Tribute paid to Liz Safly, keeper of the Truman story

Warm, consistent and, yes, a little spicy.

That described the chili served Thursday night at Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence.

It also summed up the person in whose honor it was served: Liz Safly, longtime head of the Truman Library research room. Safly, who died in September at age 78, helped legions of Truman scholars, famous and otherwise, conduct their research.

She had retired in 2009, following a stroke, ending a 47-year library career. Her passing, colleagues and friends decided, couldn’t go unobserved.

So they served chili, in honor of the annual “Battery D” chili spreads that Safly organized. They were based on the recipe of the mess cook of Harry Truman’s World War I artillery unit.

Before the chili, however, about 60 friends and colleagues offered memories during a one-hour memorial service.

Some who couldn’t attend sent word in advance, and testified to Safly’s personal warmth in her role in assisting scholars.

“To walk into the research room and see her there at her post was to know you were you were in for a good time with good results,” David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Truman biographer, said in a letter read aloud.

“She had such wonderful energy, such a grand sense of humor and love of life.”

Others spoke of her consistency.

Upon her retirement Safly – who had served 47 years, two months and 22 days – had the longest tenure of any current employee across the entire National Archives and Records Administration. She started at the Truman Library in 1962, five years after it opened. When she retired, Safly was the last library employee to have worked with the former president, who died in 1972.

And yet she wasn’t satisfied, said Safly’s daughter, Peg Dzicek of Jefferson City.

A Library of Congress employee, her mother sometimes said, had served 52 years before his death. Her mother thought she could beat that number and was disappointed when health issues prompted her retirement.

“That was a burr under her saddle,” Dzicek said.

And, finally, she could be spicy, in a gentle way.

Amy Williams, library deputy director, recalled Safly’s eye-rolling rebuke upon considering the small plate of chopped onions that Williams had brought to her first Battery D chili spread. Safly shoved the plate aside and replaced it with a full bag of onions, which the two proceeded to chop up.

All the speakers testified to Safly’s signature accomplishment: the efficient distillation and distribution of the Harry Truman story.

They described the “vertical file,” Safly’s name for a group of tall file cabinets that held thousands of articles on hundreds of Truman-related topics. These articles gave instant perspective to scholars working with a finite amount of time or grant money.

Eventually, Safly would file and shelve the articles and books these same scholars produced.

This cumulative process, wrote Richard Kirkendall, retired history professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, helped produce the library’s reputation as “a highly regarded research and education center with a local, national and global reach.”