Biography of George Magoffin Humphrey

George Magoffin Humphrey (1890-1970) became the first person from Cleveland, Ohio, since Newton D. Baker to become a member of a United States President's Cabinet when he was confirmed as the fifty-fifth Secretary of the Treasury in 1953. Even though Humphrey had been a Cleveland resident since 1918, the announcement of his appointment surprised even Clevelanders, who knew him as an efficient businessman, but not as an individual who sought public life or had experience in public affairs. However, it was clear that Humphrey's appointment stemmed from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's desire to return control of the economy to business people, who he felt were most qualified to undertake this responsibility.

George M. Humphrey was born in Cheboygan, Michigan, on March 8, 1890, to Watts S. Humphrey and Caroline Magoffin Humphrey, the eldest of four children (he had one brother and two sisters). His mother was a school teacher and descendant of the Union Civil War governor of Kentucky, Beriah Magoffin, while his father was a successful lawyer, one of the first graduates of the University of Michigan and a Civil War veteran. In 1891, the Humphrey family moved to Saginaw, Michigan, where George went to high school, serving as class president for two years and as a member of a state championship football team. In 1908 he followed his father's footsteps to the University of Michigan, where he studied engineering before switching to law. He was elected to Phi Delta Phi, edited the Michigan Law Review, passed the state bar exam after four years of college, and became a partner in his father's law firm, Humphrey, Grant and Humphrey.

For the next several years a large percentage of his time was spent defending corporations from damage and personal injury claims. Humphrey was active in the lumber business and was vice-president of the larges bank in town. He married his childhood sweetheart, Pamela Stark, in 1913. Despite a successful career in Saginaw, Humphrey accepted an offer from Richard Grant in 1917 to work for the M. A. Hanna Company in Cleveland, Ohio.

Humphrey became general counsel in the company's tax department, a position which involved him in all the company's business and operations. In 1921, after the death of one of the partners, he was welcomed into the partnership of the Hanna firm as chairman of iron ore properties and operations. Humphrey knew nothing of the iron ore industry, in fact, he had never even seen an iron mine, but within a matter of months he made himself an expert on this subject. Between 1922 and 1925, M. A. Hanna & Company (incorporated in 1922) endured a period of financial instability culminating in the loss of two million dollars in 1924. Drastic changes were necessary. In 1925, Humphrey became executive vice-president, assuming control of the company along with President Howard Hanna. Under their direction, unsuccessful mines, plants, and personnel were jettisoned and the company began to concentrate on making its greatest assets more productive. The Hanna Company never lost money again, and by 1953 it was a $250 million corporation.

In 1929, Humphrey became president of the company, a post that he held until 1953. During these years, the successful management of the Hanna Company was not Humphrey's only achievement. In 1929 he was instrumental in the organization of the National Steel Corporation, which combined the interests of the Weirton Steel Company, the Great Lakes Steel Corporation, and the Hanna Company in iron ore mines, lake vessels, and blast furnaces. The Hanna Company owned a large portion of National Steel stock and Humphrey became chairman of its executive committee. This arrangement was characteristic of the Hanna Company in that about half its assets consisted of stock in other companies and about half of its profits were dividends from these companies. Humphrey and other Hanna executives served on the Board of several other corporations which, in Humphrey's case, included the Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company, the Industrial Rayon Corporation, the Iron Ore Company of Canada, and the Dominion Sugar Company.

Other activities of George M. Humphrey during this time included organizing the Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company in 1945 from the assets of the Pittsburgh Coal Company and the Consolidation Coal Company. In 1947, in cooperation with Benjamin Fairless of United States Steel and United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, Humphrey negotiated the national mine workers contract which avoided a potentially crippling strike. In 1950, Humphrey was instrumental in securing cooperation from the large steel companies and receiving a $200 million loan from insurance companies in order to form the Iron Ore Company of Canada to exploit the rich iron ore deposits along the Labrador-Quebec border.

Humphrey also served in an advisory capacity to the federal government as a representative of the business community. In 1942 he was named to the Business Advisory Council of the Department of Commerce and he served as a trustee of the Committee on Economic Development, which was formed to study the future of the American economy. During the post-war years Humphrey served as chairman of the Industrial Advisory Committee of the United States Economic Administration. This committee, which settled many difficult reparations problems, also rejected the Morgenthau plan to deindustrialize Germany by dismantling its heavy industry, recommending instead the conversion of German steel plants to the production of consumer goods. Through this work in Europe, Humphrey became acquainted with Lucius Clay, American High Commissioner for Germany. Clay, quite impressed with Humphrey, recommended him several years later when President-elect Eisenhower asked for suggestions for cabinet appointments. Eisenhower offered Humphrey the Treasury post in mid-November 1952 during their first meeting. Humphrey, although initially reluctant, accepted the post, at great financial sacrifice, out of a desire to serve his country and to accept yet another challenge.

During his tenure as Secretary (1953-1957), Humphrey played an important role in reducing government expenditures, passing a tax reduction, cutting the federal deficit, stabilizing the dollar, and twice achieving a balanced annual budget. Although he never delivered a public speech before the announcement of his appointment, Humphrey became an articulate proponent of his views, a respected figure in Washington, and an important member of the cabinet whose counsel was often sought by President Eisenhower. In late May 1957, Humphrey resigned, after staying on longer than he had intended, to become President of the National Steel Company after its former president, Ernest Weir, died unexpectedly. In 1961, Humphrey retired from business to spend more time at his "Milestone" estate in Thomasville, Georgia, and to devote more time to his lifetime hobby of breeding horses. On January 20, 1970, George M. Humphrey died, survived by his wife, his son Gilbert, two daughters Pamela and Caroline, and eight grandchildren. Mrs. George M. Humphrey died on October 6, 1979.

click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History entry for George Magoffin Humphrey
click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History entry for the M. A. Hanna Company