Hitching a Ride with a President

By Thomas Schwartz

California Map, credit: www.180360.com
Credit: http://www.180360.com

John Wade Gordon stood along a hot, dusty California highway not far from Petaluma hoping to hitch a ride to Sausalito ferry about forty miles south.  Gordon had relocated to California from Memphis, Tennessee is search of better prospects.  It was August 24, 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 hoping to attract a modern-day Good Samaritan.  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 surprised to be 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 and engaging a President could be to a young stranger sporting a heavy Southern accent.  Working as a mechanic to raise the money for the trip, describing his 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 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 his mother.  Arriving at the ferry, Hoover suggested that Gordon join him for a bite to eat guessing that the hitch hiker 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 had in purchasing a suit of clothing.  Suspicion arose with the salesperson by a young man 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 the New York Life Insurance Company.  Hoover served on the board of directors for the company.  When Gordon tried to repay his debt to Hoover, the President refused payment.  It took Gordon’s mother to write Hoover a letter of rebuke, chastising him for not allowing her son to be a responsible adult in honoring his debt obligations.  Assuaging Mrs. Gordon’s wrath, Hoover accepted repayment from her son John.  Over the years, John 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.

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