Legends & Legacies: 1928 Biennial Photo

Historic Photo Yields a Story for the Present

By Mary Gardner
Central New York Branch President

The Central New York Branch has a remarkable connection to a historic photo now hanging in the Pen Arts Building and Art Museum. Dated April 18, 1928, this group portrait was taken in front of the nation’s Capitol and features President Calvin Coolidge standing among a few hundred NLAPW members who were attending the 1928 Biennial and had come to visit the Capitol. A now-deceased member of the CNY Branch is standing in the second row behind her 4-year-old daughter, who was pushed to the front — the only child in the picture.

A section of the photo where 4-year-old Dorothy Wakker, pushed to the front, can be seen on the right side of the group. Today, she smiles as she notes she is the only one in that large group still living.

The branch came to know about the connection to the photo as a result of some newspaper publicity about our 2012 poetry contest. Having seen the article, Bruce Wakker wrote me to say that his mother, Dorothy Lowell Wakker, is the 4-year-old girl in the photo and that I should come visit his family and see the photo hanging on their dining room wall.

Dorothy had accompanied her mother, Virginia “Rose” Lowell, a CNY Branch member, and her mother’s friend and colleague, Nellie Molyneaux, a genealogist and a founding member of the CNY Branch. Beyond that, the family knows nothing about others in the picture. The family has loaned it to the branch twice, including for the recent 90th Anniversary Exhibit and Reception hosted at the Onondaga Historical Association. The Wakkers were honored at the event. It was a memorable moment when they and some branch members were photographed together with this historic photo.

Rose Lowell Family

There is little the family knows about Rose Lowell. She was born Virginia Rose Healy in 1895 in New Haven, Connecticut, to Irish immigrants Sophia and Francis Healy, the latter known locally for his poetry. She worked in clerical positions for a metals manufacturing company, the Salvation Army, and the Rationing Board, and wrote trade articles for the Straus-Adler Corset Co.

In 1919, she married Lloyd Lowell, a draftsman in architecture from Fredonia, New York. By 1924, they were living in Syracuse.

Virginia Lowell was known as an insatiable reader (especially of newspapers) and a “natural” storyteller. She played piano by ear and was a popular performer at parties.  At some point, Lowell adopted her middle name, Rose, and became a freelance columnist with the Syracuse Herald Journal, writing under the pen name Virginia Lloyd.

According to Dorothy Wakker, Lowell was given wide latitude to write about “whatever fancied her” and often followed up on local news stories of general or human interest, creating her “Jottings” columns from those sources.

Wakker could not recall any information about her mother’s activities with NLAPW, but branch records note Lowell as having served as corresponding secretary and historian. The family shared newspaper clippings about her very active involvement with veterans affairs for 25 years, specifically as a charter member of the Auxiliary to Syracuse Post 41 of the American Legion, where she served in various press positions, including writing press releases for the media.

Virginia “Rose” Lowell died in 1965. Dorothy Wakker and her family have cherished this photo of President Coolidge and the NLAPW members gathered with him. Presumably, Lowell, Molyneaux, and all those women in the photo were proud of it, too, in their own time, and may have had their own copies of the picture.

Sometimes, a news item — in this case, about an annual poetry contest — catches the eye of a reader, who then pursues the story another step, making a whole new and interesting connection possible. The Wakkers and the CNY Branch are the better for it. Might similar historic connections be true for other NLAPW branches?