Small-town life shapes presidents

By Timothy Walch


Rick Perry has had a rough time as a presidential candidate. He’s been criticized for his controversial views on Social Security, the death penalty, illegal immigration and a myriad other social policies. Once a front-runner for the Republican nomination, he seems to be in a free fall after only a few debates.

Not to worry. Perry has a secret weapon in a town so small that it has to share a ZIP code. You see, Rick Perry hails from Paint Creek, Texas, current population about 5,900 residents. History indicates that this peculiar fact gives him an edge over other candidates.

What do I mean? Of the 19 men who have served in the White House since 1900, only four (Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama) were raised in big cities. The other 15 came from small towns such as Plymouth Notch, West Branch, Abilene, Plains and Hope. There seems to be something about small-town life that molds many young men and women into leaders.

That common theme is particularly true among the presidents born in the Midwest: Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. They are all included in “From Schoolhouse to White House: The Education of Our Presidents,” an exhibit that was at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch recently and will travel to other libraries and museums in the future.

At first glance, these men seem to have little in common other than geography. In the years before they entered politics, Hoover was an engineer; Truman, a shopkeeper; Eisenhower, a soldier; Ford, a lawyer; and Reagan, an actor.

Beyond their early career differences, however, are some startling similarities. They shared qualities such as ambition, perseverance, compassion and character — important for anyone seeking the Oval Office.

Each man was shaped by strong family traditions and this is evident in the exhibit.

Hoover, for example, had vivid memories of a pious mother and hardworking father. Eisenhower claimed that his mother ran the family household like a military camp. And Ford remembered that his parents had three rules: tell the truth, work hard and

get home to dinner on time.

These men also had firm moral values. “I had a stern grounding of religious faith,” Hoover recalled in his memoirs. Truman read the Bible from cover to cover as a young boy, and strict discipline was paramount for all of them. “In those days,” Ike said, “right was right and wrong was wrong, and you didn’t have to talk about it.”

They all grew up with daily chores. Truman milked cows, took care of the horses and split wood. Eisenhower worked at the local creamery, gathered eggs, washed dishes, cooked dinner and did the laundry. Ford removed ashes from the furnace early every morning, put in the day’s supply of coal and banked the furnace at night.

Helping out was common place for future presidents.

The exhibit shows how the values learned at home were enhanced in school. A careful review of the report cards and essays in the exhibit underscores that point. Spend a few minutes with Hoover’s essay, “Thank you, Miss Gray” to get a better understanding of the impact of teachers on future presidents.

Most important, these presidents never forgot their roots. “I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I was going back to,” remembered Ike.

Reagan agreed: “I think growing up in a small town is a good foundation for anyone who decides to enter politics. You get to

know people as individuals.”

All of these presidents enjoyed returning to the towns where they were raised.

It’s too soon to tell if Paint Creek will be Rick Perry’s secret weapon. There’s no question, however, that the values he learned in that small Texas town are the same qualities that we admire in everyone we elect to the highest office in the land.Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch. Comments:

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