A year ago, my father met Lynn Burtis when she visited my family’s Greenwood Avenue business, R.E. Lawlor Graphics and Printing. The building, now home to printing presses and endless stacks of paper, was once home to a young Lynn.
During their visit, Lynn recalled countless hours playing in the yard and she shared old photographs of her childhood home with my father. She also mentioned that, in 1954, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Bethel and spoke at the Bethel High School commencement. When my father told us about his visitor, my family and I were shocked. How had we never heard about this before?
After conducting some of my own research, I learned from The Bethel Lark that Peter Ranis, Bethel High School’s Class of 1954 Vice President, was chosen to write to Mrs. Roosevelt to ask if she would be willing to speak at commencement. “I will gladly come to your graduation,” she replied, a response that three decades later was documented in The New York Times by Bethel’s own Peter Ranis.
Carole (Drumm) Rubley graduated from Bethel High in 1956, but she and her (future) husband, Ron Rubley, both attended the 1954 commencement. “So many people [were] crammed into the small auditorium on that hot June evening,” said Carole. “It was a big deal for our town.”
Longing to learn more about what may have been Bethel’s highest profile celebrity visit, I reached out to Lynn in an email a few weeks ago. She kindly called me, and we had a conversation I will never forget.
In 1954, Lynn was 13 years old. Her father, John McGreivey, was on the Board of Education and drove to Hartford to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt for the big night. They arrived at their home on Greenwood Avenue with just enough time for tea and a brief conversation before they went to the Bethel High School commencement.
“I don’t remember what Mrs. Roosevelt said to us while she was at our house, or who was there, or if we had anything to eat, but I do remember having my elbows propped up on the armchair next to Mrs. Roosevelt’s seat and staring at her,” said Lynn. “She wore violets in her hat, much like in the photos you’d see of her in the papers. I remember thinking to myself: ‘She is larger than life.’”
I was captivated by Lynn’s words—I couldn’t imagine being in the same room as the beloved former first lady of the United States. I can’t believe Mrs. Roosevelt stepped into the home that is now our shop—and that I have walked on the same floor and glanced out the same windows as such an iconic woman. It gives me a sense of connectedness to her visit, for which I feel so lucky.
The next time you drive down Greenwood Avenue or venture into R.E. Lawlor Graphics and Printing, I hope you too feel a sense of connection with her visit and take pride in the fact that on one hot June evening decades ago, Eleanor Roosevelt decided to visit our wonderful town.
Thanks to Martha (Warner) Bakkila, Tom Borysiewicz, Lynn (McGreivey) Burtis, David Drumm, Laurie Martin, John McGreivey, and Carole (Drumm) Rubley for taking the time to help me gather information for this project. Additional reference material from the Bethel Public Library Archives.