Divided Loyalties: Herbert Hoover and the Rose Bowl

by Spencer Howard

The 2016 Rose Bowl Game will be a contest between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Stanford Cardinal.  The two football teams have never met on the gridiron, but the universities share a unique connection:  the thirty-first President of the United States, Herbert Hoover.

Herbert Hoover was born August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, ten miles from Iowa City and the University of Iowa.  His mother, Hulda Minthorn Hoover, had studied for a year in the “Preparatory Division” of the University, equivalent to a high school today.  The young Herbert Hoover experienced an idyllic childhood in the quiet Quaker town, but tragically lost both of his parents at an early age — his father died when he was six and his mother when he was nine.  Herbert and his siblings were sent to live with various relatives, and Herbert spent his teenage years living with an uncle in Oregon.

In 1891, Herbert Hoover dreamed of becoming a mining engineer, but as young man of little means, few options were open to him.  Hoover sought admission to a brand new university opening in Palo Alto, California, created by Sen. Leland Stanford as a memorial to his deceased son.  Stanford University offered a program in engineering, and more importantly for young Hoover, free tuition.  Hoover became a member of the “Pioneer Class,” and worked odd jobs during the summers and school years to pay for his board and room, books, and clothing.

Hoover graduated from Stanford in 1895 with a degree in geology and over the next 20 years amassed a fortune working as a mining engineer, consultant and financier.  During those years, Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover, who was also an Iowan by birth and a graduate of Stanford, maintained a home in Palo Alto.  Even though they traveled abroad for months at a time and lived in many great cities, Hoover declared unequivocally, “Stanford is the best place in the world.”  Hoover joined Stanford University’s board of trustees in 1912, and over the next 50 years served as promoter, fund-raiser and benefactor for his alma mater.

In 1928, when President Coolidge declined to run for a second full term of office, his highly successful Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, was nominated as the Republican candidate.  Hoover returned to West Branch to give a major campaign speech (one of just seven!) and to highlight his Iowa roots.  Hoover’s reputation, experience, and public popularity resulted in a landslide victory in the election.  He became the first President of the United States born west of the Mississippi River, and Stanford’s most famous alumnus.

In 1954 Hoover visited West Branch to celebrate his 80th birthday.  Three new elementary schools were named in his honor, and the University of Iowa awarded him his 80th honorary degree.  In his remarks that day, Hoover noted, “The most formative years of my boyhood were spent here. My roots are in this soil. This cottage where I was born is physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life.”

Six years later, Hoover chose to build his Presidential Library in West Branch, just steps away from his boyhood home.  Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964, and was buried on a hill overlooking his birthplace and Presidential Library.

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover at the Rose Bowl, January, 1934.
Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover at the Rose Bowl, January, 1934.

Herbert Hoover enjoyed football and attended Stanford games whenever he could, including the 1934 and 1936 Rose Bowl games.  Were he alive today, Hoover would undoubtedly take a diplomatic approach to the contest between the Hawkeyes and the Cardinal.  But while his roots and final resting place are in Iowa, I suspect his heart would be with his adopted California home.

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