Home for Harry

Sunday, September 30, 2001

INDEPENDENCE, Mo.

Harry Truman went away to Washington and lived in the White House, rubbing elbows on the world stage with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, Lauren Bacall and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

But Missouri was always Truman's home and he wasn't immune from homesickness, especially during lonely summers in Washington when his wife Bess and daughter Margaret were back in Independence.

At times like these Truman likened the White House to a prison, once confiding in a letter to his wife: "It sure is hell to be president."

So he was happy to step down in January 1953. "A short time after the new president takes office, I will be on the train going back home to Independence, Missouri," Truman said. "I will once again be a plain, private citizen of this great Republic. That is as it should be."

Nearly half a century after he left the presidency, popular regard for Truman is still soaring. His imprint on Independence is indelible.

Visitors flock to Truman's newly renovated presidential library and museum on the north side of town, to his family home at 219 North Delaware St., to the Jackson County Courthouse where he entered politics as county judge after World War I and is now memorialized with a larger-than-life statue.

"Harry Truman was a good president, a very levelheaded person, and he had to make a lot of tremendous decisions in a very short time," recalled Don Evans, 73, of Kingsport, Tenn., part of a summer charter bus tour that stopped at the Truman Library. "I just don't think we'll ever see anyone like Harry Truman again."

The library and museum are centerpieces of Truman's local legacy. Located along Missouri Highway 24 on the north side of Independence, the facilities are undergoing a $22.5 million renovation.

'Shirt off his back'

The first refurbished section opened last March. The project will go on through 2002, with the opening this fall of an exhibit about Truman's presidential years. Future exhibits will include an interactive experience on presidential decision-making.

Visitors may step into a replica of Truman's Oval Office, complete with his presidential desk, shelves of history books and a globe that was a gift from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. There is a hush as the voice of Truman himself is heard on tape, welcoming all to the library he used as a working office until 1966.

Outside the replica Oval Office, there are exhibits about Truman's presidency, including a white shirt from an irate taxpayer who said he might as well hand Truman the shirt off his back.

In a glass display case is Truman's famous desk sign proclaiming: "The Buck Stops Here." (Replicas are available in the museum gift shop).

Harry and Bess Truman are buried side by side in the museum's courtyard, a place for quiet reflection about the life of a Jackson County farm boy who rose to the most powerful office in the world.

About half a mile south of the library is the Truman home, a handsome white Victorian structure ringed by an iron fence. The National Park Service offers tours to small groups every 15 minutes. The tours are so popular that the home's ticket center downtown advises buying tickets early in the day.

Bess Truman's grandfather bought the lot at 219 North Delaware Street in 1867. Harry Truman moved in after marrying Bess in 1919 and called the old house his home until his death in 1972. Mrs. Truman lived in the house until her death in 1982.

Truman's hat and cane still hang by the front door, as if ready for his morning constitutional.

It was at the house that reporters hounded teen-aged Margaret Truman about her dad's whereabouts the night of his 1948 upset of Tom Dewey; the president had actually sneaked out for a quiet night's sleep at The Elms resort in nearby Excelsior Springs.

Favorite haunts

The National Park Service also welcomes visitors to the Truman family farm south of Independence at Grandview, where the future president was a farmer from 1906 to 1917.

Although Truman was known as the Man from Independence, he had favorite haunts in and around Kansas City.

He preferred Booth No. 4 at the Savoy Grill at the southwest corner of 9th Street and Central Avenue in downtown Kansas City, where elegant lunches and dinners are still served. Another Truman favorite was Dixon's Famous Chili, which first opened in downtown Kansas City and now serves chili and tamales at the corner of U.S. Highway 40 and Blue Ridge Cutoff in Independence.

The Muehlebach Hotel, at the southwest corner of 12th Street and Baltimore Avenue in downtown Kansas City, was a home away from home for Truman, before, during and after his White House years. The hotel opened in May 1915 and today it is part of the Marriott Downtown, to which it connects through a glass walkway above the street.

Truman stayed in the Muehlebach's 11th-floor Presidential Penthouse. In these rooms, Truman played piano as news came of his election to the vice presidency. In 1947, he signed an act here authorizing postwar aid to Greece and Turkey. And it was at the Muehlebach that Truman received word of his stunning 1948 victory after a cross-country whistlestop campaign.

"Visiting places that meant a great deal to Truman -- at which he created his life, as it were -- gives one an unusual and sometimes almost startling insight into the character of the man who became a great President," said Raymond Geselbracht, special assistant to the director of the Truman Library.

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