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Happy birthday, Harry Truman

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2009 - Take a moment on Friday to say Happy Birthday to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Missouri's most famous son. May 8 is the 125th anniversary of his birth.

A half-century has passed since Harry Truman was president, but the spirit of "Give 'em Hell, Harry" remains strong. Indeed, some historians now rank him among America's best presidents.

To celebrate the late president's birthday, the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., is hosting special events and exhibits. From May 7-9, the library will admit all comers for $1.25. (The normal admission for the 100,000 or so who visit the museum annually is $8 for adults and $3 for children.)

Also on those days, visitors get a piece of 125-foot birthday cake and the museum will unveil a new exhibit of 125 seldom seen photographs of his life.

Last Saturday, about 150 farmers on their tractors paraded into the Independence town square to honor him. Truman was the third generation of his family to work the soil in nearby Grandview. Harry Truman wasn't a gentleman farmer. He guided a horse drawn plow.

What would Harry Truman say of all this celebration?

Grandson Clifton Truman Daniel said his grandfather would be embarrassed and pleased. Upon hearing about the cake, Daniel said, "He would think it too much, a lot of money. He was at the core a humble man." The Trumans were very frugal, but tipped well.

At the thought of a troop of farmers gathering in his grandfather's memory, however, Daniel was touched. He said, "He'd be delighted. My grandfather was a farmer for 12 years."

Can't make the four-hour drive to Independence this weekend? Go to the public library or online. Indeed, the St. Louis Public Library provided information for this article.

Harry Truman would approve. As a lad - on a dare to himself - he read the contents of the Independence Library. Well into their 80s, he and his wife, Bess, regularly checked out books there. He preferred biographies and history. She loved mysteries.

Books that formed the basis of this article are: "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure," by Matthew Algeo; "Harry S. Truman," and "Bess W. Truman," by their daughter Margaret Truman; and "Truman,"by David McCullough. Presidential library archivists and the Truman's grandson Clifton Truman Daniel did not recommend an off-cited book, "Plain Speaking," by Merle Miller.

The new exhibit of 125 photos at the Truman Presidential Library and Museum will be visible on line Friday (May 8): wwwtrumanlibrary.org .

The website of the Truman home is also a good source of pictures and information: www.nps.gov/hstr .

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Randy Sowell, an archivist at the Truman library agrees with Daniel. "He genuinely didn't think of himself as special. He didn't think the specialness of the presidency rubbed off on him."

A just-released book traces a road trip Harry and Bess tried to take incognito to New York from Independence shortly after he left the presidency.

The book, "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure," by Matthew Algeo tells us that Harry had a notoriously heavy foot. Bess made him promise to drive 55 miles per hour or less or she wasn't going. Everybody - fellow diner patrons, bellhops, squealing teenage girls at a Future Homemakers of America convention - recognized them.

Sowell said Truman didn't want the library to be seen as a monument to him. He wanted it to be a place where people - especially young people - could come and learn about American government and the American presidency.

Visitors to the library get to try to decide hard questions. Did Truman do the right thing when he ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb? Truman said he acted to bring a quick end to the war with Japan and thus save the lives of American servicemen. Still, his museum showcases statements from people who say it was unnecessary. And visitors are asked to vote.

Sam Rushay, supervisory archivist at the library, said the library aims to showcase the man as he was. Truman was stubborn. He had a temper. Every once in great while, he threatened to throw a punch. Most of the time he wrote scalding missives that he never sent.

Truman was loyal to a fault. And as the exhibits make clear he started in politics in Kansas City's notorious and corrupt Pendergast machine - although no proof or rumor exists that Truman was corrupt. When he left the White House, Truman's only source of income was a $111.96 army pension. He took a loan to tide his family over until he sold his memoirs.

A person can pick up a lot of hope in the museum. Truman is the patron saint of the long shot. Probably the best known picture in the history of American presidential elections is of Harry Truman in 1948. He has just just won the presidential election proving every nearly every pundit and political analyst in America wrong. He is on the back of a train in St. Louis' Union Station, smiling so broadly his face might crack, holding aloft a Chicago Tribune that declares: "Dewey Defeats Truman."

He had lots of other victories against the odds.

He couldn't see without glasses and memorized the eye chart to get into the Army in World War I. He became an officer. No man under his command was killed.

He courted and won his beloved Bess. She was one of the most popular and socially prominent girls in town. He worked with dirt and manure and was nobody's idea of a Romeo. He wooed her for nine years - even built a tennis court on the farm for her. He didn't play. When he died, she couldn't bear to move his camel-color hat and coat from their peg near the back door, where they still wait for him.

When he left the White House, less than one-third of Americans approved of his policies. Only President George W. Bush had lower ratings. Rushay said the culprits were the Korean War, minor influence peddling amid mid-level White House officials and charges of the State Department being soft on communism. Others factor in his firing of popular General Douglas MacArthur.

So how did Truman come to rank with the Mount Rushmore crowd? Richard Nixon played a role.

In 1973, after learning their president had been involved in petty burglaries and cover ups, many Americans were receptive to the idea that a decent man could be a good president. Truman biographies were beginning to appear. And in 1975, the rock group Chicago had a hit with a song that pleads, "American Needs You, Harry Truman."

The descendant of slaveholders, he had by executive order integrated the armed services, helped feed and rebuild Europe in an effort to stave off a third World War. And he and his wife and daughter were the kind of people who said thank you to everyone who worked with them from Cabinet members to maids.

So, Happy Birthday, Harry. As he once said, "We can never tell what is in store for us."

Theresa Tighe is a freelance writer.

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