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A Leader for the Times

George Dern, 1872-1936

Man on horseback

George Dern. And a horse.

In short:

George Dern was the first Utahn to serve in a U.S. president’s cabinet.  Before he joined FDR’s cabinet, however, he was a governor of Utah, a reformer, and a businessman.  Not too bad for a man who never graduated from college! 

More of the story:

Life takes strange turns.
George Dern didn’t set out to be a businessman, a politician, or a member of a presidential cabinet, but by the time he died in 1936, he had been all three. 

He was born in Nebraska, into a mining family. He went to college to study English at the University of Nebraska--and had classmates like Willa Cather and Dorothy Caufield).  Then in 1895, before he graduated, his father asked him to come to Utah and help with a mining venture there. 

So young George packed his bags and headed west. 

A meteoric rise.
This young English major quickly made his mark in Utah business. Twenty years later, he won a seat in the Utah State Senate. There, he was interested in reforms that would help Utahns, and he especially tried to help people who were marginalized.

The people of Utah liked George Dern, even though he was not a native Utahn or even a Mormon.

soldiers and George Dern, 1920s

George H. Dern reviews the 38th U. S. Infantry at Fort Douglas with Col. Howard C. Price.

But why stop there?

Popular as he was, he ran for governor in 1924. He ran against Governor Charles R. Mabey (who was Republican and Mormon). 

Dern won, and won again in 1928.  He continued his reforms during his two terms as governor, revamping the state tax code, providing better financial support for Utah’s public schools, and negotiating a revised Colorado River Compact. 

In 1932, he crossed paths with presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a meeting. They two liked each other, and Dern supported FDR’s presidential campaign.

On to the president’s cabinet.
In 1933, the new president appointed George Dern Secretary of War (today, this position is called the Secretary of Defense). This made Dern the first Utahn to serve the country at the presidential cabinet level. 

Though Dern had no military experience to speak of when he accepted the post, under his direction the Army became the institution we know today. 

He enlarged it, emphasized quick response times and constant readiness, and got funding for new planes and vehicles during a time when most of the focus in the country was on economic recovery.

It’s a good thing, too—because the nation would be at war soon.

Question: Which war would this be?

Presidential party on a train

Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (middle), and Governor Henry Blood (far right) in Utah for George Dern's funeral in 1936. The other men are probably Secret Service.

A sudden end.
While serving as Secretary of War, Dern suddenly died--of a heart attack. President Roosevelt traveled all the way to Utah to attend his funeral.

A fine legacy—and famous progeny.
George Dern’s name lives on in his grandson, actor Bruce Dern, who was a godson to Eleanor Roosevelt, and his great-granddaughter, Academy Award winner Laura Dern.