Opinion: A real tough guy

John Gfroerer lives in Concord.

Former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams is best described in a few words as a crispy, chewy Yankee from New England. He began his working life in the woods of Vermont and New Hampshire, where he was employed by the Lincoln-based Parker-Young Company. No question, he remained a tough lumberjack all his life.

I once heard a recording of him telling a story about a man named Charlie Henderson, whom Adams described as the toughest, meanest lumberjack that ever lived. On a particularly cold morning in the Whites, a group of workers decided it was too cold to cut down trees. Henderson burst into their cabin and demanded to know why they weren’t working. “It’s too cold out there today, Mr. Henderson.”

“Too cold,” Henderson growled. “Well, I’m working. And tell you what, you work too.” He went to a closet, pulled out three sticks of dynamite and wrapped them up. Then he opened the wood stove door and said, “Now do you want to walk or ride?”

Sherman Adams was elected governor of New Hampshire in 1948, a position he held until January 1953, when he became chief of staff to President Dwight Eisenhower. His reputation in Washington grew as he took command of the White House, directing how Charlie Henderson led his crews in the mountains of New Hampshire.

Adams became the most powerful man in the country according to many people. When Eisenhower was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack, a joke circulated around DC – wouldn’t it be awful if Eisenhower died and Vice President Richard Nixon became President? Well, yes, but not as bad as if Sherman Adams had died and Eisenhower had become President.

Sherman Adams was forced to resign as White House chief of staff in September 1958 because of his involvement in a scandal involving a vicuna coat, hotel stays, government affairs and a Lebanon, New Hampshire businessman named Bernard Goldfine. Defeated and disgraced, Adams moved back to his Lincoln home. But even that couldn’t break Sherman Adam’s toughness. Within a few years he had written a book and built the Loon Mountain ski resort.

Crusty, New Hampshire Yankee, that would be Sherman Adams.

The love of Sherman’s life was his wife, Rachel. They married in 1923 and lived most of their lives in Lincoln. Together they lived through the ups and downs of life, from the Mills of Lincoln to the heights of Washington, DC Power, and back to Lincoln.

Adams’ book about his years in Washington was titled First hand report. Rachel followed with a book of her own, appropriately titled: On the other hand. Rachel died in 1979. Adams himself died seven years later.

In 1990 I produced a documentary about Adam’s life. As the project entered the final path of completion, there was the usual scramble for photos. One day I was going through albums and scrapbooks with Sherman and Rachel’s daughter, Jean, who lived in Lincoln across the street from the house where she grew up.

Many things had been saved, even the vicuna cloak that was the symbol of Adams’ departure from the White House. “He wore it worn out,” Jean told me. There was an entire album of President Eisenhower’s handwritten notes and maps that was sent to Sherman after he left Washington. Most of them, Jean felt, her father never answered.

The topic of conversation turned to the relationship between her mother and father. Jean looked across the room at the fireplace and paused. She recalled walking into that very room one day, a few years after her mother’s death, and Sherman was sitting in front of the fireplace, systematically burning all the letters he and Rachel had exchanged over their many years together.

Of all I learned about Sherman Adams, this picture of him alone in front of the fireplace was the most revealing. The tough lumberjack, the man who ran the White House and started a ski resort, now an old man at the end of his life, alone with perhaps his most treasured memories. He made sure they remained his private domain. It was sad and yet something to be respected.

Fire is so final. From the ashes there is no returning. I still wonder what was going through Sherman’s mind as he sat and tossed each letter into the flames. We will never know, just as we will never know what was in the letters. He made sure of that.

What I do know is that even tough guys have spots of vulnerability and their toughness doesn’t last forever.

Wondering if secrets are compromised when shared? Do the moments they remember dilute their meaning if we let others know about them? Should we be vigilant to protect our private lives even as the years pass and their clarity grows soft, maybe even a bit elusive?

Sherman Adams knew what he would take with him to his grave, he knew that no one would invade his most treasured memories. He left all his political and personal papers to the Baker Library in Dartmouth. But these letters were different, nothing to share, not even with his own children.

Just as Charlie Henderson was ready to toss three sticks of dynamite into the wood-burning stove, Sherman made sure his wishes were complied with. Nobody would take a peek into the private moments he and Rachel shared.

Was it for love? Was it privacy? Or maybe it was just some of that Yankee attitude that’s none of your damn business. Whatever the reason, to me it made him human in an unexpected way. A tear was shed for a tough guy who never cried. And that tear confirmed that he really had lived a full life.