During his visit to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in 2018, historian David McCullough remarked that there should be a statue honoring Harry S. Truman’s teachers. To commemorate National Women’s History Month during the month of March, it seems appropriate to recall the importance in Truman’s life of his teachers, almost all of whom were women.
Harry Truman’s mother, Martha Ellen (Young) Truman, was his first teacher. In her book, “First Mothers,” author Bonnie Angelo pointed out that “before Harry was five, Martha had used her large-print Bible to teach him to read, and with the help of his glasses he never stopped.” Martha obtained glasses for her son, and she “decreed” that the Truman family move to Independence from Grandview, in 1890, so that her children could attend better public schools.
Truman’s grade school teachers, such as Myra Ewin, provided an important foundation for him. In his memoirs, Truman recalled that at Independence High School he had “an excellent history teacher, Miss [Margaret] Maggie Phelps, and an English teacher, Miss [Matilda] Tillie Brown, who was a genius at making us appreciate good literature.” A Civil War veteran came to Phelps’ classes to speak about his experience as part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg (see https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/oral-histories/palmer), which surely helped make history exciting for Truman and his classmates. Truman could “not remember a bad teacher in all my experience.” Truman graduated from Independence High School in 1901. Although he never earned a college degree, his mother and his teachers instilled in him a lifelong interest in learning.
During his presidency, which began in April 1945, Truman maintained contact with at least two of his former teachers, Ardelia Hardin Palmer, his Latin and math teacher in high school, and Tillie Brown. (Margaret Phelps died in 1939.) Palmer wrote several letters to President Truman. In one, she expressed her view that “Lincoln’s Gettysburg [Address] was not better nor more important to the history of our country” than President Truman’s speech to Congress in March 17, 1948. In that speech, Truman called for quick action by Congress to pass the Marshall Plan for European recovery. In March 1949, Palmer recalled her knowledge of ancient Greek when she read about Greeks bringing gifts to the White House.
When President Truman appointed Charles Ross, his high school classmate, to be his press secretary, Truman and Ross called Tillie Brown, their high school English teacher, to tell her the news. In his memoirs, Truman noted that Brown, although frail, told Ross and Truman that they had “made good,” and that she was “very proud” of them. Truman recalled that Brown had kissed Ross on the cheek on graduation night – Ross had been voted class valedictorian – and had promised to do so for anyone in her class who accomplished something in life. Feeling himself now worthy, Truman asked her if he now deserved a kiss from her. Later, Truman would get that kiss from Brown during a return trip to Independence.
Brown continued to exert an influence on Truman and Ross. In a letter that Ross sent to Brown in January 1950, he told her that when he suggested a wording change in a speech, the president said, “Yes, that is the way Miss Tilly would have written it.”
When Matilda Brown died a month later, Ross expressed sentiments that were similar to those that David McCullough would express 68 years later – there should be some type of memorial to Brown. Ross expressed satisfaction when he learned that there would be a memorial to her in the form of an endowment for an annual literature prize offered by William Chrisman High School. Ross learned of this memorial in a letter he received from Ardelia Palmer.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.