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Reading 4: The Retirement Years (1953-1982)

On January 20, 1953, after watching Dwight D. Eisenhower take the oath of office as the 34th President of the United States, private citizen Harry S Truman boarded an afternoon train for Missouri. Two days later, when they pulled into the Independence railroad depot, Harry and Bess Truman were welcomed by 10,000 of their fellow townspeople. The number of well wishers overwhelmed the couple, and Mrs. Truman commented as several thousand more greeted them at 219 North Delaware, "If this is what you get for all those years of hard work I guess it was worth it."¹

As they settled back into their private life at home, they adopted a daily routine. Harry rose at 5:30 and read his first newspaper and the previous day's mail. Before breakfast he would take a walk to stay fit, continuing a habit that he had started as a Senator in Washington. Strolling through the neighborhood at a quick rate of 120 paces a minute, he found great pleasure in exchanging greetings with neighbors along the way. At times, he would stop for an informal chat with family friends. On returning to his home, the former President might pose for a picture or sign an autograph for the many tourists and well wishers who waited for him there. He enjoyed the chance to meet new people from all walks of life, commenting that "There are always people waiting at the front gate when I leave for my walk and others there when I return. I think I'd miss them, though, if no one showed up."² After his walk, he would have a quiet breakfast with Bess at their kitchen table. Even though Harry Truman had left public office, he continued to be active. At approximately 8:15 a.m., the former President would drive eight miles to his office at the Federal Reserve Bank building in Kansas City. During his first three years of his retirement, he wrote his presidential memoirs and raised the funds to build the Harry S Truman Presidential Library in Independence. When the library opened in 1957, within walking distance of his home, he moved his office into the new facility.

Harry and Bess Truman lived very quiet, private lives. Harry Truman would return from the office at 3:00 p.m. each day. He might find his wife playing cards on the back porch with her bridge club. After visiting with the ladies or reading in the study, Harry would go upstairs for a nap, a daily practice prescribed by his doctor. Upon waking up, he and Mrs. Truman would telephone their daughter, Margaret, at her home in New York City. The couple would dine around 6:00 p.m. Evenings might be spent chatting with visitors either inside or out on the pleasant screened-in back porch. He also liked to play the piano in the music room or listen with Bess to favorite records of classical music. The Trumans' favorite after-dinner activity was reading in their library/study. His favorite topics were histories, biographies, and books on political subjects, while she enjoyed mysteries.

Famous guests who visited the couple at home included Presidents Hoover, Johnson, and Nixon. After the 1957 dedication of the Truman Library, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the couple. Hollywood celebrities such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Henry Fonda also chatted with the Trumans in their front living room.

Harry Truman died at the Kansas City Research Hospital on December 26, 1972 at the age of 88. Mrs. Truman continued to live in their home where Presidents Ford and Carter both called on her. Mrs. Truman passed away quietly on October 18, 1982 at the age of 97. She was buried next to her husband in the courtyard of the Truman Library.

In her will, Mrs. Truman left the 14-room Victorian style home--built by her paternal grandfather in 1885--and most of her possessions to the people of the United States, to be cared for by the Federal Government. In 1983, Congress established Harry S Truman National Historic Site, to be administered by the National Park Service. Park rangers give tours of the home for 50,000 to 60,000 annual visitors. Park Service staff take care of the home, furnishings, and personal possessions of Harry S Truman and Bess Wallace Truman. Much of the collection of more than 50,000 objects remains in the Truman home to help visitors understand what home life was like for the Trumans. Furnishings include furniture and household accessories belonging to the Trumans and to Bess Truman's extended family. Personal possessions include the Trumans' library of books, phonograph record collection, photographs, clothing, and Harry Truman's last automobile. The museum collection also includes historic fabric and architectural samples removed from the Truman home during restoration and archeological materials recovered from the property.

In 1972, to recognize the importance of the area that had such a large impact on this First Family, the Department of Interior designated the neighborhood around the Truman Home, as the Harry S Truman Historic District, National Historic Landmark. Today this area looks very similar to the way it did when the Truman family lived here. Along with their home, this area serves as a living legacy to the "Trumans of Independence."

Questions for Reading 4

1. How did the people of their hometown react to the Trumans when they returned from the White House to Independence? Why do you think this reaction was important to them?

2. Describe what life was like for the Trumans after returning from the White House to Independence. How did their pastimes reflect the things they enjoyed doing? After the excitement of the Presidency, why do you think they enjoyed this lifestyle?

3. Although they enjoyed privacy, give examples of how the Trumans also enjoyed interacting with other people.

4. When did Harry and Bess Truman die? Where are they buried?

5. What happened to the Truman home after Mrs. Truman died? Who preserves the home today?

6. How do you think the furnishings and other pieces from the museum collection contribute to the visitor's experience of the house? How do you think they contribute to historians' understanding of Truman's life?

7. Today the neighborhood around the Truman residence looks much the same way it did when the Trumans lived in Independence. What does preserving an entire neighborhood teach us that a single preserