I congratulate you on getting a portrait of the fine American for whom your beautiful modern school is named. A portrait tells a lot about a man, and this one happily depicts him at the time he was Governor of Virginia, the happiest four years of his life.
Record of Public Service:
Here is a man who served his country for 46 years, first as a member of Congress for 13 years, then as Governor for 4 years, next as United States Senator for 23 years, and finally as Secretary of the Navy for 6 years. First, the people of the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia - the section of southern Virginia in which Danville is the largest city - elected him in 1892 to represent them in the Congress of the United States. They re-elected him in the next six consecutive elections. Then in 1905, exactly 50 years ago, the people of the whole state chose him for their Governor. Next, the man who followed him as Governor appointed him in 1910 to represent the State of Virginia in the United States Senate, and he was elected and re-elected to the Senate by the people of Virginia until in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States, Claude Swanson was chosen by the President to be Secretary of the Navy because of his special interest in and knowledge of the Navy. He had been a member of the Naval Affairs Committee of the Senate for 22 years and had served as chairman of that committee during World War I.
Although his work in Washington make him a strong influence in national and international affairs, it was the Governorship of Virginia which he told me he enjoyed the most. He left a record for progress that no Governor before or after has beaten.
Term as Governor:
You young people today are blessed with a fine educational system. You may be horrified to learn that, when Swanson became Governor, there were only 75 high schools in the State. During his 4 year administration this number rose to over 400. Whereas before, the counties had lacked the money to build schools, Swanson took the State Literary Fund which had been on deposit in bank and loaned it to the school authorities for the purpose of paying one-half the cost of new school buildings. To reduce the shortage of qualified teachers, he doubled the number of state teachers colleges from two to four. In order that all those responsible for the education of Virginia's young people - the teachers, superintendents, and school boards - might be better informed and coordinated, he promoted the formation of the Virginia Education Association, which is still flourishing today. Remembering how hard it was for him as a boy to get books he wanted to read, outside of his father's library, he established traveling and circulating libraries for the benefit of the schools and the book-thirsty public. When he left office the impartial Carnegie Foundation report contained this statement: "Probably no educational development in any state in the Union is more marked than that which is represented in the Old Commonwealth of Virginia." I wish that succeeding governors had earned the same praise.
Swanson's governorship was conspicuous in a number of other advances. The first State Health Department was organized, the first State Tuberculosis Sanitarium was founded, the minimum age at which children might work was raised, the maximum hours of labor for women and children was lowered, and the State Highway Department was established. There were only 500 registered automobile owners in Virginia when Swanson became Governor but the number of cars was increasing rapidly. Pavements stopped at the city limits. Swanson initiated the first serious attempt to improve the roads and so became the father of the present extensive state highway system.
We could talk for hours about Claude Swanson's public service record. But let's look at the personal side of his career. James A. Farley said, "He had a personal record that even surpasses his distinguished public career, and I doubt if any man in public life made a greater number of friends than this great Virginia gentleman."
How does one explain a man making such a mark in the world? Is it a matter of luck?
I think not. I believe that in the case of Claude A. Swanson, success was a matter of a young fellow taking the simple tools that God bestows on most people and making them useful. Some of us fail to do that. How often you see a boy with a good mind which is going to seed simply because he won't exercise it, or a girl with a real gift for friendliness, yet making no friends because she waits for other girls to make the first approach! A Swanson Junior High School student, I'll wager, doesn't waste his natural talents that way, because it just doesn't fit in with the name Swanson.
Claude A. Swanson started life with an ordinary set of talents and he developed them extraordinarily. Born on a farm in Southside Virginia, he worked on the farm as a boy. Education was hard to get in those days. This was in the reconstruction period following the War between the States and times were tough. He craved education and determined to get it. Most of his early learning came from reading the books on his father's shelves. At the age of 16 he studied for the examinations which were given anyone who wanted to become a school teacher. Granted, the standards were not as high then as they are now. Nevertheless, he was extremely young to try, and he passed. So at 16 he became the master of a one-room country school with students ranging in age from the ABC's to your seniors. He walked the 5 miles from home to the school every day and saved the $30 a month salary to advance his own education, for his father was too poor to send him to college. At 17, having saved up a little over $200, he went to college at V.P.I. for one year. Then, funds depleted, he had to leave college and go to work again. This time he found a job paying $40 in a store in Danville.
During his second year at Danville an opportunity turned up of which he took full advantage. Having become secretary of one of the Sunday Schools in town, he was appointed to make a speech at a Sunday School Convention. While other young folks were preparing papers to read at the meeting he drafted the very best address he could and memorized it so that he could deliver it without looking at a paper. His speech made such a hit that three prominent business men decided to offer him the money to complete his college education. He made a further hit with them when he turned down their offer, but said he would borrow the money if they would lend it to him. This they were glad to do.
He was anxious to justify the confidence which these men felt in his abilities. This time he went to Randolph-Macon College and entered into student activities in earnest. He wrote for the college magazine and took up debating and declaiming. in his first year he won the college medal for oratory, the highest honor the college bestowed. He helped defray his expenses at college by editing a county weekly newspaper. As these were times of great political turmoil in Virginia, his editorial work sharpened his interest in politics.
By the time he graduated form Randolph-Macon he had determined to become a lawyer, so entered the University of Virginia to study law. Although law was then a two-year course, he worked so hard that he got his law degree in one year. Now he began the practice of law at Chatham in his home county of Pittsylvania. This led to his involvement in politics and decision to run for Congress.
