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.


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