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Discover Mid-America — July 2007

2007 marks the
50th Anniversary of the Truman Presidential Museum & Library

by Bruce Rodgers

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” — Harry S. Truman’s remarks to reporters on April 13, 1945, the day after President Franklin Roosevelt died.

It would be hard to accept that any politician today would admit to such apprehension as Truman did that day he assumed the presidency.

The political term “spin” wasn’t around when Truman held office. And it wasn’t in his nature to employ it. His DNA carried truthfulness more than the germ of political expediency.

The Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence, MO.

There was little pretension to the man. His elegance came from a grounding in the struggle to hang his success on some level of honest work and effort, be it leading men in war, running a farm, being a haberdasher or entering the realm of politics.

Consequently, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum & Library, endures in a steadfast recognition of our 33rd president — an approachable place, devoid of glitz yet modern in message, run by ordinary Americans proud of their place of employment and giving visitors a straightforward presentation of the man and the period of time when he lived and helped govern this nation.

Second presidential library

It was Franklin Roosevelt who began the presidential library system. Before him, there was no “unified, systematic process” of collecting presidential papers, said Amy Williams, deputy director of the Truman Museum & Library. Williams began her career as an archivist and has been at the library since 1998.

Some past presidents gave their papers to the Library of Congress but there was no law stating they had to do anything with them, said Williams.

“Actually, there are a couple of famous tales of them (past presidents) taking them home and burning them because they didn’t want the stuff reported for history,” Williams said.

Congress established a mechanism for centralized record keeping in 1934 by creating the National Archives. In 1939, Roosevelt made the first presidential archival depository for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY.

The National Archives became part of the General Services Administration in 1949 and in 1985 became an independent agency as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA administers the 12 presidential libraries.

Truman embraced Roosevelt’s initiative. Both the Truman and Roosevelt libraries, however, are different than the presidential libraries coming after them.

“We’re a deed-to-gift library, which means Harry Truman gave his materials to the federal government,” said Williams.

The other ten presidential libraries operate under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which made all presidential records created after Jan. 20, 1981 property of the United States, effectively transferring ownership from private to public.

Truman and artist Tom Hart Benton discuss a sketch of Benton's mural for the Truman Library. (photo courtesy of the Truman Library)

That law also gives the President — and the Vice President — discretion in restricting public access to records. It also means libraries under the Presidential Records Act get more federal funding

“The Truman Library is what is referred to in the system as one of the ‘mature’ libraries,” said Williams.

“What that means is that a vast majority of our holdings are processed and available to researchers, and that puts us in a very different position as one of the Presidential Records Act libraries, which operate under different federal laws. They do get a larger appropriation than we do because they’re under a lot of federal legal obligations that we are not.”

Currently, the Truman Presidential Museum & Library annual budget is less than $2 million. The Harry S. Truman Library Institute serves as the nonprofit fundraising arm of the institution.

Truman’s idea for a library was a little different than Roosevelt’s in one aspect. He wanted his library “to be more of a place where people could come and learn about the presidency as an institution — executive powers, decision making as president as opposed to come and learn about Harry Truman,” Williams said.

But from the very beginning the library had a lot do to with the man. The Independence, MO location wasn’t the former president’s first choice.

“There was quite a debate about the location,” said Williams. “President Truman originally wanted it on the farm in Grandview, MO. He was very adamant that he wanted it on the family farm.

“He sent out one of the his aides, George Elsey (special assistant) to discuss it with his family because he had a younger brother and sister who lived out there.”

Yet, the negotiations didn’t go well.

Said Williams, “(John) Vivian Truman, a farmer himself (on nearby land) told Elsey in no uncertain terms — in a colorful manner — that there was no way a perfectly good farm was going to be used to build some ‘darn’ library. And that was the end of the Grandview adventure.”

Other locations were considered at the University of Missouri in Columbia and in Kansas City. Finally, the city of Independence stepped up and offered some parkland, with the promise to expand the property, near U.S. Highway 24. The site was only three blocks or so from the Truman home.

In July 1957, the Truman Presidential Museum & Library was opened. With it, the Harry S. Truman Library Corporation deeded the property to the federal government. This year marks the library’s 50th anniversary and a list of related events can be found at www.trumanlibrary.org.

