Sunday, November 13, 2011



            Tourists will find out very quickly that Springfield, Illinois, was Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. Not only does it have the Lincoln Museum and Library with mind-blowing displays and striking holographic movies that we have previously written about, but it also has a four-block area restored to resemble the pre-1860s during the time Abe lived here.

            The only home he ever owned has been restored along with the neighboring houses.  Gaslights have been added, sidewalks replaced with wood planks and several wagons of the time are standing in the streets.

            It was a pleasant step back into time especially since we were able to have two conversations with a Lincoln impersonator.  Our first meeting was as this 6-foot-4 actor paused in raking the lawn of the home where Lincoln and Mary lived for 15 years, 1884-1861, and where their four sons were born.  The actor stayed expertly in role, for example, asked about the instrument I was pointing at him since he had heard that the French had invented something that could capture a person’s image. 

            The home tour is self guided, but so popular that visitors need a card from the nearby visitor’s center allotting an entrance time.  We were impressed with the number of park rangers stationed in the building to answer questions.  The house, furnished as it was when Lincoln lived there, has 50 of the home’s original items including Lincoln’s desk.

             He had made a comfortable living as a lawyer.  The house had a maid’s room--one of very few jobs a woman could hold in that day and seen as an opportunity for a young girl to learn how to be a wife and mother.

            At the visitor’s center four movies on Lincoln were playing throughout the day, one featuring Raymond Massey.  When we watched another movie about Abe’s years in Springfield, the impersonator in the yard was the actor playing Lincoln.  Later we again talked with him.  He looked very much as I expected Abe to look at the time he lived here.  He looked more like Lincoln than Massey did.  When I told the impersonator that I was impressed with his capturing Lincoln’s vocal tone, he said he had worked hard to integrate the vocal patterns into his performance.

            Abe fell in love with Mary Todd, a Southern belle from a family of higher social status, which complicated his courtship.  He went into a deep depression when his first proposal of marriage to her was not accepted.   I was reminded of similar problems that Presidents Grant and Truman had in their courtships.  All three were noted for being firmly in love with their wives throughout their marriages.  Mary was a great help to his political career using her family connections to get him national recognition.  Some of the material in the Lincoln movies about his children was new to me.  One son died early from tuberculosis and two others were known for their wild behavior.

            Our visit to the area was brought to a pleasant close by the performance of a group of costumed students singing songs of the period, particularly songs that were favorites of Lincoln.

We meet with Abe Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois

We meet with Abe Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Harry Truman's Birthplace

Truman’s early years come to life in Lamar

A tree planted to honor Harry Truman’s birth grows outside the house he was born in.

When I gave a talk in Lamar Missouri, I took the opportunity to visit Harry S Truman’s birthplace, now a state historical site with a small visitors center. As he is one of our favorite presidents, Carla and I present an overview of his contributions when we teach in the Osher Lifelong Learning program.

Truman was born May 8, 1884, to a father who was a mule trader and farmer. His father announced the sale of some mules in the Lamar Democrat but did not mention his son had just been born. However, in honor of Harry’s birth, he did plant a tree that is still standing next to the house.

John Anderson Truman and his new wife, Martha Ellen Truman, had bought the Lamar house in 1882 for $685. Signs of its age are apparent. It is 20 by 28 feet — I am sure many readers have rooms in their homes that are as large. When I stepped inside, I was impressed with how many rooms had been carved out of that small space. On the first floor are a living room, a kitchen with a dining area and two bedrooms. A double bed fills half the bedroom in which Truman was born. A steep, narrow stairway, like the one I climbed to my bedroom as a child, leads to two upstairs bedrooms.

When the Trumans came, all of their furniture was on a wagon, and when they left, all of the furniture was on a wagon, so the home has been furnished with period pieces. Young people might be particularly interested in the more primitive equipment of the times: kerosene lamps, pots under the bed instead of a toilet, corn cake bakers on a black wood-fired stove in the kitchen.

The home has no electricity and has an outdoor toilet of the period and a hand-dug well next to the building. A smokehouse stands beside the well. Most homes had them because, without refrigeration, meat had to be smoked to keep it from spoiling. The lot across the way that held the barn for John Truman’s mules is now an empty lot.

When Harry was 11 months old, the family moved about 100 miles north to the Independence area. The United Auto Workers donated the Lamar home to the state in 1959 for preservation, and it is now also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A guide gives brief tours to visitors when they arrive and spends some time on the collection of family pictures showing Truman as a child and at some of the major turning points in his life. The visitors center has three mannequins dressed in women’s dresses of the era.

