Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mount Holyoke Receives Original Frances Perkins Letters

During July and the first half of August, I worked in Alexandria, Virginia, interning for the Frances Perkins Center, based in Damariscotta, Maine, arranging and logging the Perkins papers of author Kirstin Downey for transport to the Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections. I was the first intern for the Frances Perkins Center, and they would like more interns from Mount Holyoke in future years. While I thoroughly enjoyed my internship, it was difficult to explain my work set-up to people because my organization, supervisor, and workplace were in three different locations.

At the end of July, Kirstin and I drove through Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to obtain original Perkins letters from the grandson of a significant contemporary of Frances Perkins. The Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections is thrilled to receive a new collection of original letters from Frances Perkins. Elizabeth Middleton Maddock, the best friend of Perkins at Mount Holyoke, saved their correspondence during Perkins’ time as Secretary of Labor. Also, Maddock maintained a scrapbook of Perkins’ achievements, which is now a compelling representation of the New Deal Era. In late July in Trenton, New Jersey, Maddock’s grandson gave a box of these items to Kirstin and me to present to Mount Holyoke. It has been my privilege to arrange and log these new materials, especially the hand-written letters. 

I have heard that the smartest people have the worst handwriting – this rule definitely applies to Perkins. She was undeniably brilliant, and her handwriting is nearly unreadable. Sarah Peskin, Secretary for the Frances Perkins Center, ended an email to me, “Good luck with Perkins’ handwriting.” Fortunately, author Kirstin Downey is the best at deciphering Perkins’ seemingly illegible scribbles. It is enthralling for me to archive these original letters, though I probably learn more from the typed ones.

One particular typed letter captured my attention because it addressed the swimming pool at Mount Holyoke. As a Mount Holyoke student, I enjoy swim classes in the Physical Education Department. In March 21, 1950, Perkins wrote to Miss Mildred Howard, Chairman of the Physical Education Department, “The members of my class are particularly delighted that a first-rate swimming pool is to be a part of the physical education building. The Class of 1902 started the fund for a swimming pool… We did it with great enthusiasm, partly because nobody wanted it.” She continued, “If there are any plaques or ribbons or other mementos of donors to be scattered around the new building, we want to be sure that the plaque says the right thing about the class of 1902.” I do not know if there are currently plaques, ribbons, or other mementos, but I know that I will remember Frances Perkins and the Class of 1902, whenever I go swimming this year.  

While most of the new material is from Perkins to Maddock, there are a few letters from Maddock to Perkins, including a heartwarming poem around the time that Perkins retired from public life, “May you stow your New England conscience / Bid duty a stiff goodbye / Let the world handle its own mistakes / Or anyhow let it try.” From Maddock to Perkins, one Mount Holyoke woman to another, these words convey a sense of conviction.  Perkins led her life with a sense of duty that social justice would be her vocation. Ultimately, Maddock acknowledged Perkins’ accomplishments in her position and encouraged her to rest.  Maddock concluded, “And it cheers me up to no end / That you are in this world today / A huskey steadfast friend.” Many of us have cherished Mount Holyoke friends; Maddock’s friend just happened to impact millions of people by advancing social justice, creating economic security, and saving countless lives.

Finally, Kirstin and I enjoyed studying the scrapbook, including news clippings and pictures that Kirstin had never seen before in her extensive research. Although I have previously seen similar images, mainly on the Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections Twitter page, I pay special attention to images of Frances Perkins when she graduated Mount Holyoke College in the Class of 1902.  As I enter my senior year, I know that my classmates and I aspire to promote positive change for society in the same meaningful way as Perkins. She wrote that “social justice would be my vocation,” and I hope when I see her image that the Class of 2015 will live up to her legacy. 

Rebecca Brenner
Mount Holyoke ’15
Intern in Alexandria, VA, for Frances Perkins Center and Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections 

1 comment:

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