Harry Truman paid off his last debt Wednesday.
The former president — actually, longtime Truman impersonator Niel Johnson — handed $56.63 to Truman’s former paperboy, who said he never was paid for about six months worth of newspapers delivered to Truman’s Independence home in 1947.
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“Honesty was one of my policies,” Johnson told George Lund.
The account was settled, with interest, before a large crowd at the Tallgrass Creek retirement community in Overland Park, where Lund, 80, now lives.
Before the ceremony, Lund said he wasn’t sure he wanted the debt to be paid. It had always made for such a great story.
“And I thought that if I ever got paid, I wouldn’t be able to tell the story again,” said Lund, a retired architect.
The story surfaced a year ago. After attending a Truman continuing education program at his retirement community, Lund mentioned that Truman still owed him from his newspaper route. In 1947 Lund, then 15, delivered The Independence Examiner to Truman’s door for about six months.
Lund then handed off the route to a successor, saying if Truman ever made good on the approximately $7.50 owed, he wanted it.
But he never got it.
The story suggested a slightly different Harry Truman than the one who worked for more than 10 years to pay off debts related to his downtown Kansas City haberdashery, which failed in 1922.
Truman Library archivists consulted the vast archive of Truman family financial documents released last year but found no unpaid Examiner invoice from the late 1940s amid the canceled checks and household receipts.
But representatives of the Truman Library Institute, the library’s nonprofit support organization that paid off the bill, never demanded one.
“More than anything, it’s a fun story,” said Judy Turner, the institute’s development officer.
“And being that this is May, Mr. Truman’s birthday month, it seemed a good time to honor, recognize and remember him. We also thought this would be a good way to reiterate how the buck stopped here.”
But what had happened in 1947?
As Lund explained Wednesday, there were circumstances.
Bess Truman, the president’s wife, was particular about The Examiner being left right outside the front door, on the porch. But later a security fence was installed around the Truman home and federal security officers, Lund said, sometimes would take Lund’s newspaper and place it on the porch.
Did they sometimes not do it to Bess Truman’s satisfaction?
Other times, the same officers allowed Lund to — as he did with every customer on his route — knock on the front door and ask for payment.
“But nobody ever answered,” Lund said.
One possible complicating factor: The subscriber was president of the United States. Sometimes he was in Washington.
“It’s possible this was done on a cash basis, without receipts,” said Randy Sowell, Truman Library archivist who failed to find supporting evidence in the Truman family financial documents.
Less of a challenge was finding evidence of Truman being angry at newspapers.
In a 1949 letter written to William Southern, The Examiner’s longtime editor, Truman wondered why he, the sitting president, seemed so rarely mentioned by the newspaper.
“Is it circulation, advertising, or what?” Truman wrote.
He wrote a similar letter the following year to The Kansas City Star. But Truman refusing payment to a newsboy just because of a pique with a publisher didn’t seem right to Clifton Truman Daniel, the former president’s eldest grandson.
“It doesn’t sound much like my grandfather,” said Daniel, who lives in Chicago. “I don’t think Grandpa would have stiffed the young man just because he was mad at the newspaper. Maybe the newspaper carrier left an envelope and it blew off the porch.
“But I think it’s great this is happening.”
After Lund received the money Wednesday, he announced that he would donate it to Quilts of Valor, a group that makes quilts for veterans.
And he said he had forgiven Mr. Truman.
“I know he had bigger things to do,” he said.