At old, vine-clad Saginaw High School, teachers predicted George M. Humphrey, a good student of pleasant, polite manner, would go far in life. But none foresaw that he would excel as a luminary in international business, finance and governmental influence. “When George speaks, we all listen,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked. He was speaking of George Magoffin Humphrey, his Secretary of the Treasury from 1953 to 1957. Humphrey was the undisputed strong man of the Eisenhower cabinet, confidant of the President as well as his frequent hunting companion.
Humphrey was born March 8, 1890, in Cheboygan, Michigan. He attended grammar and high schools in Saginaw. In 1907 he was on the Saginaw High School state championship football team. His father, Watts S. Humphrey, was a prominent Saginaw attorney. George Humphrey received his law degree in 1912 from the University of Michigan and was admitted to the Michigan bar that same year. From 1912-17, he practiced law in Saginaw with the firm of Humphrey, Grant and Humphrey. In 1917, he joined the M. A. Hanna Company in Cleveland as general counsel. After 12 years with the Hanna firm, he became its president. As such he headed a complex industrial empire with assets estimated at $230 million. He also was a director, president or board chairman of various other steel, steamship, mining companies and other multi-million dollar enterprises.
As a cabinet officer of President Eisenhower, Humphrey was much in the news. His views as a financial expert, on the record, were regarded as sedate and sensible. He had a philosophy that one is judged by performance and that if you perform well, you don’t need to be a speech maker. Consequently, he made few speeches. His newspaper interviews were events, because they came seldom. President Eisenhower met the head of the giant Hanna empire for the first time just after he had appointed him to the cabinet. The meeting, to discuss Eisenhower’s offer of the secretaryship, came as a complete surprise to Humphrey. The appointment had been recommended by a close Eisenhower advisor, General Lucius D. Clay, who had come to know Humphrey in Europe after World War II. Clay then was military governor of Germany and Humphrey was chairman of a committee of industrialists who went there to consider what to do with heavy industry in West Germany. Clay formed a great respect for Humphrey, who felt that dismantling of the German industrial plant after the war, removing the equipment elsewhere, then providing new equipment under the Marshall Plan would have been extravagant absurdity.
Humphrey felt that duty compelled him to accept the cabinet post, which paid $22,500 a year, although it entailed business and financial sacrifices. When the Senate Finance Committee was considering his nomination, it was disclosed that Humphrey had given up more than $300,000 a year in salary and bonuses. Humphrey resigned all his many corporation offices after his designation to the cabinet.
Before entering the cabinet, Humphrey had held these positions: member and former chairman, Business Advisory Council of the U. S. Department of Commerce; trustee, committee for Economic Development; member of Academy of Political Science, Tax Foundation, American Iron & Steel Institute; American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, National Industrial Information Committee and U. S. Council of the International Chamber of Commerce.
He held honorary degrees from a dozen universities and colleges, including his alma mater, the University of Michigan. But he said later that none of these pleased him as much nor thrilled him more than when he received the Saginaw High School Distinguished Alumnus Award and came to Saginaw with his family to receive it.
Humphrey came back to Saginaw on two other memorable public occasions. One was in 1953, one of the largest and most glistening social events in Saginaw history. It was called the George M. Humphrey Homecoming Dinner. It was planned by Saginaw friends when he was Secretary of the Treasury. More than 700 persons attended. The other one was in 1963, when the United Service Clubs of Saginaw gave a testimonial luncheon at the Bancroft Hotel to honor Wickes Corporation and H. Randall Wickes, its president. Wickes and Humphrey had been friends since boyhood. Humphrey also came to Saginaw in quiet visits to see his sister, Gladys Sample.
Humphrey was an avid horseman and huntsman most of his adult life. He owned many fine racehorses and show horses. After he retired from the Eisenhower cabinet, he bought a 119-acre Kentucky farm to use for breeding thoroughbred racehorses.
He married the former Pamela Stark of Saginaw, January 15, 1913. They had three children.
Humphrey’s basic papers, collected by the Western Reserve Historical Society, offer an interesting review of the former secretary of the treasury’s fiscal views. He didn’t share the theory that budget deficits stimulate economic growth and thus would provide for their own abatement or disappearance. He wrote in part: “Additional tax cuts for all the taxpayers will of course benefit them. But, until more reductions in government expenditures are in sight, further cuts in taxes only will add to the deficit.”
George M. Humphrey died in 1970 in Cleveland at the age of 79.