Today, the collection consists of more than 15 million manuscript pages, over 100,000 still photographs, nearly 28,000 museum artifacts including film footage, audio recordings, oral histories and other items.

On-site presence

It’s hard to imagine former Presidents Bush or Clinton spending much time at their presidential libraries. These days the prestige of the office carries on beyond the term in office, and former presidents make the most of it. Not so much so in Truman’s time.

Harry S. Truman opens the gate to begin his morning walk. (photo courtesy of the Truman Library)

Truman was relatively unpopular when in left office in January 1953. But he was also relieved.

“No one knows what responsibility the Presidency puts on a man,” he wrote in a letter to his cousin, Ethel Noland, on Jan. 2, 1953. “It bears down on a country boy.”

Like any country boy, retirement was not an option with Truman. So Truman came to work at the library that bore his name. And since the Truman home was only a few blocks away, then naturally a country boy would walk. And Truman walked fast — some 120 steps a minute by some estimates.

From 1957 to 1963, Truman spent five to six days at the library said Williams After a fall in 1963, Truman spent less time at his library office.

But when he was “at work,” Truman received dignitaries and friends, worked on his memoirs and served as guide to film and TV documentaries. There were few things at the library that Truman didn’t get involved in, including training the first set of docents in how to give a tour.

“One of the things he loved to do,” said Williams, “is have the ladies up front call him when there was a school tour. He’d have the kids gather in the auditorium and he would just walk in and talk to them, completely unannounced.

“So there are kids all over town — older folks now who have these memories of Mr. Truman talking to them when they came to the library in elementary school.”

Other stories have Truman answering the general phone line when it rang too many times and barking “9 to 5” when someone asked about hours.

A year after the library opened Kansas City businessman Randall Jesse helped introduce Truman to artist Thomas Hart Benton. There was talk of a mural at the library by Benton.

In June 1958, Benton received a commission to paint “Independence and the Opening of the West” on the blank wall at the entry way in the main lobby leading to the White House Gallery. The story goes that Truman wasn’t all that fond of Benton’s style but agreed to the concept after viewing Benton’s sketches and talking with him. Benton started painting in December 1959.

As time when on, Truman apparently became irritated at Benton’s pace toward completion.

According to Williams, the story goes that Truman came out of his office one day and yelled up at Benton, who was up on the scaffolding, “When are you going to get this thing done? Speed it up!”

“And Benton yelled down, ‘You think it’s so easy, get up here and do it yourself.’

“Truman did, scampering up the scaffolding, and began painting some of the blue sky,” said Williams.

Mounted near the mural is a photograph of a smiling Truman climbing up onto the scaffolding. Other museum photographs have Benton “supervising” Truman painting the corner of the blue sky.

Exhibits and other offerings

The Truman Presidential Museum & Library has two permanent exhibits: “Harry S. Truman: The Presidential Years” and “Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times,” which is located on the lower level.

According to Clay Bauske, museum curator, two to four “changing exhibitions” are presented in the course of a typical year. Also located on the lower level, and on display through Jan. 4, 2008, is “Treasures of the Presidents.”

This exhibit features more than 200 original artifacts from all 12 of the nation’s presidential libraries. Included are presidential gifts received from heads-of-state and four video stations showing such things as the Nixon-Kennedy television debates, President Jimmy Carter’s fireside chat about America’s energy crisis and TV political ads, from the famous 1964 “daisy” ad implying Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would use the atomic bomb if elected, to future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy speaking Spanish in support of her husband’s election bid.

Interactive exhibits, from “sound sticks,” video and audio tapes, to letters and correspondence of “Truman: In His Own Words” play a big part of presenting Truman’s presidency, the challenges of being president and Truman’s life.

The Whistlestop Campaign, a part of "Harry S. Truman: The Presidential Years" exhibit. Visitors can use the telephone bank to hear excerpts of Truman's speeches as the train traveled to towns across America. (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

A 15-minute film on Truman’s life introduces the Presidential Years exhibit. It’s a teaser for the rest of the exhibit, and a good one. Find out that Truman was not a good public speaker but “talked farming” to get elected to the U.S. Senate, and once there was known as “the Senator from Pendergast” because of his connections to the Kansas City political boss.

