Even if he hadn’t been President Truman’s press secretary, Charles Ross would have had a successful career in journalism. Ross was Harry Truman’s classmate at Independence High School, from which they graduated together in 1901. He edited the high school yearbook, The Gleam, and was voted class valedictorian.
Ross went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. There, Ross dated and proposed to Mary Paxton, a childhood friend of Harry and Bess Truman. Paxton, a journalism student at the University of Missouri, turned down Ross’ proposal. Ross married Florence Griffin in 1913, and the couple had two children. Following Ross’ death much later, Florence Griffin Ross married Roy Roberts, editor of the Kansas City Star.
Ross joined the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and became the newspaper’s chief Washington correspondent, and later editor, from 1918-45. In 1932, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his article, “The Country’s Plight – What Can be Done about It.”
On April 19, 1945, just one week after becoming president, Harry Truman asked a reluctant Ross to become his press secretary. The Washington Post had high praise for Ross: “There is no more beloved or more highly regarded newspaperman in this city than Charlie Ross.”
In his book “Truman,” David McCullough relates that hiring Ross had been Bess Truman’s idea, and Ross agreed to it, despite the fact that he would be making a lot less money as press secretary than he made at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Together, President Truman and Ross called Matilda (Tillie) Brown, their high school English teacher, to tell her the news of Ross’s acceptance. Feeling sentimental, Truman asked her if he (Truman) now deserved a kiss from her; Tillie Brown had kissed Ross on the cheek on graduation night and promised to do so for anyone in her class who accomplished something in life. In her biography of her father, Margaret Truman noted that Brown immediately called the Independence Examiner to report her conversation with President Truman and Ross. The Examiner, therefore, “scooped” the national media by receiving news of Ross’s appointment before the president’s announcement at a press conference the following day.
Ross was President Truman’s press secretary for more than five years. He managed press affairs for a president who disliked publishers of large national newspapers, such as Colonel Robert “Bertie” McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, and occasionally shot from the hip during press conferences.
In November 1950, Ross issued a clarifying statement concerning a misunderstanding about what Truman said about the possible use of the atomic bomb in Korea. Truman trusted a small number of newspapermen, such as Merriman Smith of the United Press, to whom Truman sent a warm, handwritten letter that the Harry S. Truman Library recently acquired.
The rapid pace and gravity of events took their toll on Ross’s health. On the evening of Dec. 5, 1950, he died of a heart attack at his desk at the White House. He had just briefed reporters and was preparing to talk with the television media when he slumped back in his chair, a lit cigarette falling from his lips. Margaret Truman noted that her father was “shattered by the news.”
That evening, Margaret sang at a concert at Constitution Hall. Washington Post music reviewer Paul Hume panned her performance. Harry Truman, likely upset by Ross’ death, sent Hume an angry letter. Ironically, it was the type of letter that Charles Ross had intercepted many times prior to their being mailed.
In an essay that appeared in Richard Kirkendall (ed.), “The Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia,” historian Ronald Farrar pointed out Ross’ strengths and weaknesses as a press secretary. While he exemplified a high degree of “personal and professional integrity,” he was “not an especially efficient administrator….” For example, his arrangement of press coverage for official trips tended to be “disorganized.” Ross rarely tried to “sell” or promote Harry Truman with the media.
On the night Ross died, the president himself wrote a statement, which he was too overcome with emotion to deliver, praising Ross for his counsel and his dedication to truth-telling “in these critical times.”
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.