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Herbert Hoover and Stanford University
By George H. Nash
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1988 George H. Nash
All rights reserved.
The Road to Palo Alto
Like so many Americans who set root in California in the early twentieth century, Herbert Hoover was an immigrant from the Middle West. Born of Quaker parents in the tiny village of West Branch, Iowa, on August 10, 1874, he experienced the harsh vicissitudes of life at an early — too early — age. Both his parents — Jesse, a blacksmith and a farm implements dealer, and Hulda, a Quaker minister and evangelist — were dead before he was ten, victims of diseases that darkened the idyll of the American frontier. In 1885, at the age of eleven, the orphaned boy was dispatched by solicitous relatives to Oregon and the family of a maternal uncle, Henry John Minthorn. Here, for nearly six years, he would live.
An educator, country doctor, and missionary, Minthorn in 1885 had become superintendent of the newly established Friends Pacific Academy in the Quaker settlement of Newberg, about 30 miles southwest of Portland. In this little school (now George Fox College), Bert Hoover matriculated until he was almost fourteen, earning the rough equivalent of an eighth-grade education. Then, in 1888, Dr. Minthorn resigned his superintendency and moved his family to the state capital of Salem, where, with some associates, he launched the Oregon Land Company to transform the Willamette Valley into an arcadia of fruit orchards and Quaker towns. His nephew Bert became the company's office assistant — and quickly showed an aptitude for business that impressed his enterprising elders.
As Hoover grew into his teens, his thoughts focused increasingly on education. Virtually a high-school dropout (although not, perhaps, by choice), in the fall of 1889 he attended night classes at a local business college in Salem. Here he learned more about mathematics, a further step in a determined effort to improve himself. At about this time he became acquainted with a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher named Jennie Gray, who took a deep interest in the reticent youth and introduced him to classics like Ivanhoe and David Copperfield. For Hoover such books revealed a world of the imagination that he had barely glimpsed before. Not long afterward, in the summer of 1890, his older brother Theodore (who had been sent from Iowa to Oregon in 1887) returned east with Uncle John's approval to enter William Penn College.
Brother Tad's decision to seek a college education no doubt encouraged Bert to do the same. So, too, did conversations with an engineer who chanced one day to visit the Oregon Land Company's offices. The visitor impressed upon Hoover the importance of university training as preparation for a profession. The visitor's own field, engineering, prompted Hoover to consider this calling with eagerness. The excellent economic prospects for mining engineers in particular refined his ambition. Already eager to get ahead in life, he told a friend that mining engineers were "very scarce" and "just about set their own price."
And so Hoover began to study the catalogues of various institutions. Some of his relatives were anxious that he attend a Friends college like Theodore. According to Hoover, they obtained the promise of a scholarship for him from Earlham College in Indiana. But Herbert was determined to make his own selection and to attend a college which offered instruction in engineering (which Earlham did not). According to Dr. Minthorn's philosophy of life, two things were especially vital to success: "good opportunities" and readiness "to improve the opportunity." In 1891 opportunity came. A new, ambitious, modern university devoted to the ethic of usefulness was arising in California — the creation of Senator Leland Stanford in memory of his son. When entrance examinations for the university were scheduled in Portland in the spring of 1891, Herbert Hoover resolved to take them.
On the day of the examination Hoover performed satisfactorily in the fields he had previously covered. But his studies at the Friends Pacific Academy and at the business college scarcely constituted a complete high-school level of preparation, and his deficiencies were only too apparent. Judged solely by his examination scores, Hoover was not qualified to enter Stanford.
Yet as he struggled, the examiner — Professor Joseph Swain of Stanford's nascent mathematics department — noticed the "strength of will" of this "quiet and serious" youth who spoke "with monosyllables":
As Mathematics was my own subject I naturally observed him most when he was working at his Plane Geometry questions. I observed that he put his teeth together with great decision and his whole face and posture showed his determination to pass the examination at any cost. He was evidently summoning every pound of energy he possessed to answer correctly the questions before him. I was naturally interested in him. On inquiry I learned that he had studied only two books of Plane Geometry and was trying to solve an original problem based on the fourth book.
To Swain, Hoover's "method of work" was more revealing of his potential than his inadequate level of preparation. He interviewed the boy afterward and was convinced that he only required an opportunity in order to succeed. Swain decided to admit him. The opposition of Hoover's relatives to his attending a secular university evidently dissolved when Swain, a prominent Quaker, stopped briefly in Salem and informed Dr. Minthorn that his nephew was the kind of student Stanford wanted.
In order to be assured entrance, however, Hoover would have to master the geometry he had not yet studied; this, Professor Swain required. He also suggested that Hoover come to Stanford early for tutoring before additional entrance examinations and the opening of classes in the autumn. Hoover now plunged intently into geometry, poring over books on a table in the upper story of Dr. Minthorn's barn. This was his opportunity; he would spare no effort to "improve" it.
