Editor's note: This story is part of a series on Kansas City's greatest people who have left us. These heroes built the community we love. Find all 10 profiles here.
The autobiography of the 33rd president of the United States begins: “My first memory is that of chasing a frog around the backyard in Cass County, Mo.”
That’s vintage Harry Truman, recalling in plain English an elusive frog that had the 2-year-old future president laughing with his Grandmother Young.
His humble roots allow Kansas City area residents, no matter their politics, to feel OK living with the memory of Harry.
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We take for granted that tourists typically spend a weekend at places bearing the Truman name: Saturday, his presidential library; Sunday, a Chiefs or Royals game at the sports complex. A side trip brings them to the Truman farm in Grandview, where a young Harry plowed with his father.
Truman Road isn’t the fanciest of thoroughfares, but that’s fitting.
From frogs to foreign policy, he spoke the language of a Missouri dirt farmer because he was one.
He served with pride as a World War I artilleryman in his 30s, then came home to lose $30,000 in a failed haberdashery.
In fact, nothing through the first half of his 88 years would suggest that Truman was destined for the White House, where he presided over the end of World War II and the rebuilding of Europe and Japan.
Winston Churchill, among others, had a dim first impression of the man from Independence. But Churchill later said of Truman: “You, more than any other man, saved Western civilization.”
Truman was hardly as ordinary as he often presented himself.
He was the first president in half a century without a college education but perhaps had a better grasp of American history than anyone else to occupy the office.
Before graduating from public high school he had devoured the complete works of William Shakespeare. And while not known for great speeches, from Truman came some of the wittiest and most practical observations of his time:
▪ “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
▪ “If you don’t have a good sense of humor, you’re in a hell of a fix."
▪ “There is nothing new in the world except the history you don’t know.”
Here’s a bit of that history: Truman forever changed driving in Jackson County after he took office as a presiding judge in 1927.
An avid motorist ever since he courted the love of his life, Bess Wallace, on Sunday drives 13 years earlier, Truman persuaded voters by a 3-to-1 ratio to pass a $6.5 million bond issue paving 200 miles of roads.
He did so without resorting to the under-the-table antics of his political sponsor, Democratic machine boss Tom Pendergast. Road contractors expecting Truman to cut them sweet deals were speechless when he told them at a meeting that all work would go to the lowest bidders.
Pendergast turned to his friends and said, “I told you that he’s the contrariest man in the county.”
Truman would then help Pendergast and City Manager Henry McElroy pitch a $40 million public improvement package that transformed the downtown skyline with a towering new City Hall, a county courthouse and Municipal Auditorium.
His ties to Pendergast allies helped Truman get elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934. (Pendergast advised him to “work hard, keep your mouth shut and answer your mail.”) Truman was re-elected in 1940, when the boss was serving time in prison for income tax evasion.
Sen. Truman gained a measure of national fame leading a committee investigating waste in the defense industry. But his credentials came into question when a sickly President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped Truman to be his running mate in the 1944 election.
Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term, during which his vice president only spoke with him twice.
Upon taking the presidential oath,Truman spoke of feeling “like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” War was winding down in Europe but there was no end in sight in the Pacific.
Nearsighted behind round spectacles, the new president spoke with a clipped Midwestern accent that jarred Americans who had spent 12 years listening to his eloquent predecessor’s radio chats.
“To many it was not that the greatest of men had fallen, but that the least of men — or at any rate the least likely of men — had assumed his place,” wrote biographer David McCullough.
Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, which hastened war’s end and averted a U.S. invasion of the mainland. He never expressed a lick of doubt about that call.
After the war he halted racial segregation within the military. On the domestic front his “Fair Deal” program expanded Social Security and guaranteed equal employment opportunities regardless of a worker’s race or religion.
Few political wags gave Truman a chance at winning the 1948 presidential election, but Harry gave ’em hell on a whistlestop train tour. By lashing out at Wall Street “bloodsuckers’ and the “do-nothing Congress,” he connected with common Americans.
Election Night wasn’t even very close.
Always mindful of their Missouri roots, the Trumans were back home visiting family when war erupted in Korea, the biggest crisis of a difficult second term. Bess counted the days until January 1953, when the two would return to Independence and live out their remaining years at their North Delaware Street home.
Strolling the sidewalks of Independence with journalists and visiting historians, Harry Truman refected on his time as president. He insisted he wouldn’t have changed any of his decisions.
“There are probably a million people who could have done the job better than I did,” he once said, “but I had the job, and I always quote an epitaph on a tombstone in a cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona:
“ ‘Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest.’ ”