As the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates convenes Monday in Chicago, Flashback remembers the colorful banker and distinguished civic leader known at one time as "Uncle Sam's chief handy man." And while that fame has faded, consider that his least impressive and least taxing mission likely was as "Silent Cal" Coolidge's No. 2.
First things first: Why was he awarded the Nobel? Dawes, who at the age of 32 had been the U.S. comptroller of currency, impressed many as a brigadier general in charge of supplying the U.S. Armyin France during World War I. After the war, he made headlines again as the nation's first budget director, saving as much as $300 million in his first year. But back in Europe, Germany was struggling to repay enormous reparations. For the U.S., Dawes was the natural go-to guy in 1924 to help broker a deal to stabilize Germany's finances and figure out how the allies were to get their money. The result was called the Dawes Plan, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it in 1925. Unfortunately, the Dawes plan was thrown out as unworkable just a few years later. (In Dawes' defense, the subsequent plan fared no better.)
Dawes also had a reputation for salty language, relatively speaking. In 1921, while testifying before a congressional committee investigating Army expenditures, he exploded, "Hell and Maria, I'd have paid horse prices for sheep if they could have hauled artillery." He often sprinkled in a "damn," and the Tribune was happy to pass it along in headlines. "Harding rallies Dawes' damns to aid maimed," and "Dawes: 'Damn those who stir trouble with British' " and "Dawes declines role of 'actor in damn movie.' "
Dawes took another turn on the world stage. After his term as vice president ended in 1929, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. A descendant of William Dawes, who rode with Paul Revere to warn colonists of approaching British troops, Dawes didn't conform to tradition at the Court of St. James. When asked by reporters if he would wear the customary, knee-length silk breeches, he responded, "Go plumb to hell."
Tough-talking Charles "Hell and Maria" Dawes had another talent: musical composer. In 1912, the self-taught pianist wrote a song called "Melody in A Major" that became very popular not only in the United States but also in Europe. When lyrics were added in 1951, the song had considerable success as a pop tune, "It's All in the Game." It was recorded by many famous musicians, including Isaac Hayes, Nat King Cole and Barry Manilow. Tommy Edwards' version went to No. 1 in 1958.
For nearly 50 years, Dawes was a household name in Chicago, and the news of his death in 1951 was second only to the latest news from the Korean War. And in that account of his very full life, the peace prize doesn't get mentioned until the 26th paragraph.
Editor's note: Thanks to J. Robert Barr of Evanston for suggesting this Flashback. Barr is a member of the Evanston History Center's Board of Trustees.