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Rogan's Recollections

(And Occasional Historical Observations)

Mayor (later Governor) James Rolph (1869-1934) and the Belgian Order of the Crown

As a boy growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, my grandmother and great-aunt regaled me with the story of how their father (my great-grandfather) was a San Francisco trolley car driver who rode with then-Mayor James Rolph (later California governor) on the inaugural public trolley car ride through the newly-constructed Twin Peaks Tunnel in 1918—and how the happily-celebrating Mayor Rolph was clearly inebriated when he took over the motorman's controls for this festive trip.


This weekend I was reading former President Herbert Hoover's memoirs, and this story of the future president's encounter with Mayor Rolph amused me greatly.


In October 1919, the King and Queen of the Belgians paid a visit to America as guests of the United States government. At the request of the State Department, Hoover (at the time famous for organizing relief for millions of starving Europeans before and during World War I) escorted the King and Queen on their California tour. In his 1952 memoir, Hoover related this story about his visit with the royals to San Francisco:


"Mayor Rolph of San Francisco had called upon me to reveal a personal difficulty [over the royal visit]. He was up for reelection in a few days, and he worried over the effect that consorting with Kings and Queens might have on the South of Market Street vote. I offered to take over the chairmanship of the reception in San Francisco and let him play as large or as small a part as he thought advisable. This was arranged by getting the Governor to appoint me official host. I worked up the program and presided.


"We decided to have a parade escorting the King and Queen up Market Street from the Ferry Building to the City Hall, where the Mayor could make a short address of welcome…. With the help of Army and Navy contingents and their bands, we made a good showing in the parade and, in time, arrived at the City Hall with plaudits from the great crowds. I duly presented the King to the Mayor, who stood on a little platform under the dome of the City Hall. Mr. Rolph at once noticed that all the galleries around the dome were crowded—an opportunity that no good politician would overlook. After a few words of welcome he delivered a few minutes of well-chosen remarks upon our municipal issues and the virtues of the common man. A good time was had by all…. From the City Hall we went to the Palace Hotel, where we had engaged rooms for the King's use prior to a public luncheon in his honor…. I had no sooner returned to the King's rooms than the Mayor descended upon me with the Order of the Crown, second class—glittering star, red ribbon, and all—in his hand, and a troubled look. The King had just put it on him. And the very next day, he was coming up for reelection. He felt certain that if he faced over a thousand people and reporters at a luncheon with this display of feudalism on his breast, he would lose thousands of votes. It was an emergency that called for quick action. I suggested to His Honor that certain European cities had been decorated for valor; Verdun, for example, had received the Croix de Guerre. Why should he not speak at the luncheon, refer to this precedent, and go on to grow eloquent over the great honor conferred on the City of San Francisco? The Mayor thought this a stroke of genius. When he rose to speak, he held up the Order for all to see and in most eloquent terms accepted it on behalf of the city of which he had the honor to be chief magistrate. I sat next to the King, who turned to me and said, sotto voce, and in the colloquialism of his youthful period as an American railroad man: 'What in blank is he talking about?'


"'Pay no attention to the Mayor,' I replied. 'He has his troubles. I'll explain later on.' Which I did. The King was so interested that he asked me to telegraph him the results of the election. I was happy to inform him next night that the Mayor had been retained in office by an unusually handsome majority.


"I had forgotten this episode when later I was called on to serve as a pallbearer at Mr. Rolph's funeral—he died Governor of California."


When looking into Rolph's casket, Hoover saw that pinned to the breast of the late governor's body for his journey into eternity was the Belgian Order of the Crown. -- Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover 1920-1933: The Cabinet and the Presidency (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), 7- 9.

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