When Harry Truman returned to Independence after his presidency ended in 1953, he wished to be known as “Mr. Citizen.”
During his daily walks in his neighborhood, he tried to blend in as much as he could and not be treated differently, or with deference, because of the high office he had once held. Nowhere was his effort to be just “Harry” better demonstrated than during the two-month period when he walked with a young mother pushing a baby carriage.
That young mother was Lilli Faherty, a German immigrant who was born in East Prussia. In November 1959, she emigrated to the United States, and took up residence in Independence. The following year, her first child, a daughter, was born. In the spring of 1961, Lilli began taking daily walks with a well-dressed, friendly man, who showed an interest in her unusual baby stroller, which her mother had sent her from Germany.
The man introduced himself simply as “Harry,” and she met him for their walks near 909 West Maple Street, where she lived in an apartment. From there they went west on Maple to River Boulevard, turned right, and then walked north on River to Truman Road, turned right again, and went east to Delaware Street, turned right, and returned to Maple. They walked in the morning, at around 7 a.m.
One day, she wasn’t able to walk with him because her daughter had a fever. Harry waited outside, because they had a set walking time. She called down to him from an upstairs window to say she wouldn’t be able to walk with him that day. It was at that time that Lilli’s landlady, a Mrs. Burgess, told Lilli that she noticed she had skipped her walk with Harry Truman. Lilli was very surprised to hear that she actually had been walking with the former president of the United States! It never occurred to her that a former president would walk in his neighborhood and converse with people.
When Lilli apologized to Truman for not recognizing him as the former president, he was disappointed only that someone had “spilled the beans.” No one had previously approached Mr. Truman while they walked and identified him as Harry Truman, because they walked early in the morning, when relatively few people would have seen him. She said the only thing unusual about their walks was that there was a man – probably off-duty police officer Mike Westwood – trailing behind them while they walked. She thought only that he seemed “anti-social.” This was before Secret Service protection was provided for the Trumans.
Truman didn’t share stories about himself or his family. He did say his wife’s name was Bess.
Lilli felt very comfortable talking with Truman. She even expressed her candid view that World War II could have ended sooner had world banks not loaned Hitler money, which they were doing even late in the war. Truman seemed to be surprised by her theory and asked how she had learned this. She replied that she and her teacher in Germany had “followed the money.”
On one occasion, Bess Truman invited Lilli to have coffee with her in her home, because Harry had been telling her Lilli’s stories. Bess was “very pleasant” and Lilli felt as though she had known Bess her whole life. Bess, like Harry, asked her a lot of questions.
Harry Truman was interested in hearing about Lilli’s life in Germany during and after World War II. Truman told her that he was sorry she had endured so much during the war, but he said that the war against Germany had been necessary. Lilli told him that her childhood basically ended when she was 6 years old, in 1945, when her family was forced to leave their home, near the Polish border, because Russian troops were invading from the east. After the war, Lilli told him that she worked as an apprentice for three years at a business. Harry pretty much learned her life history.
Lilli stopped walking with Truman when she was expecting her second child, and she moved to a residence out of Truman’s neighborhood. Decades later, her memories of her walks with Harry remained vivid.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.