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Hitching a Ride with a President

John Wade Gordon stood at the side of a hot, dusty California highway not far from Petaluma hoping to hitch a ride to the Sausalito ferry about forty miles south. Gordon had relocated to California from Memphis, Tennessee in search of better prospects. It was August 21, 1933. Hungry and in need of employment, Gordon hoped his remaining 92 cents would hold out until he could reach a friend in the San Francisco area. As the sun grew hotter, the cars continued to ignore Gordon’s extended thumb. As Gordon recalled, “a big shiny car came rolling along and I thought there was no use in flagging that one. But after it had passed a hundred feet or so it stopped and a chauffeur came back to me and said I might ride.” Climbing in the front seat next to the driver, Gordon was greeted by a voice from the back of the vehicle. Turing around, he immediately recognized Herbert Hoover. Returning from Bohemian Grove, Hoover was on his way back to his home in Palo Alto.

Gordon was surprised how friendly a former President could be to a young stranger sporting a heavy Southern accent. Describing his work as a mechanic to raise the money for the trek to California from Tennessee, and detailing his hopes for a better job in the Golden State, Gordon extolled Hoover with his life story as well as his dreams and aspirations for the future.

Hoover’s ears perked at the mention of one of Gordon’s relatives, former Governor of Mississippi Earl Brewer as well as Senator Pat Harrison who was a close friend of Gordon's mother. Arriving at the ferry, Hoover suggested that Gordon join him for a bite to eat guessing that the hitchhiker needed a good meal. Over lunch, Hoover offered some advice about securing employment. According to Gordon, Hoover’s parting words were: “Well, son, I am going to take a chance on you. You have an honest face. I’ll give you a little money for a new outfit. Get yourself some clothes and put an advertisement in the newspapers. You say you can drive a car, perhaps you could get work as a driver.” Hoover offered to write a letter of recommendation to prospective employers, wrote down the address of Gordon’s friend where the letter could be sent, handed Gordon a business card and a hundred dollar bill for a new outfit of clothes and to carry Gordon over until he was employed.

Not reported at the time was the difficulty Gordon encountered purchasing a suit of clothing. The salesman was suspicious of a young man, apparently without means, being in possession of a hundred dollar bill. Gordon explained his story to the police and showed them Hoover’s card. A quick call to Hoover immediately resolved any questions.

True to his word, Hoover contacted some friends and secured employment for Gordon with Standard Oil of California. Gordon subsequently became a successful salesman for the New York Life Insurance Company. When Gordon tried to repay his debt to Hoover, the President refused payment. Gordon’s mother wrote Hoover a letter of rebuke, chastising him for not allowing her son to be a responsible adult by honoring his debt obligations. Assuaging Mrs. Gordon’s wrath, Hoover accepted repayment from her son.

Over the years, Gordon would drop Hoover a short letter providing brief progress reports. The two continued to correspond over the years in what became a rather warm friendship. Responding to Gordon on October 29, 1954, Hoover wrote: “Thank you indeed for yours of the 9th which just reaches me here in New York. That was certainly a well-invested $100-which you paid back both in money and success.”

John Wade Gordon died on March 25, 1961 in Okinawa. At the time of death, Gordon was the Pacific Division Manager for the Encyclopedia Britannica.


A Tale of Two Hoovers
Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover J. Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover at the wartime confernece of Boys' Clubs of America dinner, 1944.

The controversial biopic of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover has recently placed the Hoover name before the public. It should come as no surprise that Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover were frequently confused during their lives and remain so in death. The two men were not related, and they first crossed paths in Washington in the early 1920s. While the Clint Eastwood film has a scene depicting Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone offering a young J. Edgar Hoover the job of FBI director, it leaves out the fact that Stone had consulted with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover about the appointment. Herbert Hoover's assistant, Larry Richey, had worked in law enforcement and knew that J. Edgar Hoover was a competent rising star in the bureau. When Herbert Hoover mentioned Stone's inquiry concerning the job opening, Richey immediately recommended J. Edgar Hoover. Herbert Hoover forwarded the suggestion to Stone, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Herbert Hoover's correspondence files contain many examples of letters received that were meant for J. Edgar Hoover. The two Hoovers were constantly forwarding one another mail and, in the process, became close friends.

In one instance, a young girl sent a letter addressed to "Mr. Herbert Hoover, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, Washington, D.C." making the following query: "Will you please send me some information on the subject, 'Crime.' I need to make a report from my Sr. History Class." President Hoover sent it along with a cover letter, joking with J. Edgar Hoover, "Surely you are able to deal with this inquiry! It would not take you more than two months to prepare an essay for the young lady!" In another misdirected letter, an unidentified gentleman from Chicago asked that the FBI investigate strange activities in a basement dwelling on South State Street. President Hoover quipped in his cover letter to the director "This letter must be intended for you. I do not carry on a business of searching basements!"

While the two men could laugh about the public's confusion, the bureaucrats at the FBI were not so amused. Perhaps the most telling example is a Memorandum for the Director dated November 13, 1935. It begins: "While listening to a radio program last night over NBC, I heard the comedian Jimmie Durante, say, in effect, to a traffic policeman who, according to the radio skit was trying to arrest, 'I am a personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover and all the G-Men...Yes, sir, I am a personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover and also his brother, Herbert Hoover.'" The memo goes on to emphasize that many Americans will not see the joke but accept the relationship as fact. The memo warns how harmful the misperception is to the FBI since the bureau is nonpartisan, and ends by encouraging "all Bureau speakers to get across the true state of affairs in this connection." The author of the memorandum should have looked on the bright side. Confusing the former President of the United States with the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was undoubtedly preferable to confusing either Hoover with a vacuum sweeper.

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