What to do! What to do!
That was my dilemma when I came up with no story leads for Friday’s “Around Town” column. My story bank was empty, as was my mind. I couldn’t think of anything.
I couldn’t let my editor down. I had to write something.
But what on?
I was clueless, that is , until a name from the past – Harry S. Truman – popped into my mind.
“That’s it,” I thought. “I’ll write about my teenage remembrances of the 33rd president of the United States while growing up in Independence. Reminiscing about Harry Truman was high on my bucket list of things to do. So what better time to do it than now – in today’s “Around Town.”
My story begins when I was uprooted from my home in Memphis, Tenn., and moved to Independence, where my parents chose to live after my dad was transferred to Kansas City. The date: Sept. 27, 1951.
After moving to President Truman’s hometown, my out-of-state relatives and friends often asked: “Have you ever met Truman?” For the first five years, I replied, “No,” explaining I had seen him numerous times, but never had met him personally.
After December 1955, I could no longer say “no” to that often-asked question. I finally met him as a 19-year-old – not as “Mr. President” – but as “Mr. Citizen” in front of the “Summer White House” at 219 N. Delaware St.
That chance meeting on that December morning some 58 years ago might never have happened had I not been working part-time for the Independence Post Office during the Christmas holidays.
A freshman journalism major at the University of Missouri, my job was making parcel post deliveries with a full-time postal employee, whose name I no longer remember. He was the driver; I was the runner.
Not knowing where we were going on the first day of my new job, you can imagine my surprise when my partner announced: “Our first stop is at the Truman home.”
“Wow!” I thought. “I hope I don’t mess things up.”
Sensing my apprehension about entering the enclosed grounds to deliver parcels to the former first family, my partner reassured me.
I recall him saying there was nothing to fear about walking up to the front porch and handing the packages to the person who comes out to get them.
And who might that be?
“Probably the maid,” he assured me.
“Any questions?” the driver asked as the postal truck pulled in front of the large, Victorian house behind the black wrought-iron fence.
“Yeah,” I replied, inquiring how to open the locked gate.
As my partner stacked packages and small boxes on my outstretched arms, he told me to push the button on the gate with my elbow; then wait for it to open.
I did, and when the gate swung open, I walked slowly and cautiously down the sidewalk toward my destination – the front porch. My heart pounded, not knowing what was going to happen next.
But I never reached my destination.
After taking perhaps three or four steps, the front door opened. And to my astonishment, walking down the steps was Mr. Truman, wearing a hat and coat, and carrying his cane.
As he approached, I was awe-struck, knowing I didn’t know how to address one of the world’s greatest leaders, much less what to do or what to say to him.
All my fears and apprehension were for naught.
As best as I remember, Mr. Truman greeted me with a smile. Then said something like: “It looks like Santa Claus is coming early this year.”
To which I replied, “Yes, sir.”
As he reached for the packages I was carrying, I reacted, saying something like: “Please, let me carry them for you.”
His reply was something like: “You have other things to do. I’ll take them; I need the exercise.”
With parcels in hand, Mr. Truman wished me a “Merry Christmas,” and I wished him the same. Then we went our separate ways, never to meet again.
Needless to say, my chance meeting with “the man from Independence” was a Christmas remembrance I’ll cherish forever.
For me, living in Independence during and after the Truman presidency were exciting times; you never knew when or where you might run across Mr. Truman. He seemed to be everywhere.'
I remember shortly before leaving office (I don’t remember the date), he made a surprise appearance at a basketball game at the Memorial Building, where William Chrisman High School played it home basketball games.
On that particular evening, Truman’s evening stroll took him past the historic building that now bears his name. Inside a heated game was going on.
Hearing band music and the raucous crowd inside, the President decided to see what all the commotion was about. It was reported he entered the building unannounced and stood in the hallway surrounding the basketball court.
Upon being recognized, the Chrisman Band, directed by M.O. Johnson, was notified the President was in the building and the band should be prepared to play.
A sophomore at the time, I was in the building that evening and was unaware of what was about to transpire on the court below me.
As the teams left the arena at half-time, a booming voice blared over the microphone: “We have a special guest tonight, the Honorable Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America.”
And with that introduction, the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” as Mr. Truman – waving his hat high over his head with one hand and waving to the crowd with the other – circled the court several times to the approval of more than 400 shouting and clapping spectators. One would have thought he was running for re-election.
But that wasn’t the last time the Chrisman Class of ‘55 – of which I am a member – got to see Mr. Truman up close and personal.
He not only brought the commencement address that year at the RLDS Auditorium, but he also personally signed – at a later date – the commencement program of all the graduates.
My wife, Ann (Dobson) Haight, and I – who were high school sweethearts – still have ours. They are our prized possessions.
Retired news reporter Frank Haight writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave him a message at 816-350-6363.