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Childhoods of the Presidents: Harry Truman

Author John Cech
Air Date 5/8/2002

Childhoods of the Presidents: Harry Truman Transcript

Today, on the birthday of Harry S. Truman, we are beginning an on-going series of programs about the childhoods of the American Presidents. One wonders, of course, if, with these figures who have been and are so conspicuous in the public eye, there were indications in their boyhood of the men they would become. In the early 1800s, when Mason Locke Weems was writing the first biography of George Washington, he needed an example (for the young readers of the new nation) of Washington’s youthful display of character. And when the ones he found in the biographical record weren’t quite it, he made one up — the famous Cherry Tree story.

With Harry S. Truman, there was also an apocryphal story associated with his childhood. His father, John Truman, is said to have planted a seedling pine tree in honor of his new (and first) child. And then (and this is the part that the facts can’t confirm), he nailed a mule shoe for good luck up above a doorway of the little house in tiny Lamar, Missouri, where the 33rd-President-to-be was born. At the time John Truman was a dealer in mules, which he kept in the barn across the street from the house. We do know that the “S” in Truman’s middle name is just an “S” — it doesn’t stand for any other name, but was left as an initial in order to honor both of his grandfathers, whose names began with “S.”

Young Harry seems to have internalized this concern with pleasing both sides as a child, according to David McCullough in his wonderful biography of Truman. In fact, Truman wrote about himself: “When I was growing up it occurred to me to watch the people around me to find out what they thought and what pleased them most. . . . I used to watch my father and my mother closely to learn what I could do to please them, just as I did with my schoolteachers and playmates.” Obviously, such skills would come in handy as a national politician. Truman reportedly never got into a fight as a boy or a teenager. He was small, and from the age of four wore glasses, and seemed to be more comfortable reading or hanging out in the kitchen, talking to his mother and the other women in the household, than he was rough-housing with the boys. But he also inherited his father’s fiery temper, and his tough-as-nails, no-nonsense work ethic that showed the boy, from the start, that the buck always stopped at his own front door.

Truman by David McCullough. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

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