When we first dressed up as 33rd president in 1993, Niel Johnson says, he didn't plan to be walking in Harry Truman's shoes.
“But it sure fit the bill,” he said.
Beyond his more-than-passing resemblance to Truman, Johnson had already been well-versed in the man's history and beliefs, thanks to his work, and he found he enjoyed the part.
The Independence man, 88, last appeared as Truman early in 2018, and as this unique longtime hobby wound down, Johnson figured he should compile a book about his experiences. “Becoming Truman: 26 years of Impersonating our 33rd President,” is available through Amazon or personal order.
Not all photos are simply of Johnson posing or interacting as Truman. Many are people he's met along more than two decades of 700-plus Truman appearances.
“I left out of a lot of good ones; I didn't want to overdo it,” Johnson said, adding that he tried hard to avoid appearing narcissistic in putting together such a book. “You've got to take more (pictures) than you need.”
An Iowa native who served as historian at the Army Weapons Command Rock Island (Illinois) Arsenal and later taught history and political science at Dana College in Nebraska, Johnson worked at the Truman Library from 1977 to 1992 as an archivist, oral historian and at times the in-house photographer. His previous books include “Power, Money, and Women: Words to the Wise from Harry S. Truman.”
Johnson saw Truman twice, but never officially met him. The first time, his father took him to see one of Truman's whistlestop campaign speeches in Rock Island. The second time, Truman went to the dedication of the Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa, Johnson went to take pictures in his Rock Island Arsenal role and he missed a chance to shake the president's hand because he fumbling with the camera.
In retirement, Johnson first dressed as Truman while teaching a class on the president's legacy at Park University. For fun in the spring of 1993, he showed up in garb at the National Frontier Trails Museum for a tree planting to commemorate the Oregon Trail's sesquicentennial.
His first real public appearance came that May when historian and author David McCullough again visited Independence to accept the Truman Public Service Award for his highly acclaimed biography, “Truman.” Johnson had met McCullough during the author's research visits.
“I thought, 'Heck, I'll go over there and surprise him.' He was surprised,” Johnson said.
He soon realized he enjoyed playing the role, in part because he viewed many things in a similar vein as Truman. And so began a hobby of invitations to appear at various events and for many groups, often with other historical impersonators.
“I told Clifton (Clinton Truman Daniel, Harry and Bess' grandson), 'I don't have to pretend. I agree with your grandfather about 97 percent of the time.”
To be fair, Johnson acknowledges, he perhaps had some advantages that impersonators of presidents or other famous people might not have.
“I was in a special situation, doing oral history interviews” with people who knew or worked with Truman, Johnson said. “I had seen a lot of video with my work, and I happened to start doing it right as several (Truman-related) anniversaries came up.”
Among his favorites, after the McCullough greeting:
• Appearances with Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. Douglas MacArthur to mend proverbial fences.
• Re-enacting the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago on its 50th anniversary. Johnson met Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the president's granddaughter, there.
• The 50th anniversary of Truman creating the Air Force as a separate military branch.
• Oregon City, the western end of the Oregon Trail.
• A Truman leadership seminar in Key West, Florida at the “Little White House.” (“I got to sit at the head of the table for the first time,” Johnson quipped.)
• Standing in to receive Truman's posthumous induction into the Missouri Bar Association (The president filled out application papers in 1947, when a second term was in doubt.)
His late wife sometimes portrayed Bess Truman with him. Of late, Johnson's friend Nancy Cramer, herself a historical author, took on that role. He's always enjoyed meeting people and groups, as “They were there because they wanted to be there and they respected Harry.
“It's always good to pass on the message,” Johnson said, even if he wonders sometimes if the message goes in one ear and out the other. “Every little bit helps.
“The more we can spotlight one of our best presidents, the better off we'll be.”
Johnson's book can be purchased on Amazon for $49.99 or by ordering from Johnson himself for $35 (plus $4 for shipping, call 816-373-6347 for shipping costs with multiple copies). Checks made payable to: Niel Johnson, 19301 E. 50th Terrace South, Apt. 130, Independence, MO 64055.