Lou Henry Hoover

Charles and Florence Henry were living in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1874 when their first child was born, a daughter they named Lou. Charles was a bank manager, but he loved to be outdoors as much as possible. Unlike most girls of her time, Lou learned to hunt and fish with her father, to go camping and horseback riding, and to love the outdoors. She delighted in adventure, and what an adventure her life would be. She became the first woman to study geology at Stanford University, traveled around the world many times, assisted suffering people, encouraged young girls to lead active lives, and lived in the White House for four years as the wife of President Herbert Hoover.

In 1885 the Henrys moved to California in the hopes of improving the health of Lou's mother. They ended up in Monterey where her father became a partner in a bank. In high school Lou joined a club that collected items for a local museum, including small animals. Lou attended a lecture by Stanford University geology professor J. C. Branner. Afterward, she asked Dr. Branner if she could study geology, a subject few women had pursued. With the encouragement of both Branner and her parents, Lou enrolled as the first woman geology major at Stanford.

Lou Meets Herbert

Dr. Branner had an assistant named Herbert Hoover. At a dinner at the Branners, Lou and Herbert ("Bert" as he was called) became better acquainted and discovered that they had both been born in eastern Iowa, she in Waterloo and he in West Branch just east of Iowa City. They also both loved to fish. Their friendship blossomed. Bert graduated and took a job with a mining company in Australia but he never forgot Lou. When Lou graduated from Stanford three years later, she returned home to Monterey where she received a cable telegram one day from Bert Hoover. He asked her to marry him.

Bert and Lou were married on February 10, 1899, and the following day they left for China where Hoover had a job with the Chinese government to improve their mining operations. They lived in the city of Tientsin. While Bert studied mining, Lou studied the Chinese language and culture around her. She hired a tutor to teach her Chinese and became quite fluent.

Around the World

This was a time of political unrest in China. Some Chinese resented the presence of foreigners and raised a small army to drive them out of the country. The city of Tientsin came under attack. Soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia guarded it. Lou took over the local dairy herd and supervised the distribution of milk to children, the first of many relief work assignments that lay ahead for her. When troop reinforcements came, the Hoovers left China and sailed to London where they made their home.

Herbert's work as a mining engineer called him to many parts of the world, and Lou loved to travel with him. He had assignments in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Burma, Egypt, and Russia, and each place, Lou went along. Even the birth of their two sons, Herbert, Jr. in 1903 and Allan in 1907, did not stop her. She hired a nurse and took the children along.

When World War I broke out in 1914, many Americans traveling in Europe were stranded. They could not get passage on a boat back to the United States. Lou and Henry began efforts to loan them money and to provide them with food and places to stay. Lou became the head of the Society of American Women in London. Later that fall Lou took her two boys back to California where they could start school. Herbert remained in London and was appointed the Chairman of the Commission for Belgian Relief. Lou assisted by fundraising and collecting food and clothing for suffering Belgian families.

Lou Encourages Girls

Lou became active in the Girl Scout organizations. Her own love of camping and the outdoors led her to become a troop leader and a member of the Girl Scout Council in Washington to help provide opportunities for American girls. She also became a Vice President and head of the women's division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. At that time most people believed that sports were for men only, not for women. They believed that the competition and physical demands were too stressful for females. Not Lou Hoover. She advocated "a sport for every girl and every girl in a sport."

In 1921, President Warren Harding named Herbert Hoover to be Secretary of Commerce. The Hoovers left their home in California and moved to Washington. She organized luncheons and dinners as part of her husband's political life, but she remained active on behalf of the Girl Scouts and women's athletics.

On to the White House

In 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States. Bert and Lou moved into the White House. In the fall of 1929, the economy took a sharp downturn. The value of stocks fell suddenly. Factories began to shut down, throwing thousands of workers out of jobs. Farm prices fell. President Hoover tried many ways to get the economy moving again. However, he was against providing direct relief to families from the Federal government. He favored private charities or state programs. As the Depression grew worse and worse and more families were suffering, many people blamed Hoover for the situation.

Lou Hoover kept busy as America's First Lady. Over the years the furniture in some of the rooms in the White House had become shabby. Lou took on several restoration projects. However, she paid for them out of her own funds so that the President could not be accused of using government money for his own comfort during hard times. She visited the sick in Washington hospitals and entertained groups for luncheons at the White House. She still retained her love of the outdoors. For her own pleasure, she sometimes went horseback riding or worked in the garden or walked her dogs.

This was a time when many areas of the United States practices racial segregation and required separate accommodations for blacks and whites. Lou Hoover broke tradition when she invited Mrs. Oscar DePriest for tea at the White House. Mrs. DePriest was an African-American woman, the wife of a black Congressman from Chicago. The invitation stirred controversy, with some newspapers condemning Mrs. Hoover for treating a black woman as a guest in the White House. The bitterness surprised and hurt Lou who had traveled all over the world and become acquainted with men and women of all races. Others praised the First Lady for improving race relations.

The End of a Remarkable Life

In 1932, Hoover lost his bid for re-election to Franklin Roosevelt. It was time to move out of the White House. After many years of public service, Bert and Lou finally had time to pursue some of their favorite activities. They moved back to the home that Lou had designed in California near the Stanford University campus and lived there for several years.

They moved one more time. Bert was still busy writing and speaking out on public issues. They took an apartment in New York City. When war broke out again in Europe, Lou once again became involved in raising funds to provide help to suffering families. This time it was with the Salvation Army's campaign to assist war refugees.

On January 7, 1944, Lou Hoover attended a concert with friends. That evening, she suffered a severe heart attack. She died at the age of 69 after an incredible life that took her from Waterloo, Iowa, around the world several times and to the White House.

Lou Henry Hoover was named to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1987.

Tom Morain, Graceland University

 

 


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