Presidential Years carries a visitor through U.S. and world history from roughly 1945, when Truman became president on the death of Franklin Roosevelt to A Living Legacy – Who’s Quoting Truman? exhibit about the numerous politicians, both Republican, Democrat and Independent — who continue to this day — to invoke the Truman name as a sort of moniker underlining their own political trustfulness and decision-making ability.

Impressive are two “Decision Theaters” that ask visitors their opinion concerning Truman’s decision on recognizing Israel and another that asks how a president should balance “the rights of individuals with the needs of national security?”

One light-hearted video contains clips of a 1959 television program where comedian Jack Benny, known to never reveal his age, is asked by Truman — under a portrait of George Washington — how old he is.

Official portrait of President Harry S. Truman. (photo courtesy of the Truman Library)

“Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times” has no fewer than “ten interactive elements primarily designed for younger audiences,” said Bauske, the museum curator. Included is a quiz on Truman’s life and an activity where children can create their own campaign buttons.

Bauske said all the interactive elements of the permanent exhibits were designed by museum staff and exhibit design firms.

The Library makes a strong effort at educating young people through its educational programs. An effort in keeping with what Truman hoped the library would be known for.

Through various program activities, many designed for specific grade levels and to further teachers’ education, the mission for Truman Presidential Museum & Library is in presenting a learning experience so diverse audiences may:

• Better understand history, government and the American political system

• Reflect on how Truman’s life, his presidency and legacy relate to current issues, and to

• Think critically and make informed decisions on these issues.


Knowing Truman, at least a little bit

Liz Safly began work at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in April 1962 as a library technician. By then the other staff members — “There were only six or seven people on staff,” said Safly — probably had gotten use to the former president being in the building. Safly said she was unaware the former president had a regular presence at the museum when she was hired.

Liz Safly began her career at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library when former President Truman still came to his office there five or six days a week. She is the last staff member working to have that association. (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

Safly’s main responsibility was to transcribe oral histories — some 600 interviews — of people who knew Truman or worked in the White House during his administration. In doing so, Safly said she was impressed by the how some on his staff admired him, particularly special assistant George Elsey and general counsel Clark Clifford.

“They loved the guy, admired him and had such affection for him,” said Safly, who added, “Truman was able to delegate and leave people alone to do their job.”

That aspect of Truman continued at the library.

“He acted more like one of the people here,” said Safly. “Most people, including me, were more scared of Miss Conway, Rose Conway, his long-time secretary.”

Conway, said Safly, weighed a mere 85 pounds and had an ulcer problem. Supposedly, she drank a beer everyday at lunch on doctor’s orders. As the story goes, one day Conway was leaving the library from the rear door when she was struck by a newspaper.

“A kid threw the Independence Examiner, which is not a very big newspaper, and knocked her down,” Safly remembered. “So the director asked me to call the newspaper and tell them to please be careful.”

Safly talked with Truman only twice. Shortly after being hired a staff member introduced her to him. The notion that Truman was “uncomfortable around women” seemed to be confirmed at that meeting.

Another time was in 1963 when New Orleans jazz trumpeter Al Hirt visited the library. Truman introduced Hirt to Safly when she was working the front desk.

Safly said Truman loved to give tours and would take people down hallways pointing out photos and other memorabilia hanging on the walls. Sometimes, he would stop at the office where Safly worked.

“Not because I was there but because there was a big painting of Chief Frank John hanging there. (And) every time he would name a different Indian. Sometimes, he would say it was a relative of ‘Francis Whitehair.’

“I don’t know if he would forget or that he just thought it was funny,” chuckled Safly.

Safly said people weren’t too impressed that she had such a close proximity to an ex-president. And from what she could tell, Truman was very friendly “or appeared that way when he was with other people,” she said.

“He seemed very normal, very uncomplicated. I think if he had any shortcomings it would be his loyalty to people that weren’t worthy of his loyalty. They were called cronies.”

Regardless, Safly rates Truman as a great president. “Scholars have ranked him in the top five or six, and I think that’s a fair assessment.”

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