Lamar was preparing for the 127th birthday celebration of Harry Truman, but I was a day too early to take part in this annual celebration, held on the nearest Saturday to May 8, Truman’s birthday.

The major historical sites for Truman are in Independence, and if you go, they have the bright-red Truman Trolleys that visit the Independence Square and circle past major tourism attractions during spring, summer and early fall. The fare is only $1 for all day, and you can visit both the Truman Home and the Truman Library and Museum.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Eisenhower museum details one of history’s shakers and movers
Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abilene, Kansas

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, or "Ike," was at the center of world events in the middle of the 20th century as the general leading the greatest invasion in history during World War II and as a two-term president during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. In both roles he was respected for his ability to get disparate personalities to work together for common goals.

The story of these major contributions is told at the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kan. The museum includes a complex of buildings such as the original Eisenhower home, a visitors center, a magnificent library and a contemplation center.

The exhibits begin in a low-key fashion. First we are given the family history with the emphasis on the six brothers being raised in an atmosphere of love coupled with religious training and discipline. That there must have been something exceptional happening in the home is shown by later pictures of five highly successful Eisenhower brothers.

In Eisenhower’s early life, he was an average student mostly interested in sports. At West Point he was in the middle of the class, but as his career developed he began to show his potential to become distinctive. By the time he went to the advanced officer-training program at Leavenworth, Kan., he was at the top of his class.

He took the opportunity to work under and learn from the best officers available: Fox Conner in the tank corps and Douglas MacArthur in a wide range of situations. Chief of Staff George Marshall was impressed with his work. Although Ike was a major for 16 years, with World War II his promotions came fast, and he was jumped in rank over many officers senior to him.

When we visited the museum, a special exhibit of Eisenhower’s paintings was featured. He started painting late in his life, mainly as a form of relaxation, and destroyed or gave away most of his work to friends. He and Winston Churchill, who also painted for relaxation, encouraged each other, and Ike arranged for Churchill’s first large exhibition of paintings.

In another area, a television documentary focused on the life of Ike’s wife, Mamie, including an interview with Barbara Walters. Mamie’s dresses and pictures portraying her lifestyle were on display.

A history of Ike’s contributions to our success in World War II followed, with copious photos, uniforms, videos, pictures and dioramas of the action he saw during the war. Some pieces of war equipment are on display to enhance the atmosphere, including the car he used during the war.

General Eisenhower

Up to this point the whole atmosphere had been rather sedate, almost reverent. Then, sound and moving pictures suddenly assailed us as we entered the area that covers his years as president.

From overhead came recordings of Eisenhower on the campaign trail, and then a brief history of his life after the war as president of Columbia University and later commander of NATO. The period is covered by television shows from the era, room d├ęcor and stories of his being a reluctant candidate sought by both parties.

Cold War problems are represented by displays covering the U2 spy plane incident, problems with Fidel Castro and Cuba, and the ending of the Korean War. We are reminded he governed in a period when it was felt an atomic bomb attack could come at any time. To emphasize that point, there are videos of children learning to hide under their desks and cover their heads in case of an attack.

The negative events during his tenure are covered. This includes his role in establishing the shah in control in Iran, his lack of confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his weak stand on civil rights.

At the reproduction of his office, recordings of events that happened there are played. He had a heart attack in 1955 but ran for a second term anyway. He had a stroke in 1957, partly caused by the fact he smoked, had a diet with too much fat and was overworked. Some recordings after he left the presidency feature his talks with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson about problems they were having.

One of Ike’s definitions seen hanging a wall tells much about how he worked: "Leadership: The art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it."

I am fond of presidential museums and believe they should be a must see for high school students to immerse them in our history, its important people and the decisions they made that affect our lives. Our own Truman Library and Museum in Independence does an excellent job of this, and many students in Columbia have been introduced to historically significant events there.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


          The following chapter is from my novel Christina's Saga: From Norway to Dakota Territory. The fictionalized story of my Norwegian Grandmother who came to America at 19 alone, and homesteaded in South Dakota.  In this chapter she is still single and living in a sod shanty.


Christina's neighbors a mile and half due east were Meyer and Olga Pearson and their two daughters.   It was Olga Pearson's wooden house that Emma Efrainson felt indicated too much wealth for them to be homesteaders.  The Pearsons had come to Dakota Territory in 1879 and built one of the first wooden houses in that part of the county.   

            In the spring of 1883 just after planting time, Meyer Pear­son got an offer of a job in Michigan to earn money so they could keep the homestead going.  Olga stayed behind with the two little girls to work the farm.

