Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Steve Early: Crozet Boy to White House Confidant

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By Phil James

President Franklin Roosevelt (left) with his press secretary Stephen Early in August 1935. Early, born in 1889 in Crozet, served FDR from March 1933 until March 1945. He was the longest serving presidential press secretary in history (courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection). Additional images accompany the print edition on of this article.
President Franklin Roosevelt (left) with his press secretary Stephen Early in August 1935. Early, born in 1889 in Crozet, served FDR from March 1933 until March 1945. He was the longest serving presidential press secretary in history (courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection). Additional images accompany the print edition on of this article.

A no more up-and-coming place existed in 1890s Albemarle County than the progressive little village of Crozet! The Blue Ridge Railroad section of the Virginia Central in the 1850s had created viable rail stops at Mechums River, Greenwood and Afton. But in the nation’s Centennial year of 1876, the sunshine on those dusty little crossroads was about to be eclipsed by a new kid on the block.

A consortium of local farmers and orchardists envisioned greater opportunities as a by-product of Samuel Miller’s magnificent Industrial School near Batesville. Their concerted appeal to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway resulted in the establishment of “A regular Freight Station, and a Flag Station for Passengers… to be known as CROZET…”

By the latter 1880s, the growing village had a modern C&O passenger depot; stores operated by Jim Ellison, J.T. O’Neill, and the Haden Brothers; a hotel; apartments; and a growing cottage industry welcoming summer vacationers from eastern cities.

It was in this invigorating community that Thomas Joseph Early and Ida Virginia Wood courted and wed in the late winter of 1888. Thomas, a 22-year-old grandson of John Early, from whom the village of Earlysville derived its name, was employed by the C&O as a postal mail clerk. Crozet Station was the jumping on and off point for his daily mail run.

In August 1889, Thomas and Ida were blessed with the arrival of their first child, a son whom they named Stephen Tyree. And if that were not enough excitement for the young family, C&O engineers set the area abuzz in the spring of 1890 when they began to survey a proposed rail line along the eastern base of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Crozet to Washington, D.C.

By the time Crozet’s first one-room public school was opened in 1894, young Steve had become a big brother to two siblings. During his meanderings through the bustling village of Crozet, Steve marveled as the ground was shaken by the massive steam locomotives. He was intrigued by the ringing of hammer on anvil at Burton’s blacksmith shop. He whiffed the mixed aromas of leather, oils and polish employed by Mr. Toombs the shoemaker, and encountered the nurturing dispositions of the Haden brothers and watchful eye of Mr. Owen the depot agent. And, all around, he heard the sounds of buggies, wagons and horses’ hooves moving people and farm and orchard freight from place to place.

But, in 1898, unprecedented changes loomed for Thomas and Ida Early as they readied their farm for sale and prepared to move their growing family of four children: Thomas had accepted a transfer as postal clerk to Washington, D.C. His decision to move his family would forever redirect the destinies of his children, and ultimately, bring a great influence upon our nation.

The Earlys, by spring 1899, were settled into their new place on North Carolina Avenue in the District of Columbia, a relatively short distance from the White House. Although it was a working-class neighborhood, life hardly could have been more different than back in old Albemarle. Here, five more eventually would join their fold, bringing to nine the number of Early children. Steve remained a caring older brother to his siblings throughout his life.

Growing up in D.C., Steve delivered the Washington Post newspaper in his neighborhood. After finishing high school he entered straightway into the workforce as a messenger boy for the Government Printing Office. Later, during his work with the United Press wire service, while covering the 1912 Democratic National Convention, he met another up-and-coming young man named Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early’s dedication to garnering news scoops led to his becoming an Associated Press correspondent assigned to cover the Navy and more encounters with FDR. Entering World War I at age 27, Steve’s regiment was assigned to the 80th Infantry Division whose nickname was the Blue Ridge Division. Their insignia depicted the beloved mountains of Early’s youth.

Three years later, with that devastating conflict behind him, the grateful-to-be-alive decorated war veteran moved back home with his parents and found work as a publicist for the Chamber of Commerce. He was asked by FDR in 1920 to be the advance man for his Vice Presidential campaign. Familiar with the workings of the news service, Early prepared the way for the candidate’s campaign and simultaneously created a network of media connections. Following the Democrats’ loss that year to Republican Warren G. Harding, Steve returned to the news grind. In 1921 he married Helen Wrenn, and over the next ten years they had three children.

Steve Early reconnected with the Associated Press, where, in 1923, he scooped the news of the death of U.S. President Harding even before the official announcement by the doctors and White House. Early left the AP in ’27 and joined with Paramount News, producing popular newsreels with a focus on events in the nation’s capital and throughout the world.

Between 1920 and 1932, Franklin Roosevelt’s life and political career endured many highs and lows. When he was readying his run for the White House in ’32, he knew exactly on whom to call. Early’s “eyes and ears in Washington” would well serve that future President’s far-reaching purposes.

Early wrote in 1948, “I reported to FDR for duty in the Mayflower Hotel on the evening of March 3, 1933, the eve of his first inaugural. I went into the White House with the understanding that I would serve two years and then be permitted to return to private life.”

As Roosevelt’s Secretary responsible for press relations, Steve Early proved himself “honest, honorable and forthright.” He became indispensable to the President and to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The country lad who had skipped barefoot among the hoof prints on the White Hall-to-Crozet Road strode just as comfortably alongside FDR through some of the United States’ most harrowing and dramatic years.

A devoted friend and personal adviser of FDR, Early served as Presidential Press Secretary from 1933 to 1945. Under President Truman he again briefly served as Press Secretary, and then as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense in 1949-’50.

It was Steve Early who coined the word “fireside” for FDR’s Fireside Chats; and Early’s voice that first announced to the press corps on December 7, 1941, that “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor from the air…”

It was he who, in April 1945, along with FDR’s physician, apprised Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, and afterwards, the nation, that “The President slipped away this afternoon” in Warm Springs, Georgia. It was Early who accompanied her from Washington to that place, and later, in Hyde Park, NY, mourned graveside with the family.

A few days later Mrs. Roosevelt wrote to Early, “… you’ve always been loyal and kind. Franklin loved you and I am deeply grateful to you and have a deep and abiding trust and affection for you.” He replied, “For years there have been two I have thought of as the most wonderful women—my Mother and you… You and the President made me feel as almost one of the family. And that is the way it always will be with me.”

A mere six years later, Stephen T. Early also slipped away too soon, the best strength of his 61 years spent in service to his country. The Full Honor Funeral ended with his burial at Arlington National Cemetery close by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Among the hundreds of dignitaries in attendance that day with Mrs. Early and her family were President Harry Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2014 Phil James

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