During his six years in Oregon, Hoover had been technically under the supervision of a guardian appointed by a court in Iowa after he had been orphaned. The guardian, a Quaker named Lawrie Tatum, had carefully managed the modest inheritance that had come to Hoover, his brother, and his sister. By August 1891 Hoover's share amounted to $822.67. In that month Tatum reported to the district court of Cedar County, Iowa, that his ward, "an industrious and faithful boy," proposed to enter Stanford University. Tatum recommended that the court grant Hoover his wish; the court agreed.
The worst thing a man can do, Dr. Minthorn often declared, is to do nothing. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that as Hoover prepared to depart for California his Grandmother Minthorn prayed he would do a "conscientious work" and that Hoover promised she would someday be proud of him. Certainly he was determined to succeed; as Swain had discerned, he possessed a "superior will." On August 29, 1891, accompanied by a friend named Fred Williams, Herbert Hoover left Salem for Stanford University. Less than three weeks earlier he had reached his seventeenth birthday.CHAPTER 2
A Son of the Stanford Red
In 1884 Leland Stanford was a wealthy man. Born on a farm in New York, he migrated to California in the 1850s and became its Republican governor in 1861. As one of the "Big Four" railroad titans of the Golden State, he developed the Central Pacific Railroad and helped to bind the nation with ties of steel. Able, energetic, daring, and farsighted, to his contemporaries he personified the American dream: from humble beginnings to remarkable achievement and spectacular success.
As he grew older, Stanford's thoughts centered increasingly on his only son and heir. But in 1884 Leland Stanford, Jr., died of typhoid on a trip to Europe when he was not quite sixteen. Overcome by anguish, his father fell into a fitful slumber and dreamed that he heard his departed son speak: "Father, do not say you have nothing to live for. ... Live for humanity." The next morning Stanford awoke with words of purpose implanted on his mind and lips: "The children of California shall be my children." He resolved to dedicate his fortune to creating a worthy memorial for his son.
Seven years later, in the summer of 1891, his "monument" was nearly ready. On his ranch of more than 8,000 acres in the Santa Clara Valley, 30 miles south of San Francisco, Stanford, now a United States senator, had supervised the development of a university. With the same acumen that marked his business ventures, he had selected Doctor David Starr Jordan, the youthful president of Indiana University, to transform the still-unfinished assortment of buildings into "a University of high degree." Early that summer Jordan took up residence; gradually the faculty filtered in. Scores of laborers hastened to complete the structures before the students — no one knew how many — arrived. Housing was scarce; roads through the campus were dusty, primitive, and few. The nearest villages were Menlo Park and May field; the city of Palo Alto did not yet exist. No wonder skeptics scoffed at the thought of a university located amidst the senator's stables and vineyards under the hot California sun.
To alleviate the housing shortage, workmen quickly built ten wooden-frame cottages for the faculty along what Jordan named Alvarado Row; students soon would label it "the Decalogue." At the invitation of Jordan, two Eastern schoolteachers trekked across the continent to establish a preparatory school for girls near the campus. An unoccupied farmhouse, later called Adelante Villa, was the only housing Lucy Fletcher and Eleanor Pearson could find, and they promptly converted it into a boardinghouse for early Stanford arrivals. While construction proceeded and the nascent community awaited opening ceremonies, a few faculty members and students sought temporary quarters there. Among them, at the end of August, were "two raw boys from Oregon," Herbert Hoover and Fred Williams.
When Hoover disembarked from the train at Menlo Park and found his way to Adelante Villa, he was seeking more than a place to stay. If he were to seize the opportunity for education that lay almost within his grasp, he must pass the entrance examinations that he had failed in Oregon. In the short time before school opened, he was tutored by Misses Fletcher and Pearson. In return for his board and their coaching, he took care of the tutors' horses.
When examination day came, Hoover successfully met the entrance requirements in arithmetic, elementary algebra, plane geometry, geography, and American history. Discovering that he needed to elect another subject in which to be tested, he chose physiology, studied for a night, and passed. The English language test, however, was too formidable; in this subject he was "conditioned." But his objective had been attained: he was permitted to enroll, with the stipulation that he remove this "condition" before graduation.
A few days before opening day Hoover and Fred Williams were assigned to the men's dormitory, Encina Hall. They were the first Stanford students to occupy rooms in this building. Years later Doctor Jordan recalled that Hoover in fact was the first student to whom he allocated an Encina room. In this sense, Hoover was the first student to enter Stanford University.
On October 1, 1891 Leland Stanford Junior University formally opened before a large and expectant throng. More than 400 students registered that day; they greeted the arriving benefactor with a yell:
Wah hoo! Wah hoo!
