In 1921, Herbert Hoover was a household word, and a newly appointed Secretary of Commerce in the Harding Administration.
Herbert Hoover: A Quick Background
Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964) was a self-made man in the truest sense of the word. Born a poor farm boy, orphaned at ten, raised by relatives, he managed to get an education at Stanford University and became a mining engineer. With huge talents and abilities in his discipline, he was a millionaire a few times over by the time he was thirty-five. He was well known, but only in his field.
World War I found him living in London, an American mining consultant with offices in six countries. The exigencies of the war in Europe brought him to the forefront, uncovering his true calling: Humanitarianism with a capital ‘H’ on a grand scale. He earned worldwide fame (and gratitude) for organizing a massive relief effort to feed the starving citizens of Belgium, whose country had been overrun by the German army. After the Belgian relief effort, he never engaged actively in mining efforts thereafter.
President Woodrow Wilson summoned Herbert Hoover home in mid-1917 to supervise the Food Administration, which turned the United States into the world’s breadbasket. But while he was known far and wide for his abilities and his integrity. But he remained elusive as a person.
Washington Close-Ups, by Edward G. Lowry
I have a little gem of an old book, vintage 1921, written by Edward G. Lowry, a Washington journalist of that era, titled Washington Close-Ups, which gives a dozen or so character sketches about the movers and shakers of that time, Herbert Hoover being one of them.
Lowry tells this lost, but delicious vignette.
According to the author, Hoover’s public work and reputation is widely known, but he, as an individual, remains hidden, despite all efforts to “find the man” behind the celluloid collar.
The story goes that his entre to Hoover was through a neighbor’s child, who “with shining, dancing eyes and glowing cheeks” mentioned in passing that she and Allan (Hoover’s son) had been building a dam across one of the creeks branching off the Potomac River – with the assistance of the Great Engineer. She described him wading in the water, muddy and wet to his armpits, laying stones and chinking the cracks. It was clear that she and Hoover were great pals. The effort seemed intriguing, and Lowry wangled himself an invitation some time later to join them on a Sunday afternoon for a picnic and dam building.
Herbert Hoover Builds A Dam
Mr. Lowry can continue the story from here…
“The job that morning was to fetch stones, to dig clay, to make sluiceways and spills and to put in place two overshot waterwheels. I saw Hoover walk into the water “with all his clothes on.” I saw him muddy and wet to the waist, entirely absorbed and centered on what he was doing… He was having a good time; just as much fun as they [the children] were. It interested me that his idea of a day’s holiday was to devote it to children – and to building something. It interested me even more that children accepted him on easy, equal terms. Plenty of grown people want to play with children, but don’t know how. They try, but the children stand aloof.”
Herbert Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s, oversaw the planning and construction of yet another dam, this one on a much grander scale, harnessing the Colorado River. It was more complex. It took longer. It also bears his name.
Herbert Hoover and Children
Lowry continued to remark that during the First World War (and the book was written long before there was a second one), many studies were made about the needs of poor European countries, whose people were starving, just as Belgium was, and in dire need of humanitarian aid. Thousands and thousands of words were written; hundreds of documents produced. Lowry mentions the one sentence that touched Hoover the most: “We see very few children playing in the streets of Warsaw.” Those children were not strong enough to run and play. Many could not walk or even stand. Eastern Europe numbered more than two million hungry children.
After the Second World War, Europe numbered twice that many hungry children, and President Harry Truman, who admired Hoover and became his great personal friend, asked the Great Humanitarian, now in his seventies, to manage the relief effort. The ex-President, who had become by and large “non-grata” with the taint of the Depression permanently affixed to his celluloid collar, was eager to comply and accomplish more miracles.
Later, as an elderly man (he lived to be ninety), he published a slim book of letters (and their responses) that he received from children over the years. He obviously enjoyed those letters enough to keep them. And contrary to the stiff figure that always looked uncomfortable in front of the camera, he had a delightful and warm sense of humor. Mr. Lowry was right. Hoover was at his most accessible with children.
Hoover, Herbert – On Growing Up: His letters from and to American children – William Morrow & Co., 1962
Lowry, Edward G. – Washington Close-Ups: Intimate Views of Some Public Figures – Houghton Mifflin Co., 1921