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Sequim youth gets letter from former president

In the revelry of viewing some of the nation’s pre-eminent landmarks, Sequim eighth-grader Hillary Smith got a surprise in the mail — a signed letter from former president Bill Clinton.

And though the note was a little late — and from the wrong Clinton — the words still resonate with the Sequim youth.

Smith, on a sort of vacation following the National History Day competition near Washington, D.C., was on the road to Gettysburg when she got a call from Todd Beuke, a Sequim Middle School teacher and Smith’s History Day advisor, that a letter had come from the former president.

Weeks earlier, Smith and Beuke asked staff from Hillary Clinton’s campaign for a quote or comment germane to the young student’s History Day topic: Belva Lockwood, the first woman to appear on official election ballots when she ran for the office of president in 1884 and 1888.

Smith didn’t get a comment from the Clintons until well after the finals June 15-19, and not from Hillary.

“At first, I was like, ‘Why is it Bill, not Hillary?’” Smith recalled. “Then, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he read it (and) took the time to write the letter.’ He really analyzed my paper.”

In a typed letter, Clinton extols Smith’s paper (“Taking on the Courts, and The Men: Belva Lockwood’s Conflicts and Compromises in Law and Politics,” which took third in the Junior Paper division) and Lockwood’s place in history.

“Although it is disheartening that Belva Lockwood never lived to see women win the right to vote,” Bill Clinton wrote, “we should be inspired by the fact that she sought change from within our legal system and often succeeded.”

Clinton added: “A century and a quarter later, there are 87 women in the U.S. Congress, eight women governors, women leaders in every sector of society, and a woman — my wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — who garnered millions of votes in the primary of a major political party. They, and all Americans, owe a debt of gratitude to Belva Lockwood.”

Added at the bottom of the letter is a hand-written note that reads: “Great job. Thanks for doing the paper. I learned a lot. Bill Clinton.”

As for the letter, Smith said she’d likely frame it, and definitely save it for college applications. But first things first: one more year of middle school and another four of high school.

The letter came in a whirlwind of activity for Smith, who joined family on a tour through the Northeast following the History Day competition. Travels took the Smiths to Washington, D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery, where Hillary got to see photos of Belva Lockwood that are not on regular display. They also traveled to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to view a collection of Lockwood’s writings.

“I saw her actual handwriting,” Smith boasted.

Smith joined her sister Heather as one of just a few Sequim students to earn a spot at the National History Day final; Heather took second place in the Junior Historical Paper division at nationals in 2004, then qualified for nationals a second time in 2005.

The younger Smith said she’s targeting author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe for next year’s History Day project, one that falls in line with the 2009 theme: An individual in history.

“I’ve learned a lot from our daughters about American history,” Smith’s father Henry said. “We’re all feminists here.”

Hillary Smith is inexorably linked to the former first lady. Henry noted that he and his wife, Betsy, named their youngest daughter after Hillary Rodham Clinton while the family was living in a conservative — and often Clinton-despising — part of Texas.

But, as Henry Smith noted, his Hillary is her own person.

She agreed.

“I liked Hillary … (but) I didn’t think she’d make the best president,” Smith said.

Though impressed with the run the former first lady made for the presidency, Smith is quick to note: “Belva Lockwood was first.”

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