Christina was feeding the chickens when Olga and her two daughters came hurrying across the prairie.  She had a girl's hand in each of hers and was practically dragging them along. They stopped, out of breath in front of Christina. The dust on Olga's cheeks had pathways that were still damp from tears. 

The five-year-old's head was lightly covered with wispy white hair.  Ella’s large soulful blue eyes made even the most reserved want to pick her up and take care of her.  Her need to elicit protection was in part related to her seven-year-old sister Anna's ability to cause accidents to happen.  The older girl with her freckles and reddish cast to her blond hair had a look of potential mischief about her.    

Under calm conditions Olga was high strung.  When things went less than well, she reacted with panic.  The girls seldom saw strangers and had picked up some of their mother's tendency to overreact.  Now they stayed silently behind their mother, the littler one hanging on to her skirt and peeking out from behind her mother at Christina. 

             Olga caught her breath and gasped, "Christina, are the Bakke's home?"

            "No, they and the boys have gone off to Brookings.  They won't be back for two or three days."   Christina waited for Olga to explain the emergency.  She knew Olga had trouble in knowing what was a real crisis.   There were times she had been very fearful one day, and on the next couldn't have told you what she was so worried about.  

            Still out of breath from the exertion, Olga said, “We're all alone out here then?"

            "I guess. Why?"

             "A man rode by our farm this morning.  He said we should all pack up and go into town.  Some of the Indians left the reserva­tion and have gone on the warpath again.  He said they're likely to come here killing and burning."

            "I never heard of Indians around here giving us any trouble," Christina cautioned.

            "Christina, it's only a few years ago that they rose up in Minnesota and killed all those poor settlers.  Those awful sav­ages are born to raise hell and kill.  They don't want us around these parts.  This was their hunting grounds.  They're still mad at us for coming and using it like God intended, to grow food and raise God fearing folks like my girls here."   The thought gave her strength; she squared her shoulders and a look of pride appeared on her face.

            "You think we should go to town then?"  Christina asked as she scattered the last grains of corn to the chickens.

            "No, I don't want to leave my new home.  Meyer and I worked too hard to build it for some beasts to burn it down and steal everything.   I don't know what to do, but I'm not leaving!"

            Christina thought a moment.  "I think we should go to town.  If they burn the house, you can always make another one."

            "If we try to walk to town, they could catch us in the open, and we'd be worse off,” Olga protested.   "I won't go.  If I can't find nobody to help me, I'll just stay at the house with the girls."

            Christina looked at her soddy.  “Well, if the Indi­ans want my sod shanty, they can have it.  If it was a nice house built of wood, maybe I wouldn't leave either."

            The four took off across the wind swept grass for the Pear­son farm.   The light breeze carried vestiges of the land it passed over, a light smell of skunk, dry grasses, newly turned sod.   If they had stopped and let the odors envelop them, they would have found traces of the smoke of a far off grass fire.

            Christina turned and saw the Pearsons falling behind.  Olga's face was flushed with the exertion of trying to match Christina's pace.  Christina had to slow down her long stride so that the Pearson girls could keep up.  The little girl's eyes were still wide with fright.  Silently they trotted in their bare feet attempting to stay close to their mother.

            It only took thirty minutes to get to the Pearson house.  Fifty yards from the house Olga stopped and examined the build­ings and the yard for anything that was out of the ordinary.  From that distance all appeared normal.  The women still ap­proached the house cautiously.  When they were in the yard, Olga jerked her head toward the house.  “Might be Indians in there."

            Christina walked up to around the house and cupped her hands against the glass.  "It's all quiet in there.  There's no sign of any movement."

            Olga pulled the children closer to her side and picked up Ella.  "Christina, you go in first."

            Pushing the door open with her foot, Christina stepped in.    All was quiet in the room.  Her eyes checked every corner.  Against the wall next to the hearth was a long, heavy looking rifle.  She went to the door, "Olga, do you have bullets for Meyer's gun?"

"I don't know.  He hides them somewhere so the girls can't find them."  She cautiously entered the room.  "Let me think.  Maybe he's got them in his box he calls his useful this and thats."   She went into a bedroom, pulled a large box out from under the bed and began to search in it.   "I don't know how he ever finds anything in this box.  Look at this mess, nails, hammers, pinchers, steel spikes, tongs and all kinds   of junk jumbled together." 

            She took pieces out until she found a box containing the large bullets labeled, “Springfield rifle."  She handed  the box to Christina who tore it open and put a handful of the large car­tridges into her apron pocket and picked up the rifle and stepped outside.   

