Chatham Leadership: The Presidency of Cora Helen Coolidge

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The Chatham University Archives invites you to explore Chatham Leadership: The Presidency of Cora Helen Coolidge, an exploration of a president whose ceaseless dedication to women’s education steered Chatham through one of its most tumultuous chapters.

Presented as an extension of Chatham Leadership: A Presidential Timeline, this exhibit aims to convey both the impact Coolidge had on Chatham as well as the profound and indelible impression she had on the lives of students from her era.

The exhibit is on view in the lounge of the Women’s Institute in Braun Hall, and we encourage your to stop by and explore the legacy of President Coolidge.

Pennsylvania College for Women President Cora Helen Coolidge

Cora Helen Coolidge was born on December 6, 1866 in Westminster, Massachusetts to Ellen Drusilla Coolidge and Frederick Spaulding Coolidge. Her father, distantly related to Calvin Coolidge, was the first democratic congressman from Massachusetts. Her brother, Marcus Allen Coolidge, was mayor of Fitchburg, Massachusetts prior to his election to the U.S. Senate.  A learned family, the Coolidges frequently discussed the works and philosophies of Thoreau, Emerson, and other transcendentalists during supper, and Cora was made to read the Bible, English literature, history, and politics.

Miss Coolidge’s father, Frederick Spaulding Coolidge.
C.M. Bell, photographer. Hon. F.S. Coolidge , 1891. [between January and January 1894] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/

Upon graduating from the Cushing Academy in 1887, Coolidge attended Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college located in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she received a Bachelor of Laws. During the following summers, Coolidge took classes at the University of Chicago and the University of Gottingen in Germany.

Portrait of Miss Coolidge, 1897
Fitchburg Historical Society Fitchburg, Massachusetts
www.fitchburghistoricalsociety.org

Coolidge came to the Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW, and now Chatham University) in 1906 as President Henry Drennan Lindsay’s hand-picked successor to Miss Elizabeth Eastman, the former dean of the college. At the time of her hiring, Coolidge had developed the reputation as a strong public lecturer on the subject of English literature and the adept and personable vice-principal of the Cushing Academy, her alma mater, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts.

After arriving in Pittsburgh, Coolidge continued giving public lectures about women’s education and her two favorite authors—Robert Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson—to clubs, church groups, and other educators. Coolidge was active in several of these clubs and groups, including the American Association of University Women, Pittsburgh Colony of New England Women, Twentieth Century Club, Women’s City Club, and Monday Luncheon Club (click here to learn  about the Monday Luncheon Club through records held at the Heinz History Center).  In 1908, Coolidge founded the College Club, an association of female graduates to socialize and pursue common interests in education, science, and humanities.

Luncheon at P.C.W. for Jane Addams, 1908 (Addams second from left, Coolidge third from right)

Following the sudden death of President Lindsay from pneumonia in 1914, Coolidge was chosen to serve as the acting president of the college prior to Dr. John Carey Acheson’s election in 1915. Coolidge served as dean until she was appointed in 1917 to be President of the National Committee of the Bureau of Occupations, a war-time committee engaged under governmental authority to find jobs for women. Before accepting the position, Coolidge was awarded a Doctor of Literature by PCW.  In addition to her wartime work with the Bureau of Occupations, Coolidge was highly active executive secretary of a Red Cross branch that included Fitchburg, Massachusetts and ten other towns.

World War I Volunteer Clerical Corps., Fitchburg, Massachusetts, 1918
Fitchburg Historical Society, Fitchburg, Massachusetts www.fitchburghistoricalsociety.org

After the resignation of Dr. Acheson as president of PCW in 1922, Coolidge was asked by the Board of Trustees to assume the position of president. Acutely aware of the college’s precarious financial position, Coolidge proclaimed, “I’ll come back to Pennsylvania College for Women if you mean business, but I won’t come back to bury it.” Reasonably satisfied with the seriousness of the board’s attitude, Coolidge accepted the position with the intent of solving the college’s financial woes by establishing an endowment of one million dollars. Additionally, Coolidge sought to raise five hundred thousand dollars for equipment and buildings and to boost the reputation of the college to match those of nation’s best universities.

A clipping of an interview published in 1922, the day after Miss Cora Helen Coolidge arrived in Pittsburgh to become president of the Pennsylvania College for Women.

To realize her ambitions, Coolidge spearheaded an intensive fundraising campaign. Along with courting wealthy philanthropists within the city of Pittsburgh, the college conducted a thorough search to locate five hundred Pittsburgh-area alumnae and an additional twelve hundred former students living in thirty-six states and six foreign countries. In cities in which five or more alumnae were living, fundraising dinners were held. The largest fundraising dinner, held at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, was attended by over 1,000 guests, including Madame Louise Homer, the daughter of Dr. William T. Beatty, one of the founders of the college in 1869.

A proposal for the distribution of the one-million-dollar endowment.

Although the original goal of the one-million-dollar endowment fund was not met, the profile of the college rose appreciably, and enough funds were generated to expand Woodland Hall and construct the Buhl Hall of Science, the James Laughlin Memorial Library, and a heating plant.

President Coolidge and three great-great grandchildren of James Laughlin (Left-to-right: Elizabeth Laughlin, Henrietta Laughlin, and Mary Laughlin) break ground on the James Laughlin Memorial Library in spring 1931.

A drawn map of the Pennsylvania College for Women’s campus before the construction of Buhl Hall and the James Laughlin Memorial Library.

During her time as president, Coolidge engendered a feeling of warmth and intimacy between the office of the presidency and the student body. Her home atop Woodland Road was open to all students who wished to discuss with Coolidge any conceivable subject related to the college, academics, or their personal lives. To further establish familial bonds, Coolidge frequently hosted meetings and parties within her home, open to any member of the college community.

In the final months of her presidency, Coolidge retreated from public life as she slowly succumbed to a long-term illness. On March 12, 1933, Miss Cora Helen Coolidge died with her brother by her bedside. Coolidge bequeathed $5,000 and 316 of her books to the PCW, and $1,000 to support scholarships at Smith College, Cushing Academy, and the Smith College Club of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

A program for the memorial services held on April 30, 1933, in honor of Miss Coolidge.

As PCW grew through the years, changing its name to Chatham in the 1950s, the influence of Cora Helen Coolidge was never forgotten.  When the main academic building of her era, Berry Hall, was replaced with a new academic quad , the new humanities hall was named in her honor.

Detail of Program for the dedication of Braun, Falk, Coolidge Halls, May 2, 1954.

Cora Helen Coolidge’s impact on Chatham University and the Pittsburgh region cannot be overstated.  Her guiding hand led the Pennsylvania College to create the country’s first college program on social work and her steady perseverance allowed the school to grow during one of the nation’s most economically trying times.  As we continue to welcome Chatham’s newest President, Dr. David Finegold, and reflect on the past leaders who’ve shaped the development of this community, the achievements of Cora Helen Coolidge remain a timeless inspiration.

For more information on Cora Helen Coolidge or other leaders in Chatham history, we encourage you to reach out to the Chatham University Archives & Special Collections in the JKM Library.

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