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What Happened to Col. Hoovers eye?

What do you mean “what happened”?! Everybody knows it was a chemistry accident.

Okay, but what’s always bothered me about that story is how short it is. The eye was Hoover’s defining physical feature, the kind that inspires instant curiosity. Coupled with his volcanic personality, it made him a uniquely fierce figure. Still, in all of his 44 years at AMA, how could the story of that life-altering injury never grow beyond 2 words? Nothing about when, where, why, or how? Did nobody ask? Did he not tell? Were there no witnesses whose accounts passed down through the generations? Was there no wild speculation among cadets on what they thought “really” happened? It’s always seemed odd that the facts are slim and the folklore is slimmer. For all that alumni have shared with me about Hoover, no one has ever added anything to those 2 words.

Obviously, the eye doesn’t define Paul Vance Hoover. Knowing the full story is unlikely to change how you remember him or how I understand him. Especially for someone who had such a titanic impact (almost literally) on generations of students and athletes, no one should be defined or remembered by only their disability.

Pursuing this question won’t do that. Hoover could’ve had 3 eyes, and they still would’ve been less memorable than his persona. Nonetheless, this was a disability with a story that had to be worth more than 2 words. Speaking as an outsider, it’s always looked like a strange void of information for such a simple question. Could I fill it in? Is there something worthwhile to learn?

Among a long list of AMA’s historical mysteries, I’d let this languish as a cold case until I called William Saunders ’53 about a totally separate question. Hoover came up by chance, and Mr. Saunders mentioned the story that he remembered circulating among the corps. It was the same two words but now with one more that was a revelation: Annapolis. Midshipman Hoover(!), in his second or third year, was forced to give up his Navy ambitions on account of grievous injury – and that pivotal disappointment is what gave him his notoriously cantankerous disposition.

I’d never heard this before, but it wasn’t impossible. I’ve never found evidence that Hoover taught chemistry before or during his AMA years (though if you remember otherwise, please tell me), so it’s more likely his accident was as a student. The Recall showed that he graduated from Franklin & Marshall College – but not until 1932, at age 27. That left a tantalizing gap. I was on the brink of a scoop.

The Internet killed that dream. The Naval Academy’s yearbooks are online, but none had Hoover and neither did West Point’s. I was forced to concede that AMA’s mid-century rumor mill was wrong.

The search for the real story has proven to be far more interesting and important than the story itself because of the contacts, discoveries, and rediscoveries I’ve made along the way.

Nonetheless, let me settle the original question with a page out of the 1927 Oriflamme, the junior year annual of Hoover’s hometown alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College. On page 72, we see the familiar right profile, though of a much younger man…

…and a revealing inscription:

This does not spell out “disfiguring chemistry accident”. Also, of the 115 other portraits of Hoover’s classmates, there is one other at a right profile. Still, coupled with the darkly oblique reference to dangerous lab experiments, this is the earliest and strongest corroboration we have of the original 2-word account.

Though the truth turns out to be less dramatic than the fictional Annapolis story, it does tell us much more about “P.V.”/ “Comet” / “Doc” Hoover. That he was a fast-talking academic “wizard” certainly fits, but his senior yearbook confirms the surprise here that this eventual omni-coach and math teacher played no collegiate sports and gave 4 years to the literary society.

Tracing Hoover’s path after F&M has been intriguing. When the November 1939 Bayonet announced Lieutenant Hoover as a new faculty officer, it said that his previous employer was Severn School. The next Recall though adds more detail:

This is a troublesome resume, which is why I’ve called in backup. The Recall says he was at F&M until 1930, but his first appearance in their annual is as a freshman for 1923-24*, and his last is as a senior in the class of ’27 (when he was dubbed “Un etudiant par excellence”). Where was he really from 1927-30? Then, there’s a year each at Wisconsin and Maryland – with another gap in between?! Why, and what did he do there? I checked the yearbooks for both universities. They only include undergraduates, and he’s not among them, so I contacted the archivists at both libraries: did you have a graduate student sometime between 1928-33 named Paul Vance Hoover? It’s an egregiously vague question, but the friendly staff in both departments said they’re on the case. The UW researchers confirmed his graduate school enrollment but only for the summer session of 1929. Results of the UMD search are pending.

[*The early F&M Yearbooks are named for the year of the junior class that created them, so the edition covering the 1923-24 school year is called Oriflamme 1925, because it’s the future class of ’25 that made the book. Yes, this drove me nuts.]

With those pursuits in progress, I investigated Hoover’s only known pre-AMA job, Severn School, in Severna Park, MD. He didn’t start in 1933 as the Recall reports. His earliest appearance is in the school’s first yearbook, 1930-31, on page 18.

What jumps from Mr. Hoover’s small portrait is that fully visible left eye. If we accept, based on the F&M evidence, that the injury happened no later than 1926, then this picture shows a deft modification of reality. Since there was no way to hide the injury in person, this picture wasn’t protecting any secrets, so what was the point? Was this the preference of Hoover, his superiors, the photographer, or someone else?

What’s important is that we see the emergence of the Hoover you knew. He taught math and modern languages, coached the 118 Pound football team to a 5-1-2 record, and lead the unfortunately named “Severn Midgets” (105 pounders) to a 3-2-1 record (pp. 56,58). His “diminutive” 130 Pound lacrosse team, which went 3-2, was notable for the same problematic nickname but also its team picture (p. 65)

There’s Coach Hoover, upper-right. It’s hard to imagine the photographer not noticing the coach looking down for the picture. (Then again, so are 2 players). If Hoover wasn’t self-conscious enough about his eye to wear a patch in person, why the apparent aversion to having it photographed? Whatever the case, we see that his diverse commitment to the academics and sports of his students began at Severn.

