James J. McEntee was placed in charge of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) after Robert Fechner died on December 31, 1939. McEntee had been executive assistant to Fechner from the beginning of the CCC program and a friend long before that. He headed up the CCC until its termination in 1942 .
McEntee was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1884. After school, he left to study engineering at the Cooper Institute (now the Cooper Union) in New York City. Afterward, McEntee worked as an apprentice for the Blair Tool Works and then as a machinist for the Rogers Electrical Company and the U.S. Long Distance Automobile Company (where he helped design an early one-cylinder car). In 1911, McEntee became a representative for the International Association of Machinists (IAM) (now the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers). In that position, he helped settle strikes, “and was a constant worker for the eight-hour movement for shipyard employees” .
During the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson placed McEntee on the New York Arbitration Board, where he negotiated maritime labor disputes and through which he met Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt . In his work with the IAM, McEntee became friends with Robert Fechner and he followed Roosevelt and Fechner to Washington in 1933.
McEntee was passionate about the mission and accomplishments of the CCC. In a book he wrote in 1940, he pointed out the many benefits of the CCC for young men, including the development of tolerance: “Living together in barracks with other young men has a profound effect in teaching enrollees to respect the rights of others and to be tolerant of the ideas and beliefs of others. It teaches them to be good sports and to take minor defeats without flinching. These are traits of character which they will find exceedingly valuable in later life” .
Because of the CCC’s many great contributions to young men and to conservation, McEntee believed that the CCC should be made into a permanent organization: “The work the CCC boys are doing is of great importance to the nation. Much of it is so extremely important that it should be done during boom times as well as bad… If private industry were to start running full blast and offer to employ and pay high wages to every unemployed, able-bodied person, the CCC might be reduced somewhat, but it should not be abolished. We should continue to carry forward much of the work and the training that the CCC is doing under any and all circumstances. The Corps should be permanent, varying in size with the needs of the times” .
Perry Merrill, Vermont’s state forester in the 1930s, recalled that McEntee “did a remarkable job as director” of the CCC . Other recollections are less generous. One observer noted, “McEntee was an entirely different personality [from Fechner] without the appeasing talents of his predecessor, and none of his patience. Harold Ickes, another short-tempered individual, strongly opposed his appointment… [McEntee] served in a different, uncertain atmosphere and received little praise for his efforts” .
After the New Deal, McEntee was active in New Jersey labor organizations for many years. He died on October 13, 1957, at the age of 74, survived by “his wife, Alice; four daughters, two sons, a sister and fourteen grandchildren” .
Sources: (1) See, e.g., “J. J. M’Entee Named To Administer CCC,” New York Times, February 16, 1940. (2) Ibid. (3) “James J. M’Entee, Ex-CCC Head, Dies,” New York Times, October 16, 1957. (4) James J. McEntee, Now They Are Men, Washington, DC: National Home Library Foundation (Sherman F. Mittell, ed.), 1940, p. 61. (5) Ibid., p. 68. (6) Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, p. 6. (7) “CCC Brief History,” CCC Legacy, https://www.ccclegacy.org/CCC_Brief_History.html, accessed December 16, 2015. (8) See note 3. (Note: McEntee’s book can be found at hathitrust.org.)