by Spencer Howard
In August, 1928, Lou Henry Hoover visited her hometown of Waterloo as part of a trip through Iowa to kick off Herbert Hoover’s Presidential campaign. While Lou expected to be the center of attention, she did not anticipate the persistence of a local photographer who saw a business opportunity.
As the appointed day approached, the Waterloo Morning Tribune asked, “When, if ever, has Waterloo been so excited about a visitor? Small wonder tho – there isn’t a city in the United States that wouldn’t be beside itself if it were having a prospective First Lady of the Land in the form of Mrs. Hoover as its special guest.” More than 40 years had elapsed since the Henry family had moved to California, but many locals fondly remembered Lou as a “sweet and lovable school girl.”
While her husband spent the day in Cedar Rapids greeting delegation after delegation of Iowans eager to support his campaign, Lou drove north to Waterloo. The hurried program for the afternoon included two receptions at the Waterloo Woman’s Club and an intimate gathering at the Russell-Lamson hotel with a group of men and women with whom Lou had attended school, followed by an informal dinner and brief remarks. Hundreds of citizens turned out to welcome the town’s famous daughter, and prominent Republican women from all over the state assembled to greet her.
In the weeks following the visit, Lou received dozens of letters from Waterloo thanking her for the memorable visit, many recalling past acquaintance with Lou, others just offering congratulations or best wishes. Rhea Tibbitts, the mayor’s wife, sent a note describing Lou’s visit as Waterloo’s “Day of Days,” along with a gift: a small, custom-made photo album embossed “Memories of Waterloo, Iowa” containing photos of the event. Lou replied, “I am so glad to have this to remind me of my last very happy visit to my old home, when you were all so kind to me.” Lou also sent gracious notes to Harry Fergemann, of Jenkins-Fergemann Co., a print shop that had supplied the album cover, and George Mack of Macks Photo Shop, the photographer who had taken and printed the photographs.
George Mack saw an opening. “The writer was recalling the other day,” Mack wrote to Mrs. Hoover, shortly after Mr. Hoover’s inauguration, “of the time when we made a flash of you at the Russell-Lamson Hotel when you were in our City, and you ask [sic] to be ‘movie director.’ We would like to sell you a good movie camera. One that is ‘MADE IN IOWA’ and we are sure that it is the best on the market today.” He enclosed brochures for the Victor Ciné camera and projector, which indeed were manufactured in Davenport, Iowa by the Victor Animatograph Corporation. It was also true that Lou enjoyed taking still photographs and home movies, which may have prompted her light-hearted comment to Mack. (You can see examples of Lou’s home movies from the Hoover Library’s collections at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A4Y1593kf8.) Lou’s secretary replied to Mack, “Mrs. Hoover does have a supply of good moving picture cameras and projectors, and does not need any more at the present time. However, she does appreciate your remembering her visit to Waterloo!”
Mack wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. A few weeks later he wrote, “It gives us great pleasure to present to you, a honorary, life membership in Iowa’s First Amateur Movie Club, Waterloo Movie Makers,” and enclosed membership card #1. Lou’s secretary replied, perhaps too cheerfully, “Mrs. Hoover wishes me to thank you for your letter of July 19th and for the honor which you have done her in making her a life member of Iowa’s First Amateur Movie Club. I am sure when in Waterloo again, she will enjoy meeting with the movie makers and even in the direction of a scenario.”
Two more months passed and Mack wrote again, a long letter offering to drop a Victor camera off at the White House while he was in Washington for a photography convention, and asking Lou to collaborate on a “semi-historical film in connection with Mrs. Hoover, and her school girl days around Waterloo.” Lou’s secretary replied that Mrs. Hoover “has had so many requests for time to be spent on projects of many sorts in relation to pictures and manuscripts, that she finds it impossible to comply with any of them this year.”
Mack didn’t give up. Two years later, T. V. O’Connor, the Chairman of the United States Shipping Board, paid a visit to President Hoover’s West Wing offices, bringing a memo from one of his field agents, Frank Rusk, a Senior Examiner in the Bureau of Operations. Rusk had been assigned to staff an information booth promoting the Shipping Board at the Waterloo Cattle Congress, an annual event that was sort of a combination of county fair and national trade show for dairy producers.
According to Rusk, George Mack had approached him at the Cattle Congress, curious about the projector Rusk was using to show an informational film. Mack then pressured Rusk to take a movie camera back to Washington as a gift to Mrs. Hoover. Mack showed Rusk copies of the letters he had exchanged with Mrs. Hoover, along with photographs of Lou’s Waterloo Movie Makers card and the album that Mrs. Tibbitts had commissioned, to demonstrate his connection to Mrs. Hoover. “By this time,” wrote Rusk, “I was well enough acquainted with Mr. Mack to frankly question the propriety of the method of presentation he suggested, and explained to him the impossibility of my acting as his representative. He then suggested that possibly some member of the Board, preferably the Chairman, might desire to make the presentation.”
The President’s secretary passed the memo along to Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, and there is no documentation of further action. Lou may have responded with silence, hoping that Mack would give up, or she may have quietly sent word through an informal channel that Mack’s offer was not appreciated – she is reported to have used both tactics in other cases. In any event, George Mack may have finally taken the hint, because there is no evidence that he made any further attempt to contact Mrs. Hoover, or to send her a movie camera.