            Olga followed her and in a voice filled with awe asked, "Can you really shoot that?"

            "I seen Bjorklund do it.  I can figure it."  She set the gun against the wall and straightened her dress.  The respite allowed her to become aware that her hair had come loose and was getting in her eyes.  First she took a deep breath to collect her thoughts, and she took a moment to readjust her hair.  Finally she said, "We're not going to see any Indians, but I got to know how to use the gun anyway."  

            She pointed to the open area south of the house.  "Get all the animals out of the way down that way, and I'll see if I figure how to shoot this thing."  

            Olga pushed the children away from her and toward the small fenced in area where the shed was, in which the fowl were kept at night to keep them safe from coyotes and weasels.   With a whoop the two children began chasing the chickens and the two ducks into their small coop.  The running cheered them up and the little one began laughing with pleasure as she sprinted after the rooster who was insisting on keeping his freedom to hunt worms in the manure pile.

            With the animals out of the way Christina looked over the ground for a target.   The coming and goings of animals and people kept the yard clear of grass, and the roughly plowed ground with its large clods began just a short distance away.   Christina thought, "We are changing the land.  In just the few years since I came, it is different, but is it really different?"   She stood a few moments longer admiring the vast distance to the horizon where the deep blue sky with a touch of cottony clouds began.

            A yelp from Ella, who had just gotten the rooster in the coop, broke her reverie, and she refocused on the land immediately in front of her.   She settled on a rock about the size of a loaf of bread 25 yards away.  "I'll shoot at that white rock over yonder."     

            She picked up the gun to load it, trying to look as if she knew what she was doing, but the gun didn't cooperate.  It acted as if it were developing a will of its own.   It tipped out of her hands, hit the ground nose first shoving dirt into the barrel.  Christina casually dug the dirt out with her little finger.  Placing her left hand midway up the barrel and holding the stock on her hip, she brought the gun into a position where she could flip open the trapdoor and insert a bullet.  Then she snapped the trap door shut, struggled to pull the heavy hammer back and raised the gun to her shoulder.  

            Questions bounced around in her head.  "Why didn't I get someone to show me how to do this?  How tight do I hold it?   Will it hurt when it shoots?  Why doesn't it hold steady?  It keeps moving.  I didn't know it was so heavy."    

             To be safe she kept a light hold on it.  She pulled the trigger.  Her head jerked back from the shock of the explosion.  Smoke vomited from the barrel.   Dust billowed up from where the gun hit the ground ten feet away.

            Olga rushed over to her.  "Christina, Christina, are you all right?" she cried.

            Christina looked herself up and down to make sure   all of her pieces were still in place.  She flexed her arms, shook her hands to bring back feeling.  "I think so.  It was a bigger bang than I expected."   Picking up the gun, she brushed off the dust, flipped open the trapdoor, shook the spent cartridge out.   It fell at her feet in the dust.     

            She took another precious bullet out of her apron pocket and clicked it into the chamber.  A part of her apron caught in the mechanism, and it refused to close.  Opening the trap door, she ripped the apron bringing an, "Oof da," from her lips.  Finally ready, she cautioned herself, "Tight, remember hold it tight."   Following her instructions she pulled the gun tight against her shoulder.   Pointing it in the general direction of the rock, she pulled the trigger. 

            With the explosion a heavy jolt hit her.  She was thrown backward, sprawling on the ground.   This time it was her bottom and not the gun that raised the cloud of dust.

            She sat for a moment, breathless and stunned by the impact.  When she found her voice, she shouted at Olga in delight, "This time I held the gun.   Now if I can find how to stay on my feet, maybe I'll shoot good."   

            Still sitting on the ground she took out the spent cartridge and reloaded the chamber.   She was developing  a new respect for what the gun could do to her but also what it might do to any­thing that the bullet might hit.  Setting her legs apart, holding the gun tight against her shoulder and leaning into the coming shock, she pulled the trigger.  This time both she and the gun stayed in place. She had closed her eyes at the noise and the impact against her shoulder and didn't see where the bullet landed.  There was elation in her voice when she asked, "Did I hit it?"      

Olga shook her head.  "No, you missed.  It went way off there to the side."  She pointed out a spot way to the side and some 50 yards in back of the rock. 

            "These bullets cost," Christina said,   "I'll shoot just two more.  I need to keep some for when the Indians come."   The last two practice shots fell closer to the rock.  She thought, "If I aimed at an Indian, he would have still been standing all in one piece.  Well, I can't hit nothing.  Maybe the noise and smoke will scare the savages off." 

