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Marguerite Pegram Hutchins’s 95th Birthday

Remarks delivered at the Hutchins Forum on the occasion of Marguerite Pegram Hutchins’s 95th Birthday

On August 29, family and friends of Marguerite Hutchins and the Center gathered at the Love House and Hutchins Forum to celebrate her 95th birthday. We are extremely happy to have the Hutchins family’s longtime friendship and support, as well as the Hutchins family name on our building and that of the James and Marguerite Hutchins lecture series. After guests serenaded Marguerite, her son Glenn spoke about his mother’s life.

Marguerite Pegram was born on August 24, 1920. On that very day, the legislature of Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which guaranteed women the right to vote), becoming the crucial 26th state to ratify it and making it the law of the land. This occurred only when a 24-year-old legislator named Harry Burn switched his vote at the insistence of, according to news reports, his “elderly mother,” who sounds a lot like the Marguerite Pegram Hutchins that we all know and love.

So, what was the world like in 1920 that Marguerite Pegram was born into? In addition to woman’s suffrage, 1920 also saw the passage of the 18th Amendment, which ushered in the era of Prohibition and, despite that, the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. In 1920, Babe Ruth was acquired by the Yankees, the Model T was the best-selling car, John D. Rockefeller was the richest person in the world, and Douglas Fairbanks was Hollywood’s leading man as Zorro (a silent picture, as talkies were still seven years away). George Gershwin and Cole Porter were the toasts of Broadway, and flappers danced the Charleston, but the Ku Klux Klan had as many as 5 million members.

For readers like my Mom, it was a golden era. Edith Wharton published The Age of Innocence, Sinclair Lewis wrote Main Street, and D. H. Lawrence scandalized the world with Women in Love, all in 1920. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neill, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, James Joyce, and George Bernard Shaw were all in their prime. And perhaps more important for thinking people, particularly women, Margaret Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa and Freud served up The General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. The human psyche and libido both came out of hiding for good, and society would never again be the same.

It was a time of invention: Einstein performed his pathbreaking, world-changing work on relativity. Key advances of the era included airplanes, the liquid-fueled rocket, the cathode ray tube, the iron lung, stainless steel, penicillin, insulin, robots, parachutes, sonar, neon, plastic, radio, and so on. More mundane inventions of that time later became staples in the Hutchins household, including tea bags, cornflakes, instant coffee, frozen food, crossword puzzles, hair dryers, bras and zippers, band aids, bubble gum, pop-up toasters, car radios, and the earliest TV technology. As a harbinger of her life to come, when Mom was two years old, King Tut’s tomb was discovered in Luxor and “Egyptomania” swept the U.S. Today, that would be described as “going viral.”

In Washington, D.C., Woodrow Wilson lay debilitated in the White House (skillfully concealed by his wife) while Warren G. Harding was elected President, beating James Cox and Eugene Debs. At the time, great note was taken that Debs, a Socialist who was the Bernie Sanders of his day, had contended for the presidency. But perhaps more portentous was that Cox’s VP candidate was a young, athletic patrician from New York by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Outside the U.S., World War I, which was thought to be the “war to end all wars,” was finally winding down, but ominous events were unfolding: civil war raged in Russia where an unknown Bolshevik by the name of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had seized control. A young, flamboyant, headstrong British cabinet minister by the name of Winston Churchill dispatched the Black and Tans to put down insurrection in Ireland, and Bloody Sunday ensued. The German Workers’ Party changed its name to the National Socialists–Nazi for short–and issued a 25-point platform written by Adolf Hitler. And the Communist Party of China was founded by Mao Zedong. All of this occurred in 1920, the year of Mom’s birth.

Yes, her life was going to be eventful, and she was uncommonly suited to it. Since the day of her birth, my mother has lived nearly 35,000 days (34,704 to be exact), 5,000 weeks, 833 thousand hours, 50 million minutes, and 3 trillion seconds, and she has made full use of every one of them. She spent the first decade of her life in a golden age we now call the “Gatsby era,” but in her second decade struggled through the Great Depression. She married on the eve of World War II and went to war with her new husband. She raised children in the halcyon days of the ’50s and the tumultuous era of the ’60s. As a 43-year-old “housewife” with three children, she attended the March on Washington in 1963 and heard Martin Luther King’s famous speech (she also made it back to the anniversary 50 years later, where she finally got a front row seat).

