Harold Ickes was the administrator of the Public Works Administration (PWA) from 1933 to 1939 and Secretary of the Interior from 1933 to 1946. He was a major force driving the New Deal, impeccably honest, and intolerant of civil and human rights abuses. He was also a fiery and irascible leader and, in recognition of his pugnacious personality, he titled his memoirs, The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon.
Harold LeClair Ickes was born in Blair County, Pennsylvania on March 15, 1874, to Jesse Ickes and Martha McCune, and was the second of the couple’s seven children. The young Ickes grew up in poverty, had an inattentive father, and was somewhat introverted. When Harold was sixteen his mother died, and he and his nine-year-old sister Amelia moved to Chicago to live with their aunt Ada and uncle Felix. There, Harold worked in his uncle’s drugstore and attended Englewood High School. With the strong support of a teacher, Agnes Rogers, he earned good grades, became class president, improved his public speaking, and eventually enrolled at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, college was not a pleasant experience. Though he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1897, the cost of tuition and financial strain during those years left a lasting scar. He would later suggest, “…that the price I paid for my education was too high and that, if I had to do it over again, I would not undertake it” .
After college, Ickes began working as a newspaper reporter, ending up at the Chicago Tribune. It was during these years, 1898-1902, that he developed an intense interest in politics. Ickes then earned a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School and passed the bar exam in 1907 . He found legal work uninteresting, however, and “practiced infrequently” . In 1911 he married Anna Wilmarth Thompson, and the following year he began pursuing a political career. Over the next two decades, he would promote and work with “Republicans, Bull Moosers, independent Republicans, LaFollette-progressives and New Deal Democrats” . Sadly, Anna Thompson died in a car accident in 1935; Ickes later married Jane Dahlman.
As administrator of the PWA, Ickes oversaw the funding of thousands of large infrastructure projects all across America, including bridges, dams, airports, hospitals, and highways . He was an enthusiastic advocate for public works, heralding the many direct and indirect benefits they yielded to employment, economic recovery and regional development. As Secretary of the Interior, he was also responsible for many government agencies critical to the New Deal, including the Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Office of Indian Affairs, and Division of Territories .
Ickes was a firm defender of the disadvantaged, victimized, and racialized. As Secretary of the Interior he helped eliminate a whites-only hiring system for support staff in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and worked to improve conditions on American Indian reservations. During World War II, he proposed that Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis be given safe haven in the Virgin Islands or Alaska, and when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, he described the policy as “both stupid and cruel” and wrote to President Roosevelt that the camps were turning “thousands of well-meaning and loyal Japanese into angry prisoners” .
Ickes died on February 3, 1952, at the age of 77, survived by his second wife and their two children, Harold M. and Elizabeth Jane, as well as by two children from his previous marriage, son Raymond and adopted daughter Frances. President Harry Truman eulogized Ickes thus: “A unique figure in American public life is lost to the nation…Forthright and fearless, loyal always to the public interest…He was withal a true patriot and a many-sided citizen whose passing leaves a void in our national life not easily filled” . Today, Americans still utilize thousands of infrastructure projects constructed under the supervision of Harold Ickes.
Sources: (1) T.H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes, 1874-1952, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990, pp.11-58. (2) Ibid., pp. 58-93. (3) Ibid., p. 94, and see next note. (4) “Harold Ickes Dead at 77; Colorful Figure in New Deal,” New York Times, February 4, 1952. (5) See, e.g., Public Works Administration, America Builds: The Record of PWA, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939. (6) See, e.g., “Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1936,” Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936. (7) See note 1, pp. 537, 642-643, 672-673, and 792-793. (8) See note 4.