New Jersey-based Stuart Lutz spent more than a decade researching and writing “The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors,” which was recently published.
New Jersey-based Stuart Lutz spent more than a decade researching and writing “The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors,” which was recently published. Lutz, the owner of Stuart Lutz Historic Documents Inc., includes the story of McKinley Wooden, the last living soldier to serve with Harry S. Truman in Battery D during World War II. Visit www.thelastleaf.com for more information on the book, including how to purchase the book.
1 What served as the inspiration for writing “The Last Leaf”? How did you ultimately come up with the book’s title?
For the inspiration, if I had to pick one thing besides being a history major in college, my great-grandparents used to visit me as a boy and tell me stories about living in Russia under the Czar and the first time they ever saw a plane and the first time they ever saw a light bulb. They were married in 1916 and were married for 77 years. I would just sit transfixed on these stories. I just remember the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem (“The Last Leaf”) as a boy, and he wrote this poem about the Revolutionary War soldier being the last of his kind.
2 How did you select whose stories to tell in the book? Were there any that you wanted to tell but were unable to research or to find any survivors?
I wouldn’t say I selected any; I just kind of cast out a wide web and found what I could. Nobody came to me; I was just out searching for the people. I would sit with my mother and my wife and brainstorm if there was anybody left from this event and if there was anyone who was a witness to an event. Google was very helpful because sometimes people would do local articles. For example, with McKinley Wooden, I believe I called the Harry Truman Museum & Library in about 1998 when I was starting the book and asked if anyone was surviving who had served with Harry Truman in Battery D. They told me McKinley Wooden was still living and I sent him a letter in Lee’s Summit. (Lutz interviewed him by telephone – 30 out of 39 interviews captured in the book were done in person. Wooden died just several months after Lutz interviewed him.) When I first got started there was one Indian War widow who was still alive; however, she died before I could get to her.
3 What did you learn about Harry Truman as you interviewed McKinley Wooden?
Not long before I interviewed him, I had read the David McCullough book. Truman was going nowhere in life, being 33 and still living on the farm, and then just a few decades later, he was president. I don’t know per se that I learned anything about Truman, except for some of the details from McKinley Wooden’s life. In 1934, he went to a Truman rally when Harry Truman was running for the U.S. Senate. McKinley said he wasn’t given much of a chance and that he went to this rally and no one was there. McCullough takes it from a macro standpoint, and my interview with Wooden takes it to a more personal level.
4 How did you go about fact checking the stories that were shared with you, and how did you confirm that these people were, in fact, “the last” of the last in their respective historic moments?
A few of them had put out books. I would call historical societies and I would take their word, essentially allowing them to fact check and to give me leads. A number of my subjects had pictures of them at the events, such as the last designer of the ENIAC (the first electronic general-purpose computer). The last Union Civil War widow, for example, the VA told me that she was the final widow receiving a check for her husband’s Civil War service.
5 The book took you more than a decade to write – do you think that seemed like enough time? How did you go about following up on the subjects interviewed when they died? What mark on history do you hope your book will leave?
It certainly took more time than I thought it was going to take. In 1998, if you had told me it would take me 12 years to complete it, I would have been quite surprised. Some of them would make national headlines when they died. Some people had a more quiet passing and not much was made of it. Every few months, I would do Google searches and find that somebody had passed and I would keep their obituary and note the date of their death. I don’t think it’ll make any mark on history the way Huckleberry Finn did. I hope it’s a centralization of these great American stories, and I hope people see that history remains with us and remains part of peoples’ living memories and life stories.