Presidents had unusual stories, too

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 10, 2013

Did you know that Ronald Reagan’s daddy was a shoe salesman? That Richard Nixon’s father owned a gasoline and grocery store? That Dwight D. Eisenhower’s father was a mechanic? And that Lyndon B. Johnson’s daddy was a politician, farmer, and broker?

I ran across those bits of information as I researched presidents and presidents’ wives for a program I gave years ago. As I have often mentioned, I am a pack rat. The information I had gathered from several books and encyclopedias turned up in a notebook stashed on a shelf in my office as I pondered a subject for today’s column.

I discovered that our 21st, 22nd, and 23rd presidents’ fathers were ministers. The father of our 21st president, Chester Arthur, was a Baptist clergyman. Grover Cleveland, the 22nd president, was the son of a Congregational preacher. The father of Woodrow Wilson, the 23rd president, served Presbyterian congregations. President Wilson’s wife was a minister’s daughter. Presidents John Adams, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison also married women whose fathers were ministers.

Two presidents married women who were widows: Mrs. George (Martha) Washington and Mrs. Thomas (Martha) Jefferson. First Ladies Mrs. Millard (Abigail) Fillmore, Mrs. Benjamin (Caroline) Harrison, and Mrs. Woodrow (Edith) Wilson married presidents who were widowers.

Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield all served as generals in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Fourteen vice presidents became presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George Bush.

Anna Harrison, first lady of President William Harrison, was the first wife of a president who attended school on a regular basis. Mrs. Julia Grant attended boarding school. Mrs. Warren (Florence) Harding took courses at a music conservatory. Mrs. Bess Truman graduated from high school at Independence, Mo., and attended Girl’s School in that state. Mrs. Jimmy (Rosalynn) Carter was valedictorian of her Plains, Ga., high school class and completed a two-year secretarial course at Georgia Southwestern College. She later studied accounting and Spanish.

Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Carter were involved in their family businesses before their husbands became presidents. Mrs. Harding was a circulation manager for a Marion, Ohio, newspaper. Mrs. Carter worked as a bookkeeper at the peanut warehouse.

Several first ladies distinguished themselves in the business world. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, bought an Austin, Texas, radio station that became a national broadcasting concern. Mrs. Gerald (Betty) Ford was a model, dancer and fashion coordinator for a department store. She organized a dance troupe and taught dance to handicapped students. President Richard Nixon’s First Lady Pat Nixon worked her way through college as a sales clerk and movie extra. After graduation, she taught commercial courses in high school.

The last person to receive the privilege of free use of the mails for presidents’ widows (through enactment in the 1800s) was President Dwight Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie.