Two new caretakers of Harry Truman’s local legacy met for the first time recently.
Carol Dage and Kurt Graham — just-announced administrators for the Truman National Historic Site and the Truman Library, respectively — sat down to discuss their joint challenge of finding fresh ways to tell a familiar story.
Graham can point to that experience on his resume.
As director of the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo., Graham supervised the physical renovation of that facility. As director for the past five years of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah, he led the redesign of that museum’s history exhibits.
Much physical renovation at the Truman Library already has been completed. Dedication of the library’s exhibit on the Truman presidency occurred in 2001, following a $22.5 million fundraising campaign.
But any exhibit can benefit from a fresh perspective, Graham said.
“We would like to bring everything into the 21st century in terms of how museums relate to visitors, and there’s technology available that can enhance that,” Graham said.
Graham said he was impressed by the area programming developed by the Truman Library Institute, the library’s nonprofit support organization. But he does imagine a bigger Truman Library profile, both across Kansas City and beyond.
“We want to connect with the local community, but also we want to set our sights on increasing the Truman Library’s reach,” Graham said. “Truman has an incredible presidential legacy, and it deserves more national and international exposure.”
That’s not quite the job description for Dage, a staff member at the Truman National Historic Site for 26 years and acting superintendent for the past several months.
Visitors to the site seek an authentic encounter with the former president, who lived as a Grandview farmer and Independence politician. Accordingly, Dage’s job is to preserve the Truman Home and Truman Farm Home.
At the white 14-room Victorian home at 219 N. Delaware St. in Independence, that means continuing to supervise the lead paint abatement of the screened-in porch ceilings and handrails, as well as replacing the fence that surrounds the home.
At the Truman Farm Home at 12301 Blue Ridge Blvd. in Grandview, that means reopening the home to visitors after budget problems shuttered it in 2013.
Availability of the several buildings that make up the historic site were affected by recent federal budget battles. In 2013, the Independence home closed two days a week, as well as federal holidays. The Noland home, the renovated residence of two Truman aunts, which had opened in 2012 as a visitors center, closed entirely.
The farm home traditionally had been open for summer tours. But without funds to hire seasonal staff, the National Park Service could not schedule tours of the home’s interior.
That changed last year, Dage said.
“We were told that the budget levels were not as impacted as they had been previously,” Dage said.
Now, during the summer, the Truman and Noland homes are open to visitors seven days a week.
It remains closed now more for staffing issues than financial issues, Dage said. She hopes to fill several positions in the coming months. Meanwhile, visitors still can take walking tours of the grounds. Long-term plans include turning a former paint store near the home into a visitors center.
Dage and Graham are inspired by the opportunity to tell the Truman story. Having served in various posts over her time at the historic site, Dage is as personally invested in the Truman legacy as anyone in Independence.
“Truman was such a down-to-earth person, and people relate to that,” Dage said.
“Having grown up on a Missouri farm, I can relate to hard work and the ethic Harry Truman had to complete work to the best of his ability.”
Graham wants younger visitors to know the remarkable personal example Truman’s story represents.
“People used to say, in an almost derogatory way, that if Harry Truman could be president, anybody could. But looking at that in a more positive way, we celebrate that. If Truman could become president, we are a government of the people.”