            The gunfire reassured Olga that they were now prepared for the Indians.  The worry lines in her face disappeared, and for the first time she smiled.  "It's hot out here with no shade.  Let's go inside, and I'll make us some coffee."

            The rest of the day passed uneventfully.   Ella and Anna played in the yard, and Olga checked for Indians only three or four times an hour.  At bedtime she said, "I think we can sleep good.  Meyer told me that Indians won't attack at night.  If they are killed in battle, their spirit can't find its way to the happy hunting grounds in the dark."

            Olga got up at the first sign of sun and began pacing nerv­ously from one window to another.  It was late morning when she suddenly froze in her tracks and cried, “Christina, get the gun--the savages are coming!"

            Christina stepped out on the porch, squinted trying to make out the figures.  Given the flatness of the land and lack of trees, they were still a fair distance off and neither their sex or race could be made out.  "There's only two of them and they're afoot.   Maybe they ain't Indians."

            "They're probably just the scouts.  The others will be right behind."  Olga said in a reassuring voice.   Christina and the girls were not comforted.

            Christina chest became tighter and her breathing more diffi­cult as the two figures approached.   They were coming across the grassland from the direction of her farm.   No others appeared in back of them.  "Christina, they may just be testing us.  Watch them carefully."

            "Well, they do look like Indians all right, and they are coming right for the house."  

            Olga wrung her hands and got tears in her eyes.  Christina's heart was beating so loudly she was sure Olga could hear it.  The sweat on her palms was making it difficult to keep the gun in a ready position.  Thoughts fought each other, "They don't look dangerous.   You really can't tell.   They could be trying to fool us.  If I shoot I'll miss. The smoke and noise might scare them away."

            Olga pushed the children toward the house. "Girls, go in the house and stay under the bed.  Don't come out until I come in to get you.  Now scoot."   She came back to stand 20 feet behind Christina, lending moral but not physical support.  "Maybe you should shoot a warning shot to let them know we got a gun."

            "No, the way I shot yesterday I might hit one of them by mistake.  Then they'll get really mad.  We'll let them come closer.  They may not be dangerous."

            "Savages are always dangerous.  We can't trust them.  Please, Christina, shoot at them."              


            The Indians stopped 20 yards away.  It was a male and a female.   They looked at the rifle that Christina held in her arms and showed no fear of it. They seemed to expect white pio­neer women to stand around their yards with a gun in their hands.   In a loud whisper Olga said, "They're wearing Christian folk's clothes.  Maybe they've already killed somebody."

            Christina snorted, “If they killed somebody for those clothes, it was some time ago.  They're awfully dirty and torn to be recent.  That coat he's wearing wouldn't flatter a scarecrow."

            Christina could see that the couple were neither old nor young.  But she didn't know how fast Indians aged.  She would have to ask someone about that. The man was barefoot but the woman had moccasins on her feet.  Both of them had hair that was long and black and shiny with grease.  The woman had a red band around her head and the man had on an old felt hat.  They were, even by the loose standards of the two pioneer women, unbelieva­bly dirty. 

            The man held his hand up in greeting.   There was no sign of a weapon on either of them.   The man pointed to his stomach, then moved his hand to his mouth and chewed. 

            Olga asked, "What's he doing?"

            "He's asking for food."  Christina stepped closer to the Indians.  They looked frail.   They were not at all like the vicious bloodthirsty savages she had expected.  Reassured by their appearance, she moved within five feet of them and looked into the man's eyes.  He stared back passively.  There was no fear or hate.   Then she looked into the woman's eyes and was surprised by the look of pleading.  The woman's large eyes brought back memories of Bossy as she lay dying.  These people were hungry.  Hunger she could understand.  Her nervousness had disappeared, but she still felt a need to be cautious.  Not taking her eyes off them, she shouted to Olga, "I think if we give them some food, they will move on."

            "No, I will not feed savages," Olga protested.

             "Olga, look at them.  Look at their eyes.  They're harmless, hungry people.  Feed them; let them move on.  You have extra bread and there's meat.  Please, I don't want to see them go on hungry.  It will be a long way before they find anyone with food to give them again."

            Olga hesitated.  Finally she decided that Christina was determined to feed them.  She felt a need to keep her contented.  After all, if more Indians came, Christina with her gun was her only protection.  She gave up her opposition with a, "All right, but I don't think it's a good idea."

             Olga went into her kitchen and brought out bread and cold meat.  She indicated to the Indians that they could not eat near the house.  As they ate, she watched them carefully and indicated to Christina by her facial expression her disgust at the way the Indians wolfed down the food using their hands.

