Barry McNamara  |   Published September 28, 2015

Living history

Collection donated by Gould includes letters from First ladies
  • Lew Gould (seated) shares a portion of his First Ladies collection with Monmouth College faculty and staff including, from left, history professor Stacy Cordery, archivist Lynn Daw, President Clarence R. Wyatt and Hewes Library director Rick Sayre. One of the items in the collection features Gould and First Lady Roslynn Carter.
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Handwritten letters from First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Roslynn Carter are among the several hundred items recently donated to Monmouth College by visiting distinguished professor Lew Gould.

The author of the “The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party” and biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Edith Roosevelt, among others, Gould acquired much of the collection as an offshoot of a history course he started at the University of Texas, where he was a professor for 31 years.

“In 1982, I was chair of the history department, and we needed a new seminar course for our junior history majors,” he said. “I came up with a course about First Ladies in the 20th century. I believe it was the first course of its kind in the U.S., and no one has contradicted me about that in all these years.”

UT’s public relations department promoted the class nationally, and Gould said he “instantly became a celebrity.” After all, it’s not every day that CBS News asks to film your class, which is what happened when Lady Bird Johnson, wife of 36th president Lyndon B. Johnson, made a guest appearance in Gould’s classroom.

“She was on our board of regents at the University of Texas,” explained Gould. “Between the 15-16 students in the class, and all the Secret Service, there was no room for anybody else. After all the hype, I think we got about 10 seconds of airplay on the CBS Sunday morning news.”

But that class had many deep ripples, leading to Gould’s collection and also to his current residence in Monmouth. It so happened that one of the students in that class was a transfer student from Indiana University who hoped to major in theatre. Inspired by Gould, whom she calls her mentor, Stacy Cordery changed her major to history. Now a history professor at Monmouth College and an acclaimed biographer, Cordery is also the bibliographer at the National First Ladies Library.

Gould’s collection includes a great deal of correspondence he had with Johnson, about whom Gould was writing a book detailing her interest in the environment.

“I collected two binders full of documents and letters from that time – letters between us, letters to her aides,” said Gould. “It seemed silly to have all that just sitting on my bookshelf.”

Thanks to his groundbreaking class, Gould was called upon to be the keynote speaker at an event about First Ladies hosted by Betty Ford in 1984.

“We weren’t able to get Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan there, but Roslynn Carter and Betty Ford attended, and Lady Bird’s daughters, and grand-nieces of Eleanor Roosevelt,” said Gould, who kept all the correspondence related to that event, and donated it to Monmouth, as well.

“It was a three-day event, and it got quite a lot of coverage,” he said. “I even got a standing ovation at the end of my speech, which was about how First Ladies had been neglected by history, and why they shouldn’t be.”

He continued, “So there are two separate parts to what I donated. It’s all open. There’s no national security involved. It’s a one-of-a-kind collection. I’m hopeful that Monmouth history students will be able to use the collection to write some very interesting papers.”

It turns out that taking Gould’s First Ladies course changed Cordery’s career trajectory. Creating the course certainly influenced Gould’s.

“It obviously changed my life,” he said. “I’ve met lots of First Ladies, I’ve been on television as a talking head – a go-to guy on the subject of First Ladies. It’s been a wild ride, and I hope that people will get a sense of that from looking through the collection.”
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