• Bound by fate

  • Two well-known sons of western Missouri who barely knew each other until later in life are the subject of a new, seven-month-long exhibit at the Truman Library in Independence.

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  • Two well-known sons of western Missouri who barely knew each other until later in life are the subject of a new, seven-month-long exhibit at the Truman Library in Independence.
    “Benton and Truman: Legends of the Missouri Border,” exploring the relationship between the 33rd president and the famed painter and muralist, opened Friday at the library and runs through Oct. 14.
    The two were contemporaries, born five years apart and dying three years apart, and coming from the same part of the country.
    “But really they didn’t get to know each other until (Truman) left the presidency and moved back to Independence,” said Clay Bauske, museum curator.
    There’s a story behind that.
    After Truman left office in 1953, plans came together for a presidential library in Independence. When a visitor walks in, usually the first thing he sees is the Benton mural – “Independence and the Opening of the West” – that dominates the library’s large lobby. Benton painted it between 1958 and 1960.
    But first there was an obstacle. Friends of both men tried to get them together, but there was some reluctance.
    “Benton was suspicious that Truman didn’t like him, and it turns out that Truman didn’t like him,” Bauske said.
    In the mid-1930s, Benton had painted “A Social History of Missouri,” a well-known mural at the State Capitol in Jefferson City. That mural was controversial in some circles, because Benton pulled no punches about such things as Missouri’s bloody history and its political corruption.
    In particular, Truman didn’t appreciate the inclusion of Tom Pendergast – a key Truman political backer – as a symbol of that corruption. Pendergast, Kansas City’s political boss in the 1920s and 1930s, did go to prison eventually.
    It turns out, however, that Pendergast was OK with the mural and Benton could prove to Truman that he even sat to be painted.
    “That changed Truman’s opinion altogether,” Bauske said.
    They got along well after that, sharing stories and ideas. Benton painted the library mural, which was dedicated in 1961.
    “It has a huge impact on visitors coming in, and I think in more ways than one,” Bauske said. There is the sheer artistry of it, he said, and it reinforces the idea that Truman had a deep knowledge and understanding of history that served him well as president.
    “Harry Truman’s own sense of history was nurtured here in Independence,” Bauske said.
    Both men experienced life’s changes of forture. Truman thought he would end up being a farmer, but he pursued politics ambitiously and ended up as president. Benton’s father pushed him toward being a lawyer. He resisted and became one of America’s better known regionalist painters.
    “So neither of them ended up doing what they thought they would,” said Bauske.
    Page 2 of 2 - In addition to the exhibit, today the library takes up Benton in its “Talkin’ Truman” series of lectures, which are held on the second Saturday of the month. “Benton: An Artist in Kansas City” is from 11 a.m. to noon at the library. The presenter is Steve Sitton, administrator of the Thomas Hart Benton Home Historic Site in Kansas City. He’ll discuss such issues as the Truman Library mural, the 1951 flood, the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping and Benton teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute.
    The library has borrowed several items from the Benton historic site – “an absolute gem,” Bauske calls it – for its current exhibit. That site, at 3616 Belleview in Kansas City, is a good visit, too, Bauske said.
    “You really get a sense of Thomas Hart Benton when you walk in there,” he said.
    The Truman Library’s hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors 65 and older, $3 for children ages 6 to 15, and free for those 5 and younger. Special exhibits such as “Benton and Truman: Legends of the Missouri Border” are included in the price of admission.
    The permanent exhibit “Truman: The Presidential Years” takes up most of the museum’s main floor, detailing the issues and decisions Truman faced as president. Downstairs, the companion permanent exhibit, “Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times,” tells more of his personal side. Visitors also are drawn to the replica of the Oval Office, past the Benton mural on the main floor. Online versions of permanent and temporary exhibits, as well as past exhibits, are at at www.trumanlibrary.org.

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