William H. Woodin At Treasury
PLUCKED FROMLILY POND LANETOPENNSYLVANIA AVENUE
By John Tepper Marlin
The President’s opponents savaged him and his Treasury Secretary for printing greenbacks overtime, for pushing the U.S.budget deficit sky-high, for lowering the value of the dollar. But the President inherited the mess that he had to deal with – the bad loans, insolvent banks, high unemployment. Days after his inauguration, the President hit the nail on the head with this statement:
Some of our bankers had shown themselves either incompetent or dishonest in their handling of the people’s funds. They had used the money entrusted to them in speculations and unwise loans. … It was the Government’s job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible. And the job is being performed.
The President, of course, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the quote is from the first of his famous Fireside Chats. The man he picked to perform the job as Treasury Secretary was a truly fascinating resident of 105 Lily Pond Lane inEast Hampton named William H. Woodin, who was called by FDR toWashington like Cincinnatus from his plow.
Who was this East Ender that FDR decided to make his Chief Financial Officer? Are lessons hiding in that historic first year that can guide us today as we recover from the meltdown of2008 inan eerie echo of the post-1929 years?
Woodin was a lifelong Republican – he ran as a Republican for Congress in 1898, losing narrowly, and was appointed Fuel Administrator by New YorkRepublican Governor Nathan Miller in 1922. Afan of Theodore Roosevelt, he came around to supporting Democrat Al Smith and FDR as governors of New YorkState. A neighbor of FDR at 67thand Fifth Avenue inNew York City, Woodin evoked theirNew York connection by calling FDR “Governor” all the time he served him inWashington.
Will Woodin lived for the first time inNew York Citywhen he was sent to the Columbia University School of Mines. He was born in the coal-and-steel hills ofPennsylvania, inBerwick,Pa., west ofWilkes-Barre. His father and grandfather ran the Jackson & Woodin foundry that made railroad wheels and rolling stock. Will wanted to become a physician but was told to prepare to work in his father’s business. He was married in his senior year to Annie Jessup, later called by her familyNan.
Will had a great sense of humor.Nan’s birth family included many strait-laced Presbyterians with missionary zeal and down-to-earth Will couldn’t wait to puncture their self-righteousness. His granddaughter Anne Harvey Gerli tells this story:
When cousins ofNanpaid her a visit at “The Heights” in Berwick for the first time, the Woodins’ coachman picked them up at the Berwick train station and dropped them off at the front door to be met inside byNan. The cousins then suggested to her that the Woodins might consider hiring a new coachman because he, ahem, reeked of alcohol, drove erratically and was rude. Will joined them later and expressed deep sympathy, butNanwas puzzled because they didn’t have a coachman. In fact the “coachman” was Will, dressed up, playing a trick on his proper new in-laws.
His practical jokes overflowed out of the home. It was a great day in his family when Will was able after three years’ apprenticeship to cast a wheel by himself in the Berwick foundry. His grandson Charlie Miner says that when Will was asked soon afterwards to show some visitors how he did it, he changed the mold – so when the cooling time was over and the top was ceremonially lifted, it did not reveal a shining railway wheel but instead… a cast-iron frog.
Although he returned to the family anthill in Berwick as his father wished, Will’s musical and writing talent disposed him to be a cricket. After finishing hisColumbiastudies and marrying Annie Jessup, he went toEuropeand theNear Eastto report for the New York Herald and other papers on Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s provocation and killing of Armenians, a foreshadowing of later mass killings. But his granddaughter Ms. Gerli tells the story fromNan’s perspective:
Nanwas jealous of Will’s love of music and resented his going off toEuropeto play music with the gypsies. The family recalled him early because his father and the family business were ailing. He dutifully hurried home to help out in the business and support his family.