Continuing across the miles of Iowa highway, I passed a sign for a town called What Cheer. That made me smile. Town names can be so evocative of hopes and expectations, as well as of local histories. Pulled off at the exit for West Branch and headed for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
I entered the museum knowing little about Hoover beyond his having lost an election to FDR. I left the museum a fan. What a remarkable life, and what a remarkable man.
Hoover, the son of a blacksmith, was born here in West Branch, in a tiny, two-room cabin, in 1874. His father died in 1880 and his mother in 1884, leaving him an orphan at age 10. (In later years, when asked about the past, Hoover would comment, “As gentle are the memories of those days, I am not recommending a return to the good old days. Sickness was greater and death came sooner.”)
Bert (as Hoover was known in his childhood) was put on a train, alone, and sent to an uncle in Oregon. A local teacher, recognizing the young Hoover’s remarkable intelligence, too an interest in him, introducing him to great literature. By age 17, Bert became the youngest freshman at Stanford University, where he trained as a geologist.
In 1897, he headed to Australia, as a geologist and mining engineer. Australia, in fact, offered the one other fact I knew about Hoover: I was told during my first trip Down Under that Hoover saved the koala. When he returned to the U.S., he got the importation of koala fur outlawed, and that saved these iconic marsupials from being wiped out. (I told one of the docents this, and she was delighted to learn that someone somewhere in the world was still talking about Hoover.)
Hoover did such an impressive job that the men with whom he worked began calling him “The Chief,” and this name stuck with him for life.
At age 24, now married to his Stanford sweetheart, Lou, he headed to China, to help the Chinese develop coal mines. In 1900, he and Lou were trapped in Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion. Lou worked in the hospital and Bert alternated rescuing Chinese children with directing the building of barricades. Tientsin was under heavy fire for almost a month, so it’s not too surprising that the arrival of the U.S. Marines, sent to rescue trapped Americans, was welcomed. Hoover later commented that he could “not remember a more satisfying musical performance than the bugles of the American Marines entering the settlement playing ‘There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.’”
His travels as an international “doctor of sick mines” brought him worldwide renown and substantial prosperity. However, Hoover longed for an opportunity for public service. World events were about to offer him that opportunity, and would show that his brilliance went far beyond geology and mining.
Hoover was in London, celebrating his 40th birthday, when World War I started. The American Consul General asked Hoover to help get 120,000 stranded Americans out of France, which Hoover handled before turning to the more difficult task of how to feed everyone in Belgium, after the German army had attacked. He established the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) to provide food for the civilians trapped in the war zone. Hoover refused to take a salary as head of the organization. He wanted all the money to help people. And help he did. The CRB fed 11 million people in Belgium and northern France.
Hoover made the needs of starving children a top priority, and managed to help more than 2.5 million children growing and healthy despite the war. Because of his commitment, both personal and financial, to the effort, the administrative expenses of the CRB were less than one half of one percent of the money that was sent to them. Almost everything went to helping people.
He had been called “The Chief” and “the doctor of sick mines.” Now he was called “The Great Humanitarian.”
(to be continued)