Oral History Interview with
Clerk, U.S. Housing Corporation, 1918-33; Assistant Director of Management, U.S. Employment Service, 1933-34; with the Social Security Board, 1934-40; assisted in the organization of the Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, 1940-52; Director, Office of Budget and Management, 1942-52; and Administrative Assistant Secretary of Labor, 1952-62.
James E. Dodson
August 7, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
James E. Dodson
August 7, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin, will you give me a little bit of your personal background; where were you born and a little bit about your career?
DODSON: Well, I'm one of the few government people that was born in Washington, D.C. and really have lived here all my life. As far as education is concerned, I was well, forced to go to work at a very young age, fourteen years of age. I graduated from the eighth grade in those days. And then I followed night school at night time and I went to, oh, Strayer's
Business College and Steuart's Business College, and finally completed a course in accounting. At the same time I used to play in dance bands so that I had a daytime job, went to school for two hours, and then played music for about three hours whenever we could get a job. But this all enabled me to live, because in those days I started as a messenger boy in the Department of Labor, in the U.S. Housing Corporation, at $528 a year. So, other work was necessary whenever you could get it.
I had the good fortune though even when I started at $528 a year I was attached to the office of the president of the Housing Corporation who was Otto M. Eidlitz, who was a dollar-a-year man. I was in and out of his office. I saw some of his methods of operations and I started learning from that very
first day on. And as I always had the good fortune of being in contact with the head of whatever office I was in, I really got an education from top level operations while in low appointments. And while at one time I used to feel an inferiority complex for not having a formal college degree; after getting years of experience I decided I would not trade my years of experience for a college degree.
In 1933 I can remember having a Harvard graduate and one from the University of California working for me for $1620 a year, so I got over my inferiority complex.
I should go back and say that my first appointment was with the U.S. Housing Corporation which was charged with the responsibility during the First World War, of building housing and living accommodations plus providing transportation to the munitions factories, shipyards, and etc., for war workers. And
that corporation, well, operated at a real lively pace for the last year of the First World War and then just got really underway when the war ended. Well, they had completed about ten thousand houses and they operated the government hotels for war workers which was located on the Union Station Plaza, several other projects of that type over the country, so that it went into a liquidation phase. Having started as a messenger boy, I had been promoted several times, but I also got promotions during liquidation. I moved up until I reached the title of assistant treasurer.
When the Housing Corporation finally got down to being practically liquidated I went with the United States Employment Service in 1933. That was when the Wagner-Peyser Act was passed which provided for a Federal-state system of public employment offices. I worked
in the Employment Service until it was transferred to the Social Security Board. In other words, the Employment Service was merged with Unemployment Compensation and there was a great amount of jockeying around at that time whether the Employment Service should stay independent or be merged, and one of the arguments being that it would be submerged if it was merged with the Unemployment Service.
Well, during my employment with the Employment Service I worked as an Assistant Director in Charge of Administration and Finance. I worked under, directly under, W. Frank Persons who was the head of the agency, and I consider that he was one of the strongest administrators that I have ever worked for and I learned a great deal.
Then after the Employment Service was
transferred to the Social Security Board I received a request as to whether or not I would want to go back to the Labor Department to help organize the Wage and Hour Division. So, I went back to the Labor Department, transferred back to the Labor Department, because well, I didn't like board type of action, I liked to work for a single administrator. General [Philip B.] Fleming headed up the Wage and Hour Division at that time, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable, well, decision, to transfer back. I was the Assistant Director in Charge of Administration and Management of the Wage and Hour Division and I stayed with that until during the Second World War we moved it to New York, and Frances Perkins, then Secretary of Labor, and she asked me to stay with the
Wage and Hour Division because they were losing so many employees, and would I stay with it, and then she would give me a job in her office when she had settled the Wage and Hour Division in New York.
So, this is how I ended up in the Secretary's office and remained in the Secretary's office all the way through my work career in the Labor Department. And so I worked under all the Secretaries of Labor since Frances Perkins, with the exception of Mr. [George P.] Schultz and the present Secretary [James D.] Hodgson, although I now have an appointment in the Department as an Executive Reservist with him.
HESS: Let me ask you a few questions about that then.
HESS: What do you recall, what kind of men were the -- and we can't say men can we always, because of Miss Perkins, but let's start back with Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of Labor who was William B. Wilson. What do you recall about him?
DODSON: Well, he always had a reputation of being a very nice gentleman. I was just a young lad then and didn't work in his office, so I'm really not qualified to say other than in general, he had a good reputation throughout the Department.
HESS: And then serving President [Warren G.] Harding was James J. Davis.
DODSON: Well, James J. Davis, again, was a pretty nice person, and one of the most interesting things about Secretary Davis was that he was also one of the leaders of the Loyal Order of Moose, and it wasn't long before we had professional canvassers going through the Department requesting you to join the Loyal Order of Moose.
HESS: One of the requirements of the job?
DODSON: Well, it wasn't exactly a requirement, but certainly a lot of people in the Department did join the Loyal Order of Moose. I didn't join. But, again though, Davis I would say was a well-liked Secretary of Labor as far as the employees of the Department were concerned, and I'm not qualified to give anything on his policy determinations.
HESS: And he also served for President [Calvin] Coolidge and he was the first Secretary of Labor for President [Herbert] Hoover, and then William N. Doak came in as Secretary of Labor for Mr. Hoover.
DODSON: Well, Doak, and still I'm at the working level, and Doak was not as well-known at the working level as I would say that others that we've talked about, but I know nothing really of any detriment against Doak. It's just that
he wasn't as close to the employees as the other Secretaries.
HESS: Do you recall any of the plans that he may have tried to implement since he was there during the early years of the depression?
DODSON: No, I do not. The Department was fairly stagnant in those days. Immigration Service was the biggest bureau and that was still there at that time, and the Department of Labor did not enjoy any, as I recall it, any real aggressive movements under the other Secretaries and up through the Doak administration. It did not start to move until the so-called New Deal came into the picture and that would have been under Frances Perkins.
HESS: That's right. Tell me what you recall, what are your recollections of the days right
after March the 4th of 1933, the day that Mr. Roosevelt was inaugurated.
DODSON: Well, one of the things that I guess most government employees, old employees would recall, would be we had an economy act and it placed a 10 or 15 percent reduction in our salaries. It prevented both husband and wife from working and we had considerable drives to save all kinds of, oh, supply items, to even -- we got letters on Gem clips and saving that sort of thing and to check your wastebasket.
HESS: Don't waste the paper clips.
DODSON: Oh, yes. We were under constant pressure in those days to make savings. And in 1933 the relief program started and got under way and the Labor Department started to really expand because it was assigned lots of
responsibility in connection with placements on relief programs, placements into the...
HESS: PWA [Public Works Administration].
DODSON: ...the cleaning of wooded areas by young men that went into the woods, what did we call them.
HESS: CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps]?
DODSON: CCC yes. We had a lot of responsibil