Berwick farm boy became father of comparative economics
MONMOUTH, Ill. — It seems improbable that a humble farm boy from Berwick, Ill., would become one of the world’s leading economists, help the Allies defeat Hitler and be awarded the Medal of Freedom, but those are only a handful of the accomplishments of Calvin Bryce Hoover.
Born to a railroad section foreman in 1897, young Bryce (as he was known) worked with his father on the railroad and on their tenant farm during breaks from school. In June 1910, after receiving his 8th-grade diploma from the Berwick schools, he was sent to live in Monmouth, so that he and his sister could attend Monmouth High School. It was a hardship for the family, as tuition had to be paid by students living outside the Monmouth district, but the children earned their room and board working as servants.
Bryce’s father, who was well-read, recognized brilliance in his son and was determined to prepare him for college. He never dreamed, however, that his son would one day become the dean of Duke University’s graduate school and widely considered the founder of the field of comparative economics.
From an early age, Bryce Hoover became fascinated with the economic systems of world nations. His first exposure to Europeans came in the summer of 1913, when he worked as a timekeeper for gangs of Greek immigrants working on the railroads in Mercer County. That same year, at age 16, Hoover was named an alternate for an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, but the opportunity to attend never arose.
Graduating from Monmouth High School in 1914, Hoover entered Monmouth College, where he was active in the Eccritean literary society and became assistant editor for the student newspaper. Also in the literary society was Takashi Komatsu, a brilliant Japanese student, who would later become a steamship executive for his native country. Hoover listened intently to Komatsu’s detailed descriptions of the Japanese economy. He also began teaching “ESL” classes to immigrants from Greece, Mexico, China and Italy.
As war in Europe grew increasingly fierce, Hoover became an advocate for U.S. intervention. In the spring of 1917, he left Monmouth College and enlisted in Company H of the Illinois National Guard. He was sent to Texas for training, and before heading overseas he became engaged to a college classmate, Miss Faith Sprole. He arrived in France in June 1918 as a corporal in Battery D of the 123rd Heavy Field Artillery. For several weeks, he had an enjoyable sojourn, rooming with a French family and taking in the local sites, while attending school in the evenings.
Eventually, Hoover’s unit would be involved in battles in the Lorraine, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. It was mustered out in June 1919, and Hoover returned home to Warren County, where he was named principal of the Youngstown schools, at a salary of $115 per month. In July, he and Faith were married.
In 1920, the Hoovers moved to Eagle Grove, Iowa, where he briefly returned to farming, and where their first daughter, Carol, was born. Bryce then became principal of Goldfield (Iowa) High School, but his desire to continue his education caused him to return to Monmouth College in early 1922.
After earning his bachelor’s degree that spring, Hoover enrolled in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. In 1923, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Minnesota, while finishing his doctorate at Wisconsin. His second daughter, Sylvia, was born in Minneapolis in 1924.
With his doctorate in hand, 28-year-old Hoover accepted an assistant professorship in economics at Duke University, where he would remain on the faculty for the next 41 years., serving as chairman of the economics department for 20 years.
In 1929, Hoover was sent overseas to research banking in the Soviet Union for a year. Accompanied by his young family, he set up base in Dresden, Germany. During that year, he also conducted in-depth research on the rise of the Nazi party — information that would lead to publication of an influential book, “Germany Enters the Third Reich,” and cement his reputation as an acknowledged expert on Hitler’s economic regime.
In 1934, Hoover would presciently tell a reporter, “The people of the United States might learn something from the present situation in Germany. Many Americans are in the habit of talking glibly about dictatorships and the necessity for one in this country. Others describe the Roosevelt administration as dictatorship. The events in Germany may help to present a clearer picture of what such governments really mean in action and to show how erroneous are such ideas.”
Hoover was named an economic adviser to the Department of Agriculture in 1935, and that summer was awarded an honorary degree by Monmouth College.
Because of his vast knowledge of the German economy, Hoover was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, eventually becoming head of Northern European operations in Sweden. His group successfully located Nazi synthetic oil plants, which were destroyed by aerial bombing. This grounded the Luftwaffe, setting the stage for the successful invasion of Normandy.
After the war, as an adviser to Gen. Lucius Clay, Hoover prepared the Hoover Report, which established Germany’s postwar level of production. An active participant in the implementation of the Marshall Plan, Hoover in 1947 was awarded the Medal of Freedom, a decoration established by President Truman to honor civilians who were influential in the war effort.
The author of eight books and 100 articles, Hoover conducted economic research in the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. He retired from Duke in 1967 and lived until 1974.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.