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Former Defense, Energy secretary at home in Springfield

Schlesinger, who died March 27, buried in Ferncliff in Snyder family plot with his wife.

The society section of the Sunday, June 20, 1954, Springfield News-Sun described a simple, single-ring ceremony in the home of Flenner and Janet Mellinger on Fairfield Pike.

Their daughter Rachel L. Mellinger had worn a “bouffant dress of white organdy minutely tucked and banded with lace,” complemented by finger-tip length veil.

Ever the farm girl, she carried “an old fashioned bouquet of roses and honeysuckle.”

Just as a sister served as her lone attendant, Eugene R. Schlesinger of Scarsdale, N.Y., flew solo as best man for his brother, James R. Schlesinger, a rising academic star in the meaty field of economics at Harvard University.

The couple had met at a “Jolly Up,” a social mixer for the boys of Harvard and the girls of Radcliffe.

His route there had been more traditional, starting at New York’s exclusive Horace Mann School. Fewer Cambridge students of those days were familiar with Possum School, where Rachel had studied before moving on to Springfield High School.

“She was so proud of her high school, and she loved the dome,” their daughter Emily said on Friday.

Although a scholarship student at Radcliffe, “she was fairly much a golden girl,” added daughter Ann, as comfortable in Cambridge, Mass., as she’d been in Springfield.

The girl who had been in the National Honor Society, homecoming court, orchestra, plays and was sent to Buckeye Girls State did herself, her family and her community proud at Radcliffe, graduating with honors in American history and literature.

She was writing stories for Mademoiselle magazine when they wed, a story line that would change with the coming of children that would number eight. But as the children came and her husband’s star rose at the University of Virginia, then the Naval War College and Rand Corp., where he was tapped as a consultant by officials in Washington, one thing remained the same: a sense of her family having one foot solidly planted in the farm on Fairfield Pike.

“We came for extended periods every summer and spent it with our cousins,” said Ann. “This was an ideal meeting place” for their mother and her three very close sisters, all part of the clan of Snyders of Snyder Park.

Just as the kids felt at home climbing silos, feeding animals and on the annual breakfast in John Bryan State Park, their father began to act like a transplant.

“I feel my dad in Springfield,” Ann said. “There was a long-term relationship with the people who worked the farm. Being here was a refuge, a respite.”

That became more the case after the family moved from West Coast to the East in 1969, when James Schlesinger left Rand Corp. for a government career that would make him part of history.

As obituaries of last week noted, some of that history was tumultuous. While leading the CIA, he discovered it had violated its charter by its involvement in the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Serving as Secretary of Energy when the shah of Iran was deposed, he saw oil prices shoot up and lines lengthen at gas stations filled with unhappy people who would express their unhappiness at the voting polls.

During such times, his children said he found refuge in a second place: the family’s kitchen table in the hours he shared with his wife before the children were up.

The talks often touched on the children “who were imperfect,” Emily volunteered.

Rachel Schlesinger was the tougher parent and sometimes called her husband, who had a professional reputation of toughness, “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.”

Both irreverent and blessed with a wry sense of humor, they shared little pleasures, like the painfully slowly unfolding plots of comic strips like Brenda Starr and Rex Morgan. They also laughed over the lives of the Lockhorns, whom publishers ArcaMax describe as “a dysfunctional and argumentative married couple.”

James Schlesinger eventually confessed what others suggested — that his argumentativeness at work sometimes proved dysfunctional to his ends. But his family saw a gentler side of the pipe-smoking, sometimes disheveled character.

His readings of Winnie the Pooh, his songfests with guitar and harmonica, his recitations (from memory) of hundreds of poems and of portions of Shakespeare were playful manifestations of the same mind that seemed to possess a breadth and depth of knowledge about so much of the world.

But that world was diminished on Oct. 10, 1995, when Rachel died.

She was a violinists with the Arlington, Va., Symphony Orchestra, still reaping benefits of early lessons paid for with the sale of eggs and milk, when she learned she had cancer.

She also was helping to raise money for a new performance hall for Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus.

So after her burial in the Snyder family plot in Ferncliff Cemetery, her husband donated $1 million to the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center. A memorial for him will be held there April 26.

James Schlesinger continued his involvement in meaty defense-related matters and participated in board meetings for the Mitre Corp. even while at a hospital rehabilitation facility.

But daughter Ann said that in the 19 years since her mother’s death, “I think he absolutely thought about and referred to her all the time, every day.”

This nearly ends a somewhat rambling answer to the question that’s been on many people’s minds this week: Why was Springfield’s Grace Lutheran Church and Ferncliff chosen as the place for the funeral and burial of James R. Schlesinger, who died March 27 at age 85?

Daughter Emily offers briefer answer — one as simple as the single-ring ceremony of June 19, 1954: “I feel like he’s home. It is very important to get him next to his wife.”

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