Silent Cal Speaks
On stage, Jim Cooke '64 brings life to lesser-known historical figures

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Calvin Coolidge, America's famously taciturn 30th president, is often remembered with an anecdote—possibly apocryphal—about an exchange with writer Dorothy Parker. "Mr. Coolidge," she said, "I've made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you." His response: "You lose."

Meg Birnbaum
Jim Cooke '64 as John Quincy Adams.

For more than three decades, historical impersonator Jim Cooke '64 has been introducing audiences to "Silent Cal" with his long-running one-man show, "Calvin Coolidge: More than Two Words." Cooke, who recalls performing on the basketball court in New Hampshire Hall before there was a Paul Creative Arts Center, has performed at presidential libraries, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and Mount Rushmore, as well as on C-SPAN and NPR.

It took him a while to warm up to Coolidge, Cooke admits, but he has come to respect the president as a man of decency and integrity. He's also discovered that Coolidge wasn't quite as silent as the stereotype suggests. His time as president, Cooke points out—1923 to 1929—coincided with the growth of radio: "More people heard the voice of 'Silent Cal' than all the presidents before him combined."

Along with Coolidge, Cooke portrays three other historical figures: Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams and Edward Everett, the man who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg. Musing on his choice of characters, Cooke calls them all "peripheral." "They are men who stand off to one side in history. I'm drawn to the less well known." There are advantages, he notes, to not joining the ranks of Lincolns, Washingtons and Roose-velts out there. "It means," he quips, "that I'm outstanding in my field."

To prepare for his performances, Cooke crafts the words of the characters he calls "my men" into hour-long scripts. He also studies descriptions of mannerisms, gestures and tone of voice, poring over letters, news clippings and newsreels. "Daniel Webster would shuffle his feet as if looking for solid ground," says Cooke. "John Quincy Adams would become shrill and fly into a rage. Edward Everett's voice was melodious and soothing." Coolidge never stood with his hands in his pockets—a fact Cooke learned from Coolidge's son, John, who saw Cooke perform and was a fan of his portrayal of his father.

Cooke describes his own father as "distant" and says he's found a deep and personal connection with the figures he portrays. "All of them have profound connections to their fathers," he says. "So, by performance, I have four by-proxy fathers." Having lost a young son to leukemia, Cooke feels an even deeper, more tragic, bond with Coolidge, who also lost a son—a shock that, some historians say, brought on a severe depression that stayed with him his whole life.

Among the quotable quotes Coolidge left for posterity, one is especially meaningful to Cooke. "If you see 10 troubles coming down the road towards you," says Cooke-as-Coolidge, "wait, and there's a very good chance that nine of them will go off the road into the ditch, and you'll only have to deal with one of them."

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