Pre-Presidential Jobs: Picking Grapes and Teaching Greek

Before we elect our 45th president, let’s look back at how other leaders came to the Oval Office

By Dana Wilkie Nov 3, 2016
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Before we elect our 45th president, let's look back at how other leaders came to the Oval Office.

​Harry S. Truman never earned a college degree, but before becoming president of the United States, he did open a haberdashery—which was something of a precursor to the modern department store.

Theodore Roosevelt was well-known for leading expeditions to Africa. But before being elected U.S. president, he was also New York City's police commissioner—walking officers' beats late at night and early in the morning to make sure they were on duty.

A CareerCast report released Thursday points out that past presidents held some interesting jobs before becoming leader of the free world—from radio announcer to grape picker to geologist.

The requirements for running for the highest office in the land are surprisingly slim: One must be at least 35 years old, a natural-born citizen and have lived in the United States for at least 14 years.

There's no requirement that one have prior political experience. There's no requirement for past employment. And there's no requirement that one have a college education.

For instance, Truman did not attend a traditional school until he was 8. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in a Kansas City business school and studied bookkeeping, shorthand and typing. He left after a year and held various jobs—including railway timekeeper and newspaper mailroom clerk—before joining the Army. After serving in World War I, he opened a haberdashery with military friend Eddie Jacobson. Truman oversaw operations of the store, which closed during a recession in the early 1920s.

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Theodore Roosevelt—Police Commissioner

Roosevelt never attended a traditional school before he went to Harvard College. Instead, he was home-schooled by tutors and his parents. As a deputy sheriff in North Dakota, Roosevelt pursued three outlaws who had stolen his riverboat and also hunted down horse thieves. Roosevelt became president of the board of the New York City Police Commissioners for two years in 1895 and radically reformed a police force that was considered among the most corrupt in America.

Lyndon B. Johnson—Teacher

"Lyndon Baines Johnson rose to the presidency from some of the most humble beginnings of any president," says the CareerCast report. "He taught in rural and low-income parts of the Lone Star State during the Great Depression" and typically earned less than $2,000 a year.

Following his high school graduation, Johnson moved to California and picked grapes to support himself before enrolling in college. From 1928 to 1929, he took a break from his studies to teach Mexican-American children at the segregated Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas. The job helped him save money to finish college. After graduating, he taught in Pearsall High School in Texas, then taught public speaking at Sam Houston High School in Houston.

Woodrow Wilson—University Professor

Woodrow Wilson worked as a lecturer at Cornell University, taught ancient Greek and Roman history at Bryn Mawr College, and was elected Chair of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Princeton University, where he also coached the football team, founded the debate team and eventually became the school's president.

"Princeton was a football powerhouse during Wilson's time as university president," according to the CareerCast report. "He, along with Teddy Roosevelt, are both credited for helping push for reforms to make the sport safer and keep it on college campuses."  

Jimmy Carter—Farmer

After serving in the Navy, Jimmy Carter had a rough start trying to expand his family's peanut-growing business. Because of drought, his first year's harvest failed and Carter had to open several lines of credit to keep the farm going. After Carter took classes in agriculture, and his wife Rosalynn learned accounting to manage the business books, the farm became profitable.

"The spirit of small, independent farming lives on today with the proliferation of microbrewing, and the Carter family got in on the beer business before it was fashionable," the report states. "Unfortunately, brother Billy's 'Billy Beer' never quite took off."

"Carter found his calling later in life working closely with Habitat for Humanity, so you can add construction laborer to his resume, as well."

Herbert Hoover—Geologist

After graduating from college, Herbert Hoover worked in the gold mining districts of Nevada City and Grass Valley, Calif., as a geologist in Western Australia, and as chief engineer for the Chinese Bureau of Mines. Later, he struck out on his own, founding the Zinc Corporation and becoming an independent mining consultant. He traveled worldwide as a consultant and ended up with mining investments on every continent.

Ronald Reagan—Radio Announcer

Everyone knows Ronald Reagan was a movie actor. But before his Hollywood career, Reagan held jobs as an announcer at several radio stations in Iowa. At one station in Des Moines, he was an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games. It was while traveling with the Cubs in California that Reagan took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers studios, where his first few years were spent in the "B film" unit.

Barack Obama—Community Manager

"In the mid-to-late 1980s, Barack Obama transitioned into civil service in the most modest, grassroots position imaginable," according to CareerCast. "He worked as a community manager … working with churches to establish job-placement and training programs and educational services."

Two years after graduating from college, Obama was hired as director of the Developing Communities Project, a church-based organization on Chicago's South Side. He helped create a job-training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants' rights organization. The current president also worked as a consultant and instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing institute.

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