Mrs. Herbert Hoover is arguably the least known among 20th century First Ladies – yet she was an amazing woman in her own right.
Lou Henry Hoover: The Early Days
Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) was way ahead of her time. Born in Iowa and raised in California, she was one of the first women to graduate from Stanford University as a degreed geologist.
She decided early on to pursue an adventurous course, and married a Stanford upperclassman – a young mining engineer named Herbert Hoover. Within a few years of his graduation, he would become one of the foremost experts in his field. Within the next decade, Bert and Lou Hoover would travel to exotic locales in China, Burma, Japan and Australia, and circumnavigate the globe twice – with two babies in tow.
In 1914, at the onset of World War I in Europe, the Hoovers were living in London, where the exigencies of war changed their lives completely. Herbert Hoover would sell his mining interests and embrace humanitarianism on a grand scale. Lou would discover her own administrative talents and work with him – and on her own – for philanthropic and societal causes.
Lou Henry Hoover: Woman of Varied Interests
Hoover had become a household word through his yeoman efforts abroad, and in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had summoned him home, now that the United States America had entered the Great War. He was put in charge of the Food Administration, to help conserve our food resources in order to supply our own troops and those of our allies. Lou did her part as well. She wrote magazine articles, gave interviews, spoke before countless organizations, and, like her husband, never took a cent in remuneration.
Her passion, however, was the fledgling Girl Scouts of America. She had been aware of the Girl Guides in London, and once home, she put her efforts and western upbringing to work for the Scouts. She enlisted as a scout leader, but rose quickly through the ranks, to become its national president. She held that post for a decade. Under her leadership, what had started as an organization for a few thousand girls would grow to more than 150,000 by the end of the 1920s, and into the millions by the time of her death in 1944.
By the time Herbert Hoover was elected President in 1928, both Hoovers were well known throughout the country for their energy, their executive skills, their obvious abilities, and their devotion to public service.
Lou Henry Hoover: Active First Lady
Lou Henry Hoover came to the White House with two secretaries: one to manage her First Lady duties, and the other to handle the Girl Scouts’ affairs. Both were paid privately by Mrs. Hoover.
Then the Depression changed everything. From being a Presidential couple of huge promise and expectation, they found themselves mired in a situation not of their making, and on a near-Biblical scale. They found themselves vilified because they could not control let alone solve the economic tsunami.
Both Herbert and Lou Hoover were intrinsically shy people and in this instance, their own personalities worked against them. While their modesty had been charming and admired previously, it was now to their detriment. They both believed that public service was a privilege, and they shunned rewards or public acknowledgement of their accomplishments, let alone generosity. It would be those qualities – the refusal to toot their own horns or permit horns to be tooted on their behalf – that helped to damage their truly stellar reputations.
Mrs. Hoover’s Third Secretary
First Ladies have always received large quantities of unsolicited letters, and common courtesy demands that all respectfully written letters be acknowledged and answered. The First Lady’s personal secretary was overwhelmed with the usual commitments and duties of the White House. The secretary Mrs. Hoover hired for Girl Scout matters was, of course, entirely separate.
But as the dark days of the Depression refused to brighten, and indeed grew darker, First Lady Lou Hoover began receiving hundreds of letters every week asking for help. She quietly engaged a third secretary specifically charged with looking into these needs, and provide whatever assistance possible. Again, this was paid from her own funds.
Most of the requests were forwarded, with Mrs. Hoover’s card or note, to appropriate government agencies. Some were sent to state and local officials. Girl Scout troops were mobilized throughout the country to help conduct food drives and clothing drives, and to help shut-ins and the elderly.
But more often than not however, when need was determined and no other source was available, Mrs. Hoover would enclose a personal check for a few dollars, or send a pair of shoes or warm coat. It was always done without fanfare, publicity or any expectations for repayment.
When White House personnel suggested that it would make a fine story that might boost their plummeting reputations, both Hoovers were appalled. They believed that generosity was private, never to be used for their personal enhancement or benefit. Decades would pass before their actions would speak louder than their critics’ words.
Mrs. Hoover’s Desk
During her retirement years, Lou Henry Hoover stayed active in various public and charitable organizations, far away from the public eye.
A few months before her seventieth birthday, she had a heart attack and died. Her husband tidied up her affairs, and cleaned out her desk. There he found hundreds of checks made out in her name, all for small sums that people – strangers to them – had sent in repayment for her kindness when it was needed.
She had never cashed them.
Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934
Pryor, Dr. Helen B. – Lou Henry Hoover: Gallant First Lady – Dodd Mead, 1969