The story of Herbert Hoover is a true Horatio Alger story. Poor boy makes good through his own pluck and hard work. And a little bit of help along the way.
The Making of an Engineer
Herbert Hoover was an Iowa farm boy, completely orphaned by ten and sent to live with relatives in Oregon. He received kind and affectionate treatment from them, but as strict Quakers, they also instilled the values of diligent hard work and initiative. Hoover obliged. He studied first, did his household chores second, earned extra spending money third, and finally, if there was a little time, he could play. Or go fishing.
A summer job in an engineering firm while he was in high school gave him some direction for a future career in engineering. Stanford University had just opened in Palo Alto, California, and the tuition was free – if you could pass the entrance examination. (Even then, Stanford did not take dummies!) Since there were other expenses associated with a college education besides tuition, Bert, as his friends called him, took on a variety of part-time jobs to earn his room and board and books and modest spending allowance. He did everything from working in the registrar’s office to delivering laundry. Plus, he managed the baseball team. And became Class Treasurer. Needless to say, with all those part time jobs and activities, he became very well known on campus. His dormant leadership and administrative talents began to surface.
His class work did not suffer, either. His professors liked him and were delighted to encourage the shy young man whose diligence was worn on his sleeve. They were also delighted to introduce him to many mining and engineering executives who frequently visited the newly-created University.
The introductions to those well-placed engineering professionals provided young Hoover with summer employment as well as future contacts.
Herbert Hoover: Graduation Choices
Herbert Hoover was well aware of his “aloneness” in the world when he graduated from Stanford. While his relationship with his Oregon family would always be cordial, he knew that they had done their best for him, and would/could do no more. His own natural brother and sister would be dear to him for the rest of his long life, but they could do little to guide his future. At twenty-one, he needed to chart his own course.
Then there was another slight “concern.” He had become pleasantly acquainted with a fellow geology student, a Miss Lou Henry. Born in the same year as he, and also in Iowa, Miss Henry had already graduated from a Normal School (Teacher’s College) prior to attending Stanford. They were the same age, but she was a freshman while Bert was a senior.
The two of them had bonded easily, despite her outgoing middle-class upbringing, and his introverted hard-working shyness. The two parted when Hoover graduated, but they agreed to correspond. It seems that Miss Henry’s interest in the bashful Bert had been apparent from the start.
And despite the introductions to some of the leading mining executives, there was no offer of a job for Herbert Hoover.
The Job Finally Appears
The only opportunity that seemed to present itself to the newly graduated Hoover was a bottom-level position in a gold mine in Nevada City, California: pushing a heavy tram cart loaded with ore for ten hours a day, at the sumptuous salary of $2 a day. Grueling work – especially for a Stanford University graduate.
One biographer would claim that taking that menial job was the best career move Hoover ever made.
Many of those Nevada City miners were from Cornwall in western England, near the Welsh border, where mining had been the family occupation for generations. There was nothing about mines and mining that these Cornish men did not know.
They took a liking to the young college fellow with the moon-face. He was hard working and not snobbish, qualities they admired. He was also eager to learn. They were just as eager to share their decades of empirical knowledge with him: the kind of knowledge that cannot be learned in a classroom.
It would be said later of Mining Engineer Herbert Hoover, that he could “smell” a mine and intuitively determine if it would be productive. He would always credit those Cornish miners for helping him develop those intangible instincts.
Herbert Hoover: Upward Mobility
Bert Hoover did not stay very long at the bottom of the mine, both literally and figuratively. A few months was all that was needed. The young “trainee” with the college degree was ready to move up.
From a $2-per-day job in 1895, his next position paid $2,000 per year, considered a sizable sum: nearly $50 per week. This was at a time that the average man made $20 or $25 a week, and could support a family.
Bert impressed his employers with his diligence and desire to get ahead. He was sent to remote regions of Australia for his next opportunity in a position considered far above his age and experience level. He did not disappoint. All the while, he maintained a correspondence with Miss Henry.
Finally, in 1899, after Lou Henry graduated with her own degree in geology, Bert Hoover sent her a long telegram telling her about a new position he had been offered. In China. He would be earning $40,000 a year, and he was only twenty-five years old. (The President of the United States only earned $75,000 a year!) Then he asked her to marry him.
Her reply was short. She said “Yes.”
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1995
Mayer, Dale M. – Lou Henry Hoover, A Prototype for First Ladies – Nova History Publications, 2004
Smioth, Richard Norton – An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover – Simon and Schuster, 1984