Opinion: A true tough guy


Published: 01-15-2023 8:00 AM

John Gfroerer lives in Concord.

In a few words, former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams would best be described as a crusty, tough New England Yankee. He started his work life in the forests of Vermont and New Hampshire employed by the Parker-Young company based in Lincoln. There is no question, he remained woodsman tough for his entire life.

I once heard a recording of him telling a story about a man named Charlie Henderson, who Adams termed the toughest, meanest woodsman that ever lived. One particularly cold morning up in the Whites, a group of workers decided it was too cold to be cutting down trees. Henderson burst into their cabin, demanding to know why they weren’t working. “It’s too cold out there today, Mr. Henderson.”

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

Sherman Adams was elected governor of New Hampshire in 1948 and served in that position until January 1953 when he became President Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff. In Washington his reputation grew as he took command in the White House, running it like Charlie Henderson ran his crews in the mountains of New Hampshire.

Adams became, in many people’s opinion, the most powerful man in the country. When Eisenhower was admitted to the hospital after a heart attack, there was a joke circulating through D.C. —wouldn’t it be horrible if Eisenhower died and Vice President Richard Nixon became president? Well, yes, but not as bad as if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president.

Sherman Adams was forced to resign as White House Chief of Staff in September 1958, caught in a scandal that involved a vicuna coat, hotel stays, regulatory dealings and a businessman from Lebanon, New Hampshire, named Bernard Goldfine. Defeated and disgraced, Adams moved back to his home in Lincoln. But even that didn’t break Sherman Adam’s toughness. Within a few years, he had written a book and built Loon Mountain Ski Area.

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

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The love of Sherman’s life was his wife, Rachel. They married in 1923 and lived most of their lives in Lincoln. Together they shared the ups and downs of life, from the mills of Lincoln to the heights of Washington, D.C. power, and back to Lincoln.

Adams’ book about his Washington years 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 passed away seven years later.

In 1990 I produced a documentary about Adam’s life. As the project was entering the final path to 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 she had grown up in.

A lot of things had been saved, even the vicuna coat that was the symbol of Adams' departure from the White House. “He wore it threadbare,” Jean told me. There was a whole album of handwritten notes and cards from President Eisenhower, sent to Sherman after he left Washington. Most, Jean felt, her father never responded to.

The topic of conversation turned to the relationship between her mother and father. Jean looked across the room to the fireplace and paused. She remembered one day coming into that very room a couple of years after her mother had died and finding Sherman sitting in front of the fireplace, methodically burning all the letters he and Rachel had exchanged over their many years together.

Of all the things I learned about Sherman Adams, that image of him alone in front of the fireplace was the most illuminating. The tough woodsman, the man who ran the White House and founded a ski area, now an old man nearing the end of life, alone with, perhaps, his most treasured memories. Making sure they would remain his private domain. It was at once sad and yet, something that must be respected.

Fire is so final. There is no bringing back from ashes. I still wonder what was going through Sherman’s mind as he sat there tossing each letter into the flames. We will never know, just like we will never know what was written in the letters. He made sure of that.

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

Makes you wonder, are secrets compromised when shared? Do the moments they recall become diluted of their importance if we let other people know about them? Should we be vigilant to protect our private lives, even as years pass and their clarity becomes soft, maybe even a bit elusive?  

Sherman Adams was clear about what he was going to take to the grave, clear that no one was going to intrude on his most precious set of memories. He left all his political and personal papers to the Baker Library at Dartmouth. But these letters were different, not something for sharing, not even with his own children.

Like Charlie Henderson ready to toss three sticks of dynamite into the wood stove, Sherman was ensuring that his wishes would be followed. No one was going to be peeking into the private moments he and Rachel shared.

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