Let's stop here and take a look at how he developed the ordinary tools which God had given him. Well, first, there was the tool we call ambition. Everybody has some of this. It is simply the desire to do something well. How often we let this desire starve for lack of nourishment! Perhaps we have tried to do something but found that somebody else does it better. Then we feel sorry for ourselves, and we're afraid to try it again. So we stop nursing this particular desire and it withers and dries up. On the other hand, sometimes we find ourselves actually doing well the thing we have persistently tried. This whets the ambition to do more. One thing leads to another. Success begets success. Claude Swanson had ambition and he nourished it and that ambition grew.
Tools of Success:
Let's name a few more tools he used.
- Speaking ability
- Honesty and integrity
His friendliness developed as he went out of his way to make friends. People were drawn to him by his affability, his evident interest in them, and the warmth of his handshake. He really loved people.
His big-heartedness was demonstrated in the way he would engage in a political battle but when the contest was decided, he would shake hands and forget every bitter word that had been said. he could truly forgive and forget. This is a measure of greatness. Smaller men find that enmities rankle in their hears for years. One of the bitterest campaigns he successfully fought was against Carter Glass for the Senate in the Democratic Primary of 1911. In later years Glass and he served in the Senate together and Glass was asked how he explained a feeling that had changed to devotion for Swanson. He replied, "How can you resist a man who always goes out of his way to be so friendly?"
In connection with Swanson's reputations for absolute honesty and integrity, everyone who know him remembers his frequent advice, "When in doubt, do right." When you are confronted by different choices, and you aren't quite sure what to do, choose the way that you know in your heart is right - regardless of whether it may be painful, or unpopular, or what.
His vision was broad. I believe that vision develops largely from trying to understand all sides of a problem. His vision played a large part in building up our Navy while he was Secretary, so that we had the best Navy in the world when World War II came along.
Mind. His was a sound one to start with. Thinking made it keener.
Memory. Finding that people like to be called by name, he determined to stretch his memory to recall names, and developed the power to recall every name that he heard. Years after seeing someone, he would bump into them again and immediately recognize them by name. This ability had much to do with his keeping friends and winning votes.
There is the tool of speech. He practiced it at every chance. He used to laugh as he recounted some of his early efforts at public speaking, but with practice he gained eloquence, and his eloquence became one of his best assets. He developed picturesque language and the power to tell stories well. Let me illustrate what I mean by picturesque language. I remember several instances of his taking words that everyone uses and putting them together in the form of a picture. He said symbolically of Senator Martin, "If you went bear hunting with him, you could be sure he would not turn and run at the sight of the bear." Doesn't that give you a good idea of how bold and dependable Senator Martin was? Swanson was accused of being on the fence, or failing to make his views clearly known, on the liquor question when running for Governor, and replied, "I have never known but four men who could sit on a fence when a battle was raging, without being knocked off - Napoleon, Lee, Jackson, & Swanson."
In the Democratic Convention of 1912, when the Virginia delegation was splitting its votes between Clark, Underwood and Wilson, and things were at an impasse, he told his colleague, Senator Martin, that the Virginians had "taken a fall on the political ice and if they lay still on the ice any longer they would catch political pneumonia." He said, "Let's get up in the morning and go skating with Wilson." This advice was accepted, and next morning the whole Virginia delegation voted together for Wilson. A lengthy stalemate in the convention was broken. Other states hopped aboard the bandwagon and Woodrow Wilson was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President.
Now for the story telling ability, which illustrates his sense of humor. Let me thing of some samples. Here is one he liked to tell on himself. In the country districts nearly everybody raised corn and knew the difference between a good ear and a poor shriveled little nubbin of corn. After taking on debate with some of the local fellows who thought they knew a lot and arguing them down, he would say, "I believe I have shucked enough nubbins, but if there is another that needs shucking, bring him out!" Following several of these debates with poorly posted local speakers, the newspapers dubbed him, "Swanson the Nubbin Shucker."
Another story he loved to repeat concerned a lawyer named Lew Summers who was defending an Italian in a lawsuit. The Italian owned a trained cinnamon bear which performed tricks. He was arrested because the bear had scared some horses on the road. In court the lawyer, Lew Summers, became quite eloquent. He said he had traveled all over the world and he had seen and Italian and his bear performing for money, unmolested by police, in such famous places as Trafalgar Square in London, Central Park in New York, and in front of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. "And to the disgrace of Russell County, Virginia," he said, "this is the only place in the world where the Italian and his cinnamon bear cannot perform, unmolested!" Here the judges broke in, "Lew, I'll listen to no more of this nonsense. You've never been any further from here than Lynchburg in your life."
Claude Swanson also enjoyed telling about a fellow Congressman who was asked by a voter for a job - a small job as a fourth class postmaster. The Congressman wrote a letter to the Postmaster General recommending this man and gave it to him to deliver. He was surprised when the man read the letter and complained, "Your recommendation is strong enough to get me a job as a Cabinet Officer, a White House assistant, or an Ambassador - everything but the little fourth class postmastership which I want."
Now, in closing, may I say that, as you look in the days to come at the portrait which has been unveiled here this afternoon, I hope you will see not only the face but the character of Claude Swanson. You are all building character right now as you grow. You could not have a better example than this before you. The County, the State, the Nation need more men and women like Claude A. Swanson. You certainly have a glimpse of the way to build. I hope you will pursue it.