Through the decade, Hoover’s involvement there deepened. In his second year, he kept football and debuted as soccer coach for the 130-pounders, leading them to a 5-1 season. Lacrosse went to the championship (pp. 57,60,63). In 1933, he became faculty adviser to the newspaper. By 1937, Mr. Hoover, now 32, has a new yearbook picture – and a new typo:

Maybe then it’s no coincidence that Hoover took charge of the Anchor and Wheel yearbook the next year, when he also sponsored the school’s first Camera Club. These additional responsibilities might explain why he’s not listed as a coach of any of the school’s sports before leaving for AMA.

Like F&M, online resources from Severn gave me a wealth of information, but several key questions remained from this era. First, why Severn? Probably, this man:

He was one of several Lancaster High Hoovers who attended F&M. William was several years older, and I can’t prove (yet) how these two are related, but that William was Paul’s connection to his first job is plausible. Unfortunately, it’s 26 years too late to answer the much more important question: “Col. Hoover, why, after at least 7 years, did you leave Severn and relocate twice as far from home to do virtually the same job?” Since the theme of this search has been making discoveries while looking for something else, I made a phone call.

Severn School has the wisdom to have its own enthusiastic archivists, including Carolyn Campion, whose primary role is as the Director of Alumni Relations and Alumni Giving. I asked if she could confirm when Hoover arrived and explained why their former employee from beyond living memory is vividly remembered by nearly every living alumnus of AMA. I couldn’t guess what she might know.

“He wasn’t a titanic figure here,” she admitted following a search of her files. She was surprised to find nothing on him outside of the same basic yearbook references I saw and one list of teachers that marks his entry as 1929 (which disrupts the Recall timeline even more but could fill in a gap).

There were no jackpot discoveries, but this was still an important call. One person common to both schools has drawn Carolyn and me into each other’s interests. From her, I learned that Severn was not a military academy, but founder Rolland Teel’s original purpose in 1914 was to prepare boys for the Naval Academy exam. That initial goal remained a school specialty even as Severn expanded into a 4-year college preparatory program. Thinking like Professor Roller, he chose rural Severna Park as a sanctuary from the corrupting temptations of the town of Annapolis 9 miles to the south. In return, I sent her links to just an appetizer of our Bayonet material on Hoover, for which she was grateful and now wants to see what else she can find on this previously obscure person in their history. For the first time in living memory, Paul Hoover is known at Severn, where his career began.

This experience shows what’s possible with new collaborations. Through Hoover, I now value Severn’s history as part of AMA’s, and because I reached out, Carolyn has learned more about her school’s early years. By trying to connect pieces of history, your museum is connected to Carolyn and her resources.

This is a whole new vein of opportunities to grow AMA’s history, but time is always short. Every day, some piece of unpreserved history degrades or is lost, be it a document, an artefact, a memory, or a life. We’ll never know why Hoover left Severn for AMA. Likely 20 years have passed since we lost the last Severn alumnus who could’ve told us how young Mr. Hoover compared to the colonel. Through our research and interviews at the museum, AMA history is still growing, finding new sources, and raising new questions, but I constantly feel the race against time.

That’s why the history that comes to us is always so welcome, so as I said last month, tell me what you remember. Can’t come to the museum? Write what you remember, and send it in. The story doesn’t have to be epic. Mundane details of daily life are as important as pivotal events. In short, if you remember it, I want to know it. You are my most important collaborators.


I said at the beginning that this search was rewarding also because of its rediscoveries. More than once, after hours piecing together a story, I’ve found it sitting quietly complete in one of the superb Bayonet editions by Bob Bradford ’50 or BJ d’Orsay ’70. In this case, I found Franklin & Marshall named as the site of Hoover’s lab accident in his AMA obituary…on our own website! In my defense, my conversation with William Saunders shows that some written knowledge never becomes common.

Meanwhile, especially with sources, some common knowledge never gets written. So much of AMA’s history no longer has a primary source, i.e. an eyewitness account or physical evidence from the event itself. The storytellers – whether cadet journalists or alumni, Col. Savedge or Col. Roller – may have known the source when they reported the story, but so very rarely were those sources cited. I hope we can reestablish those links between stories and sources to distinguish fact from legend and enable future generations to follow the academy’s history back to its raw materials, where the history speaks for itself. I haven’t discovered Hoover’s origins any more than Columbus discovered America, but like that explorer, I hope I can bring the knowledge to a wider audience and show where they can see it for themselves.

I started this search with a simple question about an injury. I answered it (mostly), but I learned much more. I learned about a life, settled an old rumor, found early sources, and made relationships that can both expand and propagate the AMA story. Even confirming what we don’t know has been a small victory. With so many more lives to trace and knowledge bases to mine, the potential for new understanding is exciting, and the urgency to achieve it is greater than ever.

Thanks for reading.


1 Comment

Steven Reech
Steven Reech
Jan 18

Thank you for this wonderful informing article on Col. Hoover. I was at AMA 79-81 and Col. Hoover was a big influence on me! Not only the doughnuts he always offered us but he encouraged me to get on the fencing team. The funny thing is I never knew he taught at Severn School. I lived directly across the street from the school at 100 Evergreen Road. He was a great man. Thank you once again.


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