Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflections on the Frances Perkins Center

During my archival internship for the Frances Perkins Center through the Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections, I referred to the central historical figure in my work as “Frances Perkins,” or sometimes “Frances,” which is what my boss, author Kirstin Downey, called her because Kirstin is a journalist by profession and connects personally with the legacy of Frances Perkins.  Chris Breiseth, Chairman of the Board of the Frances Perkins Center, refers to her as “Miss Perkins” because she preferred to be called “Miss Perkins” when they lived in the same house when Frances Perkins was a professor and Chris Breiseth was a student at Cornell University.  Board members Sarah Peskin and Leah Sprague just said “Frances Perkins.”  Tomlin Coggeshall, the grandson of Frances Perkins and founder of the Frances Perkins Center, naturally refers to her as “my grandmother.”  Even when I sat across from Tomlin’s husband Christopher Rice at dinner, I felt a bit star-struck when Christopher simply referred to the woman behind the new deal as “Tomlin’s grandmother.”  Personally, I have decided to say “Miss Perkins” because that was how her students addressed her.

As a volunteer for the events at College of the Atlantic and the garden party at the homestead, I learned that handing out nametags is a significant social advantage because the person who hands out nametags will learn everyone’s names.  At College of the Atlantic, after I handed out nametags on August 12th, I enjoyed listening to the speeches.  Former United States Senator George Mitchell delivered an inspiring speech about the historical and political significance of Frances Perkins, anchored in her home state of Maine.  I liked his joke, “Massachusetts used to be part of Maine.”  Kirstin’s speech was incredible; I loved her theme of Perkins’ roots in New England because everyone related to it.  She sweetly included my comment that although Frances Perkins enjoyed lobster, she would probably become a vegetarian if she attended Mount Holyoke now.  Vegetarianism is predominant on campus partially because it is the best way to reduce each person’s carbon footprint, and students care about the world.  Finally, it was wonderful to see President Lynn Pasquerella in Maine and to hear her voice in the video for the Frances Perkins Center; Mount Holyoke has a strong presence in Perkins’ legacy.

The homestead was probably the best part of my time in Maine.  In the house of Frances Perkins, where Tomlin and Christopher currently live, I was especially fascinated by the family’s book collection.  You can determine a lot about people through their book collection.  For example, Perkins closely read a book about code of conduct and sometimes distributed copies of it.  Below is a picture of me with her copy.  Near the books, there were several signed items from President Franklin Roosevelt.  I had previously seen his signature behind glass cases in museums, but Roosevelt’s signature appears all over the possessions in Tomlin’s house because his grandmother had a close professional relationship with the president. 

The homestead was the ideal place for the annual garden party, held this year on August 14th, because the garden is indescribably beautiful.  I have enjoyed a wide range of interesting tasks as an intern this summer in Washington, DC, but one of my favorites was picking a bouquet of flowers from the garden for decoration.  Then, the Frances Perkins Center gave awards for social justice to a few deserving recipients who live by the values of Frances Perkins.  After the ceremony, I ate dinner with members of the Board, as well as 92-year-old prominent historian William Leuchtenburg.  I told him upon departure, “I hope to become a historian, and when I am your age, I will tell people that I met you, and they will say ‘whoa!’”  He smiled approvingly.  It was my privilege to meet several exceedingly interesting people during my time as an intern at the Frances Perkins Center.  The following morning, as I was reading The Roosevelt I Knew by Frances Perkins, I ran into Tomlin Coggeshall in a coffee shop, so I asked, “Hi Tomlin, do you mind if I sit with you while I read your grandmother’s book?”  Characteristically of the friendly people at the Frances Perkins Center, Tomlin welcomed me to sit with him.

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

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