Friday, April 25, 2014

The governor next door: Leo & Mary Louise Hoegh

These images of Leo and Mary Louise Hoegh and members of their family --- plus a photo of the billboard that greeted visitors to Chariton during 1955-56 --- kept me occupied for a couple of hours Thursday. The originals have been displayed in a case with other Hoegh memorabilia for years, and it's time to retire them to archival storage.

So I scanned the photos at high resolution, printed out copies, affixed the copies with mounting adhesive to foam board, trimmed the results --- and these copies will go into the case instead. The Hoeghs donated the family photos; the billboard photo was used to illustrate a Des Moines Sunday Register article not long after the sign was erected.

Hoegh was a one-term Iowa governor who after brief appointments to posts in Washington, D.C., washed his hands of competitive politics and returned to private life --- in Colorado. So he isn't widely remembered, even in his hometown. And that's too bad. 

A talented athlete, Hoegh was a skilled attorney, a highly decorated World War II veteran, a Chariton civic leader --- and an excellent governor of great promise. But he was a progressive Republican at a time when Iowa Republicans had little interest in being progressive. Nor did the fact he was modestly pro-union shake labor votes loose from the Democrats. So he went down to defeat in November of 1956.


Leo was born during 1908 in Audubon County. A grandson of Danish immigrants, his parents --- William and Annie (Johnson) Hoegh --- were successful farmers and bankers at Elk Horn. Leo earned his B.A. degree from the University of Iowa during 1929 and his law degree, during 1932. He was an honors student at the U of I, lettered in swimming and captained the water polo team.

First day in the governor's mansion.
During 1931, the family bank in Elk Horn failed even though Leo's parents had liquidated nearly all of their assets in an attempt to save it. As a result, William Hoegh, who had been involved in the Federal Land Bank program since 1917, secured a managerial position in the National Farm Loan Association program in south central Iowa and moved his family to Chariton.

Leo, who had practiced briefly in Cedar Rapids, joined his parents at Chariton during May of 1933 and establised his law practice here. In Chariton, he met and during 1936 married Mary Louise Foster, daughter of Ellis S. and E. Alice Foster. Ellis Foster was the long-time manager of Spurgeon's variety store.

Also during 1936, Hoegh was elected to his first term in the Iowa House, where he served until 1942 when his Iowa National Guard unit was called up. Assigned to the 104th Infantry Division, he rose from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel (a battlefield promotion), and for his gallantry was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Croix de guerre, Legion of Honour and three battle stars. After the war, he wrote a history of his division, familiarly known as Timberwolf, called Timberwolf Tracks.

Janis Hoegh with her grandparents, Alice and Ellis Foster.
Although he re-entered Iowa politics after the war, Hoegh failed to win elective office. He was, however, appointed Iowa Attorney General during 1953. Thus positioned, he ran successfully for governor on the Republican ticket during 1954.

Looking back years later, Hoegh wrote a brief accounting of his record as governor for Lucas County's 1978 history, which reads in part as follows:

His platform included improved education, more state aid for education, increased funds for higher education, improved mental institutions, better roads, more industries for Iowa, good government and balanced budgets --- pay as you go.

(During his administration), 1,600 miles of Iowa's 16- and 18-foot highways were widened to 24 feet  and 67 bridges were widened from 18 feet to 30 feet.

State government operated efficiently and honestly and the state budget was balanced by an increase of the sales tax from 2 to 2 1/2 percent. This latter helped to bring about his defeat for a second term.

During his term of office he was successful in moving 43 new industries to Iowa.

Mental institutions were changed from custodial to cure and care. A special Mental Health Policy Committee was created and its recommendations were put into place.

In addition, Hoegh backed reapportionment to give cities balanced representation in state government, convened the first state panel to investigate job discrimination based upon race and religion and supported lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

Time magazine put Hoegh on its cover shortly before the 1956 election, noting that his progressive record was a major issue. "His principal problem is that he has caught the spirit of an era that is beginning to recognize the need for a resurgence of good local and state government — and, in doing so. he has perhaps stirred his quiet state too much," Time wrote. "But if he has gone too far too fast, he can take a governor's small comfort from the conviction that one year — if not this year — his state will forget the anthills and look with satisfaction on the considerable movements of home-grown progressive government."

Ron Brown/Find A Grave
Plagued by his own disgrunted conservative base and an inability to overcome labor distrust of Republicans in general, Hoegh was defeated by Democrat Herschel C. Loveless, then mayor of Ottumwa, who carried a number of his predecessor's progressive initiatives forward.

President Eisenhower, familiar with Hoegh both as a military officer and governor, named him federal administrator of civil defense in July of 1957, and the family then moved permanently from Chariton. He also served as director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization and as a member of the National Security Council during the Eisenhower administration.

With the election of John F. Kennedy as president, the Hoegh family left Washington and moved to the Chicago area where he worked briefly in the private sector. He then re-established his law practice in Colorado during 1964, and the Hoeghs remained Colorado residents until their deaths.

The Hoeghs were living in Colorado Springs when Mary Louise died at the age of 92 on June 4, 2000. Leo Hoegh died five weeks later, on July 15, 2000, also 92. They are buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs.

The tombstone they share is a simple boulder, deeply inscribed. There is no mention of the fact a former Iowa governor is buried here. The Hoeghs were survived by their daughters, Kristin and Janis, and a grandchild.

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