L. S. J. U.
The ethos of the infant university was easily discernible from the addresses delivered at the convocation. To Senator Stanford, a self-made man, education was "training for usefulness in life," and in his speech he expounded his philosophy:
You, students are the most important factor in the university. It is for your benefit that it has been established. To you our hearts go out especially, and in each individual student we feel a parental interest. All that we can do for you is to place the opportunities within your reach. Remember that life is, above all, practical; that you are here to fit yourselves for a useful career; also, that learning should not only make you wise in the arts and sciences, but should fully develop your moral and religious natures.
But not education for oneself alone. While the instruction of its own students was the university's immediate goal, Senator Stanford hoped his creation would contribute to "the general welfare of humanity."
David Starr Jordan — ebullient and optimistic, Emersonian in his rhetoric — expounded further the uplifting vision. Here, he said, was a university, imbued with grand ideals, "hallowed by no traditions" and "hampered by none." "Its finger posts all point forward." "The Golden Age of California begins when its gold is used for purposes like this." In the audience Herbert Hoover listened and was thrilled.
Five hundred fifty-nine students eventually enrolled at Stanford University during its formative year, thereby rendering it at once the largest academic institution in California. For a few days the nearly 300 male students of Encina had to use candles until electricity could be installed. Hot water was not provided until late October. Since the kitchen at Roble Hall, the women's dormitory, was not yet finished, the coeds (or "angels," as they were called) were obliged to take their meals temporarily in the dining hall at Encina. All was excitement and malleability during these first few months. Not without reason did the Class of '95 — the first full four-year class — become known as the Pioneers.
As the days passed the students began to organize clubs, athletic teams, and other manifestations of college life. The faculty, meanwhile, instituted Friday evening "at homes" for their students. It was indeed an exciting world, this nascent, still-forming community on Senator Stanford's ranch.
In his first semester at Stanford, Hoover took courses in solid geometry, algebra, trigonometry, linear drawing, freehand drawing, and mechanical engineering (shop). For these he would be graded, as all students were in those days, simply on a pass/fail basis. Perhaps because the head of the geology department had not yet arrived on campus, Hoover initially declared his major as mechanical engineering. But when Doctor John Caspar Branner came at the beginning of 1892, Hoover dropped the courses in drawing and enrolled in Branner's course in geology.
Although Stanford University did not charge tuition, board at Encina Hall cost twenty dollars per month, a considerable sum at a time when student workers were paid around fifteen cents an hour. Like many other students Hoover had no cushion of parental wealth to support him — only the $822.67 that Lawrie Tatum guarded back in Iowa. With board, books, clothing, and sundry other expenses now piling up, this reserve would not last very long. It would be necessary for Hoover to work his way through college.
With the help of Professor Swain he secured a temporary job as a clerk in the Registrar's office. For much of the ensuing year he continued to care for the horses at Adelante Villa — performing his chores twice daily, efficiently, wordlessly. During his freshman year he also delivered newspapers on campus and served as agent for a nearby laundry, using as transportation a discarded old bicycle that he had repaired. At first he collected the laundry and distributed the clean clothing himself. Later he sublet the business and kept the accounts. From these two activities he derived a small but steady income. Sometime after Professor Branner reached campus, Hoover obtained employment as his office assistant, a position he held for most of his undergraduate career. In the second semester of his freshman year, Hoover's labors were interrupted by a case of measles, the effects of which compelled him to wear glasses during much of his remaining time at college.
During this first year, Hoover, one of the youngest in his class, made relatively little impression on those around him, except for one characteristic repeatedly noticed by acquaintances: his shy, abrupt taciturnity. Years later David Starr Jordan recalled him as "a very quiet and almost retiring youngster." Professor Branner's wife remembered him as "always blunt, almost to the point of utter tactlessness." When students came to the Branner's home for evening receptions, Hoover "usually sat back in the corner and listened. He rarely spoke and always seemed to be a little ill at ease." One of his closest student friends, Lester Hinsdale, who sat with him at meals in Encina in freshman year, recalled that Hoover was "very immature in appearance, probably the youngest looking of us all. He seemed shy to the point of timidity — rarely spoke unless spoken to. It wasn't until later, when we got into politics on the same side and I began to see under his surface, that I realized how much it was possible to like him."
Yet slowly he was emerging from his protective shell. At a meeting of the Geological Club in May 1892 he presented a paper. Sometime in his first year he tried out for the freshman baseball team and briefly served as shortstop. Whether because of an injury to his finger (as his friend Will Irwin later reported) or because of his peers' judgment about his ability (as Hoover himself stated), he soon abandoned his player's uniform for the more congenial role of managing the team's finances and schedule.
Excerpted from Herbert Hoover and Stanford University by George H. Nash. Copyright © 1988 George H. Nash. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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