By Derek M. Otto
The recent nomination of Exxon Mobil Executive Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State has brought even more sensationalism to the presidential transition. It may sound odd, but it is very common for our government to use executives from the business sector to run our foreign affairs. An industry like the oil industry is global and offers better experienced people for the handling of global affairs. For Springville native Clarence Meyer, his destiny was very much that— work in the oil industry and then serve in government service.
Born in Riceville in 1891, Clarence Meyer would attend elementary school in Springville and later, in 1913, graduated from Syracuse University. Soon after his graduation from Syracuse, he made his first trip to China. The break up of Standard Oil in 1911 had created 33 new oil companies and an opportunity for Meyer. He was employed by the SOCONY, or Standard Oil Company of New York.
In 1920, SOCONY had registered as Mobil Oil as a trademark.
In 1933, SOCONY merged with Vacuum Oil to become Standard Vacuum. Standard Vacuum allowed Mr. Meyer to serve many years in the Far East.
In 1937, Standard Vacuum had begun working with rich Chinese investors to explore oil fields in China. At the same time, the Second Sino-Chinese War had begun and China was at war with Imperial Japan.
Meyer had become General Manager of Standard Vacuum’s Japanese operations. He was taken captive by the Japanese at the outbreak of World War II. He was released and repatriated in 1942 aboard the Gripsolm, which ironically was a German luxury liner charted by the United States to transport and exchange POWs.
Meyer returned to Standard Vacuum in 1945 as a director, in 1946 he was named Vice President. In the Vice President position, Meyer supervised all the company’s operations in China and Japan, all of Standard Vacuum tanker operations and the company’s employee and public relations. He retired in 1950.
Meyer’s story didn’t end there. In 1950, he entered government service in the State Department as the chief of the ECA mission in Korea, then in 1951, he was chief of the ECA mission to Austria until 1954, when he was named director of the ICA and Minister of Economic Affairs in the US embassy in Tokyo, leaving government service in 1957.
The ECA is the Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). According to its web site, its mission is to: “work to build friendly, peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges, as well as public -private partnerships.” Furthermore, the ICA was the International Cooperation Administration that operated from 1955 to 1961, as director Meyer had the job of administering foreign aid and handling all nonmilitary security issues. He had the responsibility of administering aid to the Far East after World War II and handling nonmilitary security issues during communist encroachment. Meyer was responsible for some pretty major affairs for the United States at a very dangerous and monumental time in our nation’s history.
Meyer would often return to Springville, having a summer home here at 510 West Main Street. He brought his household staff of Asians when he visited. According to my notes from Gilbert Schoepflin who had witnessed this and recounted it to me later, “At the time they created quite the spectacle for the residents of Springville– not many people in Springville had seen Asians and with their traditional straw hats.”
Popular media at the time had stereotyped Asians as people who wore the cone shaped straw hats, bowed and had slanted eyes. Seeing this stereotype firsthand may have only furthered the xenophobia of the period.
Meyer retired to Washington, DC, where he died in 1965. He was buried at sea in the Pacific Ocean. A cenotaph next to his wife’s grave in Maplewood Cemetery memorializes him not far from his home in Springville.