Frances and Stephen were unlikely friends. For one thing, she was seventeen years his senior. Beyond the obvious difference in their ages, the two could not have been more different.
Frances started with the odds against her. Born in 1820, she was just six weeks old when an infection settled in her eyes. Whether it was the infection or the mustard poultices that were used to treat it, the result was irreversible damage to her optic nerves and blindness.
As if that weren’t enough, Frances’ father died that same year. Her mother was forced to work outside of the home to be able to support her family, leaving Frances in the care of her grandmother.
If Frances ever fell prey to the temptation to give up and be miserable, there is no record of that. She not only accepted the fact that her eyes were of no use to her but she became grateful for her blindness. She said, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
She discovered that her inability to see gave her a greater appreciation for everything else. She also learned she had a way with words that could convey powerful emotions and deep thoughts in a meaningful way.
She wrote her first poem when she was 8 years old. In it, she described what it was like for her to be blind. It was her poem about the death of U.S. President William Henry Harrison that brought her to national attention. It was printed in the New York Herald. Subsequently, many of her poems would be published in national newspapers.
At that point in her life, Frances’ primary interest was in education. She became a student at the New York Institution for the Blind when she was 15 years old. For the next ten years, she studied there, continuing her writing and working to develop her musical skills, as well.
Frances was deeply concerned about the availability of quality education for the blind. She built upon her growing reputation as a published poet to gain access to influential political leaders. She became a lobbyist to raise awareness and support for education for the blind in Washington, D.C.
Politicians found Frances’ personality and spoken words at least as compelling as the items she had published. When she was 23 years old, she became the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she was invited to recite one of her poems.
It was as if her blindness became a key that opened doors that few could dare imagine. In 1846, she was invited to the White House to sing and play one of her compositions for President and Mrs. James K. Polk.
Having shown a special talent for wooing the politically powerful, it would be natural to assume Frances would remain in Washington and put that talent to good use. She felt she could have more influence, however, by becoming a teacher. The same year that she was invited to the White House, she accepted a job as a teacher at her alma mater, the New York Institute for the Blind. It was there that she met Stephen.
Stephen could not have been more unlike Frances. She was petite and unassuming. He, in contrast, had already started to earn his eventual nickname “Big Steve.” The 16-year-old boy was tall, husky, and imposing.
Stephen was at the school reluctantly. He had just lost his father suddenly and unexpectedly. Now in the guardianship of his older brother, William, Stephen found himself at the Institute for the Blind, where William was a teacher.
William could tell Stephen was having difficulty with everything that was happening. There’s no telling how Stephen’s life might have turned out if he had not met Frances. The day after Stephen’s arrival, William sought out Frances and asked if he could talk to her about “the boy.”
He explained that his brother “has taken our father’s death very much to heart, and I wish you would go into the office, where I have installed him as clerk, and talk to him, once in a while.”
Frances was then introduced to Stephen, and thus began a friendship that would last for more than fifty years. Although Frances left the school in 1858 to get married, those few years when she and Stephen were at the school were very influential. Her time in Washington earned her a great deal of respect. Instead of fading into obscurity, some of the top political minds in the country went out of their way to make her acquaintance. Among the distinguished visitors Stephen saw come to the school to meet Frances were former Presidents Martin Van Buren and John Tyler.
After leaving the school, Frances and Stephen stayed in touch through correspondence. He was also able to keep tabs on her when her name showed up in the newspaper, which it did with fair regularity. Frances would end up knowing every U.S. President through Woodrow Wilson.
Could his friend’s brushes with the political elite have been the catalyst for Stephen to consider what to do with his life? The record shows that he went on to study and practice law but was ultimately drawn into the political world. He ran for and was elected to office as a prosecutor, sheriff, the mayor of Buffalo, and Governor of New York. All the while, Frances was beaming with pride about the success of her friend.
As it turned out, the very dissimilar friends had something in common. Neither of them was particularly fond of their given names. Frances much favored the nickname by which she had been known most of her life: Fanny. Although she took the surname of her husband, van Alstyne, it is by her maiden name, Crosby, that she is best remembered.
It was under the name “Fanny Crosby” that she became one of the most prolific hymnists of all time, writing more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, with more than 100 million copies of her works in print. Among her most famous songs are “Blessed Assurance,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!”, and “To God Be the Glory.”
Like his friend, Stephen would be best remembered by a different name. Perhaps it was because of the negative connotation of his “Big Steve” nickname or something entirely different, we can’t be sure. What we do know is that by the time he began his political career, his first name had been supplanted by his middle name. It was “Grover Cleveland” that appeared on the ballots.
Fanny may not have liked her given name, but it must not have been much of a turn-off for Grover. In 1886, Grover — by now the President of the United States — became the first president to be married in the White House. The name of the new First Lady of the United States was Frances.
Although their lives took them in vastly different directions, the friendship between Fanny and Grover continued until his death in 1908. Three years earlier, on the occasion of her 85th birthday, Grover Cleveland wrote to Fanny:
My dear friend:
It is more than fifty years ago that our acquaintance and friendship began; and ever since that time I have watched your continuous and interested labor in uplifting humanity, and pointing out the way to an appreciation of God’s goodness and mercy.
Though your labors have, I know, brought you abundant rewards in your consciousness of good accomplished, those who have known of your works and sympathized with your noble purposes owe it to themselves that you are apprized of their remembrance of these things. I am, therefore, exceedingly gratified to learn that your eighty-fifth birthday is to be celebrated with a demonstration of this remembrance. As one proud to call you an old friend, I desire to be early in congratulating you on your long life of usefulness, and wishing you in the years yet to be added to you, the peace and comfort born of the love of God.
Yours very sincerely,