“The Man From Missouri”
A Trip To The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
BY RAY SPECKMAN
On April 12, 1945, after being vice president of the United States for only 82 days, Harry S. Truman of Independence, Mo., was sworn in as president following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence stands as a memorial to this president who, when he left office, was beleaguered and maligned and at the depths of public popularity ratings.
The years since Truman’s death in 1972 have been vindicating to “the man from Missouri.” He was thrust into politics aboard the infamous Pendergast political regime of Kansas City and became a bulwark of integrity and passion in the U. S. Senate. Today, he and his faithful but headstrong wife, his beloved Bess, are buried in a simple grave in the Library & Museum’s courtyard.
The home where they lived and to which First Lady Truman retreated for weeks upon end during the presidential administration is restored and is also open for public viewing. As I visited, I kept expecting to see the dapper president, cane in hand, felt hat tilted on confident head, walking down Independence Street, as Secret Service agents scurried to keep up with the farm-raised Missourian.
The Library & Museum is open seven days a week. It is one of 13 Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. The tour is well worth the ticket price of $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for children.
Truman was 60 years old when he was, as he described it, “struck by a lightning bolt” — the death of President Roosevelt. World War II was still being waged in Europe and in the Pacific, and there was a bomb called an atomic bomb being built, which Truman, a forgotten man during his brief vice presidency, did not even know existed. In fact, Truman had seen President Roosevelt only twice during his 82-day tenure as vice president.
Whether Truman was the first or second Missourian to serve in the nation’s highest office depends on whether one counts the one day in 1849 when U.S. Senator David Rice Atchison might have been president. But that’s a whole other story.
The museum has ever-changing exhibits on the tenure of Truman — his trials and tribulations, his candor and, yes, his vulgarity. The life-sized replica of the White House Oval Office contains his famous desk-top adornment, “The Buck Stops Here.”
There is also an exhibit that tells of the famous whistle-stop campaign Truman conducted when, nominated by the Democrats, he was a prohibitive underdog to his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York. The campaign ended with Truman going to bed at the Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs. As he slept, the Chicago Tribune — facing a press deadline that didn’t leave time for election results — published a front headline screaming, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The museum’s exhibit includes the famous photo of a gleeful Truman lifting the headline.
Behind the scenes is the Truman Library. This is a wonderland of information for Truman researchers and for students and teachers at all levels. It has also been the main stomping grounds for biographers such as David McCullough, Robert Ferrell, Merle Miller, Alonzo Hamby and dozens of other Truman scholars.
Original documents are fastidiously stored and archived by a dedicated group of archivists and research assistants, who gladly provide original or copied documents to visitors.
In 1962, Elizabeth “Liz” Safly became the heart and soul of the library. Directors and researchers come and go, but Safly, a research room librarian and archivist, worked at the Truman Library & Museum for 47 years, almost until her passing in 2012. In nearly every written work relative to Truman, Safly has a mention. David McCullough, who authored the national best seller Truman, said it best in his acknowledgements: “the very good-natured, resourceful Elizabeth Safly … a mine of marvelous information.”
I’ve had the pleasure over the years to know many of the people at the Library & Museum. Liz remains a personal favorite. She was the bottom line when it comes to dedication and knowledge.
Ray Speckman can be found wandering around the stacks at the Truman Library or at firstname.lastname@example.org.