Living in Washington, she was a contemporary of, among others, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon–and, our family friend, Sam Ervin–all of whom she knew and had opinions about. Later, she traveled the globe and rubbed elbows with world leaders, in the process visiting nearly every country in the world. She was–and is–a person of old school values: she taught us to be polite, respect our elders, send thank-you notes, sit up straight at the table, use the correct knife and fork, understand our family’s history, do our homework, go to church, say our prayers, and serve our community as well as our country. She was also a very modern person–from civil rights to the war on poverty to the women’s movement, she was always on the side of what was right and good, unconstrained by convention, dogma, or tradition.

She was–and is–a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines, books–everything she could get her hands on.  Her thirst for news, information, and knowledge made her a stimulating Mom for her children but also a fascinating companion for her friends.  She set an inspiring example for what has become my lifetime of learning. She had–and has–boundless energy and an insatiable curiosity, which made her a phenomenal Mom, especially for someone like me. My mother always wanted to know what was around the next corner. Usually, and often without asking, she would grab my hand and drag me along to find out.

In our world travels, there wasn’t a museum we didn’t visit, a ruin we didn’t explore, a guide we didn’t pepper with questions, a curiosity we didn’t inspect, a performance we didn’t attend, or an adventure we didn’t pursue. My memories of life with Mom span the gamut of:

  • Almost being blown overboard on the USS Constitution as we left New York harbor in the fall of 1963. Despite the gale force winds, we had to see the Statue of Liberty up close.
  • A furtive visit in 1965 to Soviet-controlled East Berlin, despite stern warnings from U.S. Embassy officials, which Mom instructed Dad to ignore.
  • A camel trek across the Sinai desert to visit the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
  • Spending Christmas Eve sleeping on the floor of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christ is believed to have been crucified and buried, because we were locked in and the doors didn’t open again until Christmas morning.
  • Train rides across the Russian tundra with KGB spies scrutinizing our every move.
  • Trudging to the top of the tower at the Duomo in Florence and St. Peter’s in Rome, and seeing all the glories of ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy.
  • Camping in the desert to watch the sun rise over the Pyramids; picnicking at the Acropolis; and watching the sun set over Abu Simbel, which absolutely had to be seen in its original location before it was moved to accommodate the Aswan Dam.
  • Driving across northern Africa to see the ruins at Leptis Magna, which she eagerly reported very few people had even seen because it was so remote and hard to get to–something we could all confirm.
  • Hitchhiking up a mountainside in Eastern Europe to a restaurant where buses wouldn’t go but where Mom had to see the view.
  • Visiting every single important museum in the U.S. and Europe (too numerous to count but including the Metropolitan, MOMA, National Gallery, British Museum, Louvre, Rijksmuseum, Uffizi, Prado, Hermitage, and so on).
  • Being awakened in the middle of the night for our evacuation from Cairo at the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967 when we were, of course, the last to leave.
  • And on, and on, and on.

It was my great good fortune to see–often in the clutch of my mother’s hand–the wonders of the ancient and modern world. It could be exhausting but if you, like me, had inherited just a tad of her energy and curiosity, it was exhilarating and life-changing.

One day in 1969, my Mom took me on another trip, this time to visit something I knew very little about: the prep schools of New England. She had decided that it was time for me to take the next step in my life’s journey but this time alone, at age 14. As a parent myself, I now understand that it was for her an act of enormous personal sacrifice as well as an expression of her boundless confidence in me. That road trip took me first to Lawrenceville, then to Harvard, and later to Wall Street, the White House, Silicon Valley, and the NBA championship–not to mention that I would not otherwise have met a brilliant, gorgeous Vassar grad named Debbie Dow. The hand that had dragged me through our life’s adventure now slung me forward, as if propelled from a human slingshot toward the life I have been blessed to lead. None of it–absolutely none of it–would have been remotely possible without my Mom, first with me and later within me.

My own words fail me in accurately appraising this human supernova known simply as Mom. So I have looked to the inspiration of others:

Maya Angelou, in her book, Mom & Me & Mom, portrayed my mother with uncanny accuracy: “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.”

Mark Twain described how I suspect my mother experienced me: “My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.

But the best description of what my Mom did for me comes from the greatest American, the indispensable George Washington: “All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”

In closing, my feelings for my mother are perhaps best expressed in the famous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which I have asked my family to help me read to Mom:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday’s.

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Happy 95th birthday, Mom.

Glenn Hutchins
August 29, 2015
Chapel Hill, NC