Updated: Apr 23, 2021
The Secret keeper of Presidents- The Story of Ike Hoover
On September 17, 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt sent a telegram to the widows of former Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and to former President Herbert Hoover. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt certainly had a lot on his plate. What was the reason for the telegram? President Roosevelt was sharing his grief over the death of “Ike” Hoover, who for 42 years was the chief usher of the White House. This was a man who these presidential families knew and respected a great deal. According to FDR “It was Ike Hoover who met me at the door when I first came into the White House as my home…his passing is a tremendous personal loss…The nation, too, has lost a true and faithful public servant.”
Irwin Hood Hoover was born in 1871 and began his career as an electrician working for Thomas Edison. In 1891, he was sent by Edison to assist in installing electricity in the White House. Electricity in homes was still a relatively untested and unknown improvement in 1891 and President Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline were afraid of this new technology. They were so afraid, in fact, that they asked Hoover to stay at the White House to help with the transition to electric power. Over the next few years his responsibilities increased until President William McKinley named him chief usher. What does a chief usher do? Among Hoover’s responsibilities were the running of all social functions of the house, the presentation of credentials from foreign dignitaries, the arrangement of seating at White House dinners and he is generally the man seen holding the Presidents umbrella. Time Magazine in its March 4, 1929 issue describes Hoover as “…he who inspects all callers, engineers all receptions, arranges all of the First Lady’s teas and sends the White House motor hither and yon”. The magazine described Hoover as tall and dignified, but what struck me as inspirational about Ike Hoover was not his dignified look, but his consistently dignified character throughout his 42 years of service. Through the administrations of nine presidents, I am sure Hoover overheard more than his share of “presidential secrets”. It is rumored that he was offered $50,000 to write a “tell-all” book about his White House experience, which he turned down. “When I pass out, everything goes with me”, Hoover calmly explained.
At some point, Hoover did record his memoirs, which were published the year after his death. These memoirs, however, were a witty perspective of the American landscape over his years of service, and not the scandalous gossip sheet that they could have been. His commentaries on the presidents that he served ranged from his colorful descriptions of Theodore Roosevelt’s children turning the White House upside down with activity after William McKinley’s quiet, dignified tenure, McKinley’s constant cigar smoking and a touching description of the devastation of the stroke that disabled President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.
Some of his duties were humble and he was treated with varying degrees of respect by different administrations. He oversaw the weddings of both Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice and Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Eleanor. He was privy to the courtship of President Wilson with his second wife Edith Galt after the death of Wilson’s first wife Ellen in 1915. Some leaders, however, were less friendly. President Herbert Hoover (no relation) resorted to not speaking to most of the White House staff during the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Nonetheless from the early 1890’s to the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in 1933, Ike Hoover ran the White House like a smooth machine. Democrat or Republican, it made no difference to Hoover. This is the inspiration I found in Hoover. Here is a man who did his best work behind the scenes, who was obviously excellent at what he did and who displayed discretion and respect both for the office of President and for the men who held the office and their families. He can be held as an excellent example of work ethic, discipline and devotion to duty.
DON’T MISS IT!
For an intimate look at the life of White House servant staff, view the DVD Backstairs at the White House, a 1979 mini-series based on Lillian Rogers Park’s memoir My Thirty Years at the White House. In the movie, Ike Hoover is portrayed by actor Leslie Nielsen.
2. Although out of print, copies of Ike Hoover’s memoir Forty-Two Years in The White House are available at used bookstores and large excerpts are available online.
3. The White House usher is often seen holding the President’s umbrella. It a humble job, but important. Whose umbrella do you hold? Become an umbrella holder, do something out of the limelight because it is the right thing do to, without seeking the credit for it. 4. There is a common saying “Loose lips sink ships”. Imagine the discretion and self-discipline that Ike Hoover must have possessed. Are you as trustworthy? Begin today to be a person that others can trust. 5. Ike Hoover was originally hired to wire the White House, a six month job. He stayed for 42 years. You never know where today’s adventure will lead. No matter what you do, put your stamp of excellence on it and you may find yourself invited to stay on longer than you ever expected.