Elected 31st President of the United States in a 1928 landslide, within a few short months the global hero had become a scapegoat in his own land. Even today, Hoover remains indelibly linked with the Great Depression that put millions of his countrymen out of work in the 1930's. His 1932 defeat at the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt left Hoover's once bright reputation in shambles.
Yet he refused to fade away. In one of history's most remarkable comebacks Hoover returned at Harry Truman's behest to avert global famine at the end of the Second World War and to reorganize the executive branch of government. By the time of his death in October, 1964, Hoover had regained much of the luster once attached to his name. The Quaker theologian who eulogized him at his funeral did not exaggerate when he said of Herbert Hoover, "The story is a good one and a great one...It is essentially triumphant."
The boy's early reading was limited to the Bible, schoolbooks, "certain novels showing the huge danger of Demon Rum" and a pirated copy of the Youth's Companion. Young "Bert" enjoyed sledding on frosty winter nights, an activity his Aunt Hannah thought Godless. In the summer, he picked potato bugs to earn money for Fourth of July firecrackers.
The fields around West Branch held prairie chickens and rabbits to hunt; the Wapsinonoc Creek yielded fish to anyone with a willow pole, butcher string line, and the patience instilled by Quaker discipline.
Fishing became a lifelong passion for Hoover. So did the Quaker tenets of emotional self-containment and a commitment to worldly success matched by obligations of service to others. These survived the death of Jesse Hoover in 1880 and Hulda four years later.
Hoover's six years in Oregon taught him self-reliance. "My boyhood ambition was to be able to earn my own living, without the help of anybody, anywhere." As an office boy in his uncle's Oregon Land Company he mastered bookkeeping and typing, while attending business school in the evening. Thanks to a local schoolteacher, Miss Jane Gray, the boy's eyes were opened to the novels of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. David Copperfield, the story of another orphan cast into the world to live by his wits, would remain a lifelong favorite.
Hoover earned his way through school by doing typing chores for Professor John Caspar Branner, who also got him a summer job mapping the terrain in Arkansas' Ozark Mountains. It was in Branner's geology lab that he met Miss Lou Henry, a banker's daughter born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1874. Lou shared her fellow Iowan's love of the outdoors and self-reliant nature. "It isn't so important what others think of you as what you feel inside yourself," she told college friends.
Hoover graduated three months before his 21st birthday. He left Stanford with $40 in his pocket and no prospects for employment. But from this college in a hayfield he had derived much more than a degree in geology. Stanford gave Hoover an identity, a profession, and a future bride. Most of all, Stanford became for the orphan from West Branch a surrogate family - a place to belong.
Instead, in roughhewn settlements like Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, and Leonara, the 23 year old Yankee nicknamed "Hail Columbia" Hoover won the trust of rowdy Aussies by his take charge ways and democratic habits. Bathing in beer instead of water, living on a diet of sardines and cocoa, Hoover road a camel through the sprawling wastes of Western Australia looking for gold. One day he scouted out a rich vein which he persuaded his London employers to purchase for a million dollars. In time the famed Sons of Gwalia mine would return $65 million to Bewick, Moreing.
In the spring of 1898 Hoover's salary was raised to $10,000 a year. His men bestowed a new title on the youthful American - "The Chief." It stuck to Hoover for the rest of his life. So did memories of wild and wooly Australian, a land of "red dust, black flies and white heat."
Rumors soon spread of a great foreign mandarin whose green eyes allowed him to see through the ground to find gold.
Hoover did battle with bedbugs and a manager who smoked opium until he was pale. He met a Living Buddha who rode a bicycle around a Tibetan Lamasery. One Christmas Day he taught the game of football to a crowd of barefooted children.
Early in 1900 a wave of anti-western feeling swept China. Peking reformers were overthrown and a nativist group calling itself "I Ho Tuan," or the Boxers, laid seige to the western colony in Tientsen. Herbert and Lou Hoover were trapped along with other westerners. Hoo-Yah built barriades of rice and grainsacks; Hoo-Loo rode her bicycle close to walls to avoid bullets one of which punctured her tire. One afternoon while playing solitaire, an artillery shell crashed into the front hall, destroying a portion of the staircase. She went on playing as if nothing had happened. Another morning she read her obituary in a California newspaper.
Ten weeks after the seige began, help arrived in dramatic fashion. Said Hoover, "I do 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."
After 1907 the "Great Engineer" and his family were based in London. Together with Lou, he spent three years on board ships bound for nearly forty nations. Putting their time on the sea to good use, the couple jointly translated De Re Metallica, a classic work by the 16th Century Latin mining scholar Georgias Agricola. Hoover also digested thick volumes of history, sociology, economics and philosophy, trying to make up for his early educational deficiencies.
Hoover's reputation grew throughout the period, and not just in mining circles. When a dishonest partner at Bewick, Moreing embezzled half a million dollars from the firm, the American insisted on paying back much of the loss from his own pocket. In 1908 Hoover left Bewick, Moreing to launch his own international consulting firm employing 175,000 workers from Siberia to Peru. Soon after, he joined Stanford's Board of Trustees. A colleague said more was accomplished during Hoover's first hour on the board than in the three preceeding years.