooke) “I endlessly tell people that when I started out I was playing this old guy who used to be president. Now I’m seven years older than Coolidge lived to be – he died at age 60. And I really feel that I’ve taken Coolidge about as far as I can go with him.”

(Keese) Cooke says the timing’s right because next March will mark the anniversary of Coolidge leaving the White House. He’s accepted bookings up to then. But like the Coolidge visit it replicates, this will be his last official Vermont tour.

On Coolidge’s 1928 tour the public already knew that he wasn’t going to run for re-election, though much of the country wished he would. With his wife and entourage, he visited the Plymouth family home where he took the oath of office by kerosene light in 1923. He admired the newly restored bridges, roads and railroads, from Bellows falls and Brattleboro to Burlington and Rutland.

Coolidge had said he wouldn’t make any speeches. The radio had already made his voice the most familiar of any president so far. But from a train car in Bennington – just before he left Vermont – he raised his hand to silence the cheering crowd.

(Cooke) “And it was a great surprise to everybody. People yelled for him to speak louder and he did.”

(Keese) Cooke will recreate the famous speech in Bennington on Sunday. In it, Coolidge describes his journey and his pride at the newly rebuilt infrastructure. Then he says the words that have become a touchstone for Vermonters seeking to hold on to their liberty and common-sense values.

(Cooke) “Vermont is a state I love. I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield and Equinox without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first received my bride; here my dead lie pillowed on the loving breast of our everlasting hills.

I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and her invigorating climate. But most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union and supports of all our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”

(Keese) For his next role Cooke says, he’s researching John Quincy Adams.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Bethel.

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