            Christina watched, thankful that she no longer had to go days without a good meal.  She was pleased to be able to help them.   For her the message in their eyes had turned them into two hungry people like herself.   She no longer  saw the two savages that Olga saw.  "Olga, just think; they've had their old life taken away by us coming here."

            Olga looked at her as if Christina were losing her mind.  She was treating these wild people as if they were as good as Christians.  She locked her jaw and held back from saying, "I'll be glad when Meyer gets back.  He talks sense about Indians."

            The next day two more figures moved on the horizon.  Chris­tina quickly recognized by their hats that it was Andrew Bakke and his oldest son, Elmer.

            After Christina explained about their visitors, Andrew went on, "Well, those weren't the ones you'd been warned about.  We heard the story about them on our way home.  A week ago a couple of Indians some distance west of here got hold of some firewater and went on a toot.  You know liquor makes an Indian crazy.   Well, those two stole some cattle and burned down one settler's shack.  Wasn't no one home when they did it, so no one got hurt.  The sheriff got them back on the reservation by now.  I don't know where the Indians you fed might have come from."

            After hearing of her adventures with the gun, Andrew said,   "If we get more savages visiting us, some might be more than hungry.  You've got to learn to shoot the gun better.  I will teach you how to hit the rock."            

"No, I don't want to know more.   Someone else will have to shoot at the Indians."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

President Harry S. Truman

Truman’s hometown keeps famous son’s memory alive

"I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I was going back to … After nearly eight years in the White House and 10 years in the Senate, I found myself right back where I started in Independence, Missouri."

— Harry Truman

When he left office, President Harry Truman’s approval rating was down to only 30 percent, but with time, estimation of his contributions as president has changed. A recent poll of historians ranked him the fifth-greatest president, behind Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and the two Roosevelts.

Who was this man who came from nowhere, a man who would have been content to be a Missouri farmer married to Bess Wallace?

The people of Independence are prepared and eager to answer that question.

Truman was a product of his life in Independence, and the town played a large role in what he became. Few U.S. cities have so many places associated with one president. It was here he courted and married Bess, had his home, started his career and had a museum and library dedicated to him.

On May 3, 2003 a ceremony opened a walking trail that stops at 44 places in Independence associated with Truman. Before everyone expected presidents to jog to stay healthy, Truman was famous for his fast-paced long walks, so it is fitting that a trail has been developed to commemorate his contributions.

The self-guided Truman Historic Walking Trail travels past his friends’ homes and the major sights Truman would have seen on his daily walks. It includes a couple of trees, one a ginkgo tree he used to talk to on his walks.

He would say to it as he passed, "You’re doing a good job."

Visitors should begin at the Offices for the National Park Services in the old Fire Station No. 1 at Truman Avenue and Main Street. There is a brochure for the self-guided tour. A 12-minute narrated slide show, composed of pictures from the family archives, gives a background of their lives in the Truman House.

Here, tickets are sold for a guided tour of the house five blocks away. The house was declared a national historic site in 1984, two years after Bess’ death.

President Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri

National Park Service personnel conduct the tours of the house; they can answer questions on many aspects of the house’s and the family’s history. Only eight people at a time are allowed into the house for the tours — 32 a day, each 15 minutes long.

The house, which receives 45,000 visitors a year, has been left just as it was when Bess died. Only the first floor is open for tours, but it gives a taste of the lifestyle of a remarkable American. Truman’s hat and coat still hang in the hallway. Of special interest to me was his well-stocked personal library. He had only a high school education but was a voracious reader.

Included on the walking tour is Trinity Episcopal Church, where the Trumans were married in 1919 after a nine-year courtship. He was 35, she 34. In letters, he claimed he had been in love with her since he was 6 and she was 5 when they met in Sunday school.

Bess’ mother, who came from a genteel family, was not enamored of her lovely daughter marrying a man like Harry, who had no prospects. Besides, in the early days of the century, the church you belonged to indicated your social status.

Harry marries the love of his life Bess

Truman was a Baptist, and Bess was Presbyterian, a wide social divide at that time.

Their daughter, Margaret, was married in Trinity Episcopal Church, and Bess’s funeral was there. The couple is buried in the courtyard of the Truman Library-Museum, which is also on the tour. Truman, who died at age 88 in 1972, made the arrangements for his own funeral.

"It’s going to be a mighty fine show," he said."I’m sorry I’m going to miss it."

The Truman family left the farm at Lamar and moved to Independence when Harry was 1 year old. When we went by the house, the owner was out mowing the lawn.

I suspect he gets a bit annoyed with people constantly dropping by and taking pictures.

