Cheshire Resident Offers Lee Students Real Living History
|Bernice "Bennie" Madigan of Cheshire was greeted with roses at Lee Middle and High School.|
Her favorite? Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"I liked Ike. He was to me a hero," Madigan told the classroom full of eighth-graders last week at Lee Middle and High School. She'll see her 16th be sworn in this January, but she declined predict who it will be. "I don't like either of them," she confided as the next class took their seats. "But I didn't want to tell them that."
Rather, the 109-year-old wanted to share with those nearly a 10th her age some of what it was like to work in the nation's capital in the years following World War I.
History teacher Joshua Hall read about the Cheshire resident's 109th birthday party in the local press and thought she would be perfect to speak with his students. When he found out one of his colleagues, Dawn Daniels, was a relative of Madigan's, the invitation was sent and promptly accepted.
Photos by Tammy DanielsBernice Madigan answers questions from students with the help of grandniece Dawn Daniels.
Madigan, still spry past the century mark but getting a little hard of hearing, was greeted like a long-lost great-grandmother by the dozens of students who listened raptly to her stories.
"Have you ever thrown a million dollars away?" she asked the youngsters. "Well, I did."
She told them about the massive macerators installed atop the Treasury building that would turn worn-out greenbacks into pulp. When a Secret Service agent offered the women in her department the chance to toss million-dollar stacks of bills into the macerator's maw, she quickly raised her hand. "I had a $1 million in each hand," she laughed. "So I threw away $2 million. How many can say that?"
The resulting pulp would be recycled into souvenirs of sorts. "I had a little hat made out of the bills," Madigan said that was likely "worth" $500.
Madigan grew up in Cheshire. After graduating from the former Adams High School, she set off for Washington, D.C., and never looked back. She started working in the old War Risk Insurance Department, which would become Veterans Affairs, and later at Treasury, working her way up ("as I bettered myself") and retiring from her "best" job as an executive secretary.
Hall said his students had spent days working on questions they wanted to ask Madigan, 66 in all that they sent her beforehand in preparation.
"They were so excited about her visit. They kept asking when she was coming," said Hall.
Not only the kids — throughout Madigan's nearly two hours (plus a trip the music room for a little piano playing) teachers and staff snuck into the classroom to stand in the back and ask a few questions themselves.
It was chance to hear from someone who remembered not only Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech ("He had a big march down there. The place was flooded with people. It was a very memorable occasion.") but the Great Depression ("Which one?" she quipped.)
Madigan was a little fuzzy on some of the details, "a lot of things happened," but she recalled the tough times of the Depression, when people had to save coupons to get food. Items like sugar, butter and gasoline were tough to come by.
"It was a very, very trying time," she said. "But we may be getting this again."
Dressed in pink, wearing two buttons from her mother's 1896 wedding dress as earrings, the white-haired centennarian listened intently as Daniels relayed the students' questions.
"It's really interesting to be able to hear about three different centuries from one person," said eighth-grader Jack Tallboy.
But she's less up on the current technology, noting she can spell computer, but "I don't know anything else about them."
As a woman who'd worked in Washington through a number of wars, she said, "War doesn't settle anything. We've been through three big wars. I think, in the future, we'll have more ways to work things out."
Yet, for all the 109 years of history she moved through, Madigan was sure on the most memorable thing that happened to her.
"I've had a lot of pleasant experiences and I've had some ugly ones. I guess the best experience was getting married to a good man. I did have that."
Indeed, it was her personal life that many of the students, particularly the girls, seemed more interested in. She was quizzed about fashion (the 1930s were best), music (not this rock 'n' roll stuff) how she met her late husband, Paul ("It was love at first sight," which led to an "awwwwwww" from nearly every girl), dating and what she might have named her children ("I didn't have any. That's why I'm a 109.")
"We wanted to know about the old days," said Maria Melendez of why some students had focused on the personal aspects. "To see if it was the same as it is now."
Her niece, Elaine Daniels, passed around pictures of Madigan in her youth and showed the students some of the houses she'd lived in. Along with fudge Madigan had whipped up the night before — a sure hit with the kids.
Afterward, the students pulled out 21st-century cell phones to take snapshots with a woman born into 19th-century horse-and-buggy days. They hugged her and thanked her for speaking with them.
"She's a really special person," said eighth-grader Sean Kelly.
Full disclosure: This reporter is related to Elaine Daniels but not to Bernice Madigan, although she also calls her Aunt Bennie.