He completed an elementary education.
Beginning at age thirteen, Summerfield worked for the Weston-Mott Company, then for the Buick Motor Company, and during World War I, for the ammunition department of the Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan.
Later he entered the real estate business and became a distributor for Pure Oil Company in 1924. Five years later, he established his own Chevrolet dealership in Flint, which he built into one of the largest in the country with branches in Clio and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and truck dealerships in Gary, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois.
He gave up the oil business in 1937, and in 1938 he became president of Bryant Properties Corporation. By this time, the Summerfields were rearing their two children. The failure of a poorly staged local rally for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940 drew Summerfield into politics where he organized Genesee County for Willkie and helped him carry all of Michigan.
In 1942, Summerfield ran for secretary of state of Michigan, but lost the primary election. The following year, he became finance director of the state Republican Central Committee and instituted effective solicitation, collection, and budgeting of party funds.
From 1942 to 1949, the personable businessman served as a director of both the Michigan and National Automobile Dealers associations, assisted in manpower mobilization for World War II, and directed Flint's War Chest Campaign. Through 1943 and 1944, he served on both the National Automobile Dealers Association and National Chamber of Commerce's postwar planning committees and was elected to the Republican National Committee in 1944. Summerfield worked to draft Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan for the 1948 presidential nomination. However, the party's bid went to Thomas E. Dewey, who lost the election. The following year, as director of the Republican's National Strategy Committee, Summerfield designed its attack on the Democrats' "Welfare State" for the 1950 congressional elections.
That year he had a tiff with party chairman Guy C. Gabrielson, who wanted to dissolve the committee, and resigned his post. Summerfield's business interests continued to grow and, by 1952, he served as a director of the Genesee Real Estate Association while continuing to work with the state and national automobile dealers associations.
Summerfield initially backed Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio during the 1952 presidential campaign, but after leading a group of uncommitted Michigan delegates to the Republican Convention, swung the delegation to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The day after Eisenhower's nomination, he succeeded Gabrielson as Chairman of the Republican National Committee and coordinated the successful Republican campaign that year.
During the campaign, charges of financial irregularities arose against Eisenhower's running mate, Richard M. Nixon, and a "Drop Nixon" movement developed in the Republican ranks. Summerfield nonetheless backed Nixon and raised $75, 000 to finance the broadcast of the maudlin "Checkers" speech that kept Nixon on the ticket. Eisenhower then appointed Summerfield to the first of his two terms as postmaster general.
He also found the average local post office building to be fifty years old and in need of replacement; when he could get only scant construction appropriations from Congress he encouraged private interests to construct new mail facilities and lease them to the department.
During 1964, Summerfield helped finance Republican Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, continued to serve as Chairman of Summerfield Chevrolet, and died eight years later while on vacation in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The failure of a poorly staged local rally for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940 drew Summerfield into politics where he organized Genesee County for Willkie and helped him carry all of Michigan.
As one of the most interesting and controversial men to hold this post, Summerfield enjoyed his greatest successes in his first two years in office. He surprised his own party by resigning its chairmanship and refusing to use the U. S. Postal Service for patronage; he needed the incumbent Democrats to help him improve the department's management. The general outline for that improvement was enunciated in the 1949 recommendations of the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, led by ex-president Herbert Hoover.
He attempted to reduce the perennial operating deficits of the Postal Service. Despite raising the prices of first-class and air-mail stamps and instituting accounting changes and cost shifting, he effected no appreciable reductions on the bottom line. He convinced Eisenhower to veto four different pay increases for postal workers, moves that sorely alienated his employees. Partly because of his bullishness and condescension, Congress underfunded Summerfield's attempts to create new postal equipment but allowed him to participate in the early, limited system of "fax" mail.
He also saw that the Postal Service had little engineering or machine design experience and strengthened its research and engineering division. That division assisted in his most ambitious project, "Operation Turnkey, " the construction of a model automated postal center in Providence, Rhod Island. Experimental and pioneering in nature, the facility had teething troubles and had to be redesigned and reconstructed.
Summerfield had the mail boxes painted red, white, and blue, and further demonstrated his knack as a promoter on June 8, 1959, when a Regulus I missile fired from a submarine carried 3, 000 letters of "missile" mail ashore to Florida and the waiting postmaster general. Summerfield attempted to institute a form of censorship in 1958 by banning D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover from the mails, but he lost the ensuing court battle.
He also attacked the sending of pornography through the mails and established an exhibition of seized smutty materials in Washington.
On July 22, 1918, Summerfield married Miriam W. Graim.