On the other hand, the lawn and the house were in good condition, so he might be doing something to keep the tourists happy.

We were told the house has been changed since Truman’s parents lived there, and the area surrounding it is no longer filled with the cows, horses and chickens that were the property of his father, who was a dealer in livestock.

A plaque marks the house of a reporter, Sue Gentry from the Independence Examiner, a good friend of the Trumans who often got inside scoops.

The Clinton Pharmacy, where Truman got his first job for $3 a week, still stands in downtown Independence, not far from the courthouse where he worked as a judge. At the courthouse, which houses the Truman Courtroom, a statue of Truman stands on one side and one of Andrew Jackson is on the other. A 35-minute film discusses the events that influenced his thinking and helped shape his character.

Guides at the visitor’s center or the Truman Home can tell many stories about the family. For example, when Truman first campaigned for the Senate, he didn’t have money for hotels and was forced to sleep in his car.

Another story involves a close friend whom Truman asked to bring his shotgun and come over to shoot the pigeons around his house. When the man came over and began to shoot, it alarmed the Secret Service men who had been assigned to protect Truman after his presidency.

The Truman family farm, which he operated from 1906-17, is part of the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site and is 20 miles south of Independence.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Franklin Rososevelt's Memorial

Roosevelt’s enduring greatness set in stone

In the third room of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, there is a large sculpture of Roosevelt with his dog Fala. The artist conveyed the president with a tired look meant to convey the demands the war had placed on him.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - As it was a hot day in the nation’s capital, I almost passed up visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial because it was some distance from the other memorials that I wanted to visit on the National Mall. Skipping the memorial would have been a big mistake.

It is unusual for me to visit a site without reading something about it first, but I hadn’t done my homework. I didn’t know what to expect, and I thought the first room was the whole memorial, with its sculpture of Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair.

When the memorial was erected in 1997, disability activists complained that it didn’t show him confined to a wheelchair, a result of polio in 1921. This illness had been an important factor in who he was and what he had to overcome to serve as our 32nd president from 1933 to 1945.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Franklin’s illness…gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons - infinite patience and never-ending persistence."

As he wanted to project an image of strength in the difficult years of depression and war, he went to great lengths to ensure that in public his wheelchair was never shown. However, as attitudes had changed, the original designers responded to the protesters and added the statue of him in a wheelchair in 2001.

Once I stepped beyond Room 1, my response was, "Well, this is tremendous." The series of waterfalls, massive red granite rocks, striking sculptures, quiet pools and words of wisdom from Roosevelt engraved on the walls combined to form the most impressive memorial for an individual I have ever seen.

What are called rooms are granite-walled, open spaces with lovely waterfalls or fountains and a minimum of objects, making those that are there much more meaningful. The rooms stretch along the Tidal Basin across from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. I had the feeling of walking through several secluded spaces in contrast to standing earlier before an imposing structure such as the Lincoln Memorial.

Designer Lawrence Halprin set up the memorial as a series of five spaces, the first a Prologue Room and four other rooms, one for each of Roosevelt’s terms in office. The room commemorating his second term had the most impact on me. Here in a bread line stand five sad-faced figures obviously embarrassed by their plight. Nearby are an elderly couple who look hungry, and some distance away a man leans toward his radio as he listens to one of Roosevelt’s inspiring fireside chats.

About 30 percent of workers were unemployed in the early 1930s. As a child, I remember pulling my little red wagon as I walked downtown with my mother to pick up food from the relief place. She was embarrassed that we couldn’t produce enough food in our own garden but would deal with the shame if it meant food for my brother and me. My father earned some money that helped us survive working for the Works Progress Administration. Making work and food available for us was credited to Roosevelt. Along with our relatives and neighbors, my parents considered him one of America’s greatest men; and the Social Security program was among his many social and economic reforms.

Sad faced men stand in a bread line during the depression

In a third room is a large seated figure of Roosevelt, his shoulders covered in a robe, and his Scottish terrier Fala at his feet. The artist has captured the tired look that was the result of the demands the war placed on the president. In the fourth room is a magnificent statue of his wife, Eleanor, who did so much for human rights and often pushed Franklin into making decisions that benefited minorities.

One of the 21 quotations inscribed on the walls particularly impressed me. "I have seen war … I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded … I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed … I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war." Having been in trauma zones helping after the devastations caused by war, I am in complete agreement.

Waterfalls add to charm of thee Roosevelt memorial in Washington, DC


Sunday, May 1, 2011


Hoover museum an eye-opener

A re-creation of the living room in Hoover’s suite at the Waldorf Towers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in West Branch, Iowa, was an eye-opening delight. Only one other presidential museum, that of Gerald Ford, has done as much to show me aspects of a president I had not known before. Hoover had to have been one of the most talented men to become president, and one with one of the poorest reputations. It is a clear example of how presidents can be blamed for events over which they have little control or disasters that were actually set up by previous administrations.

What is often seen as a failed presidency was only 5 percent of a truly remarkable life; and as you walk past the displays detailing his life, it feels like you are walking through a Horatio Alger novel. This is the remarkable story an orphan’s rise to great heights through a combination of talent, hard work, historical context and a bit of blarney at the right time.

Hoover’s father died when he was 7; his mother when he was 10. The three Hoover children were split up, and he was sent to a stern uncle in Oregon. He later got into Stanford University and studied engineering. When he saw a job listing for a job calling for a much older man, he grew a mustache, bought a fancy suit and passed himself as older. He was sent to Australia, where he discovered he had a talent for finding gold and working with miners. The company sent him to China, where his skills continued to bring him attention and the opportunity to travel widely around the world. His wife, Lou Henry, and he lived in China long enough to speak the language, and they continued to speak it when they didn’t want others to understand what they were saying.

A recreation of Hoover’s White House Office

Hoover became very rich and felt, probably because of his Quaker upbringing, that there was more to life than making money. He wanted to be involved in humanitarian activities. Because of the climate of World War I, Belgian children were starving to death. With the cooperation of the Germans and Allies, he made arrangements to get the facilities to bring in food. After the war, he was placed in charge of the program to prevent massive starvation in Europe, and he showed great organizational skills in getting the job done. In 1928, he won the presidency by a landslide. Nine months later in November, the ax fell, and the market collapsed. He couldn’t dent the problem and was blamed for it continuing.

Franklin Roosevelt beat him in 1932 and he went into forced retirement in disgrace. After World War II, Harry Truman asked him to again help with the recovery in Europe. He was called the Great Humanitarian. In the museum, old people who were survivors of famines after both wars give testimonials on one monitor to what hunger does to people and how important Hoover’s work was.

Herbert Hoover as fisherman, one of his favorite pastimes.

He was the first president to use radio, and one section plays some of his speeches, and another section uses three monitors to give his inauguration. One room of the exhibit is a replica of his office in the New York Waldorf Towers, where he lived for 25 years. In the room is his color TV set playing interviews he had with various newsmen.

Life-sized figures throughout show him as various ages, as a 10 year old, a young engineer, a man of wealth and as president.

Hoover’s father’s blacksmith shop has been restored.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Presdients' Museums--Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson Our 28th President

Being a fan of presidential libraries, I decided to visit the Woodrow Wilson Library and Museum in Staunton, Va. Modern presidents spend millions on their library/museum complexes with multimedia presentations. Older presidential libraries such as Wilson’s are done on a shoestring but still prove extremely interesting.

Our 28th president’s complex includes the house where he was born, a museum that tells of his life and times, a small library and book store. Most displays were built around pictures and commentary artfully arranged.

Wilson was born in 1856 in the Presbyterian Manse, but his father, the minister, took another position while Wilson was very young. The home has been renovated and contains items from the family and other donated items from the pre-Civil War period. The family was very musical, and their piano and a guitar were on prominent display.

In the museum, we learned Wilson was dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until he was 11. Despite this handicap, he wrote books, earned a doctorate and became president of Princeton. He became governor of New Jersey and went on to win the presidency against two former presidents, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. He often took rigid stances on issues and did not compromise well.

Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson, with whom he had three daughters, gave up a career as an artist to become a full-time mother. He was devastated when she died early in his presidency. He later married Edith Galt, a powerhouse of a woman who helped run the White House. When he had a series of strokes that left him unable to run the government, she covered for him and made many of the presidential decisions.

At first he kept us out of World War I but eventually was pressured into getting us involved. Later, he pushed for the League of Nations, but the Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, stopped our involvement. For his efforts to form the League of Nations, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.

I knew he had supported women’s right to vote, but two new facts I learned were that he had vetoed the act that created Prohibition, but Congress overrode his veto. The second fact was a surprise to me. He was a white supremacist and established official segregation in government offices. Wilson and his Cabinet members fired many black Republican-appointed officeholders.

An advocate for funding public highways, he very much enjoyed riding with the top down in his presidential 1919 Pierce Arrow limousine. When he left office, a friend bought it for him. After his death in 1924, the car was unattended for years but recently has been rebuilt and is on display.

President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 Pierce Arrow limousine was given to him after his presidency.