— Bernice "Bennie" Madigan has watched 15 presidents take the oath office — most of them live from the grounds of the Capitol in Washington. "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. Hall and English teacher Candice Killion were linking Madigan's visit to their current studies. " The resulting pulp would be recycled into souvenirs of sorts.
"I thought it would be terrific for them to have the opportunity to meet someone in person who remembers the history they're studying," said Hall, who teaches Advanced Placement U. 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? "Well, I did." She told them about the massive macerators installed atop the Treasury building that would turn worn-out greenbacks into pulp. "I had a little hat made out of the bills," Madigan said that was likely "worth" $500. After graduating from the former Adams High School, she set off for Washington, D. 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. 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.
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. 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. It was chance to hear from someone who remembered not only Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech ("He had a big march down there. 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.