By Thomas F. Schwartz
December 1931 was like any other except that more Americans were feeling the effects of what would later be known as the Great Depression. Herbert and Lou Hoover had a long history of assisting those in need. The First Lady decided that the annual Christmas party would have a different emphasis. The invitations sent to guests read: “This is not like the Christmas parties you usually go to, where you get lots of toys and presents to take home, and very good things to eat. But it is a party where you bring toys and warm, gay sweaters or candy, or things other children would like who otherwise would not have much Christmas.” Throughout the month of December, Lou attended numerous events where she distributed gifts to children in need, often accompanied by her grandchildren, Peggy Ann and Herbert 3rd who went by the name of “Pete.”
One collection of toys went to a group of children near and dear to the Hoover family. When Herbert and Lou established the first presidential retreat along the Rapidan River in Virginia, they realized that the local children had no school to attend. Lou designed a school house, she and her husband purchased the building materials, and Lou interviewed several people and selected the teacher for the school. The Hoovers continued to pay the teacher’s salary until 1938 when the county was able to provide a public school for the children. Realizing that most of this rugged mountain population area did not have much disposable income to spend on Christmas, the Hoovers decided to send a Christmas tree and toys to the children who lived near Camp Rapidan.
Another group of children who lived in the mountains of West Virginia also received a Christmas surprise. A boxcar filled with toys made its way to Morgantown, West Virginia where children of unemployed coal miners got a gift from the many Santas who attended the White House party.
Perhaps the most treasured Christmas gift was received by Philip Ratto, Jr. a six year old patient in Eagleville Sanitarium in Philadelphia. His Christmas wish was to receive a card from First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. Christmas came and went without getting his wish. Finally on January 8 he received the following card: “My Dear Philip: Santa Claus told me you specially wanted a Christmas card from me—so I sent you one that I thought you would like best of all. Alas—there was a mistake in addressing it, and it has come back to me. I am sending it again—and I am so sorry that you have had this long delay. I hope you are getting well just as rapidly as possible, and that you had a merry Christmas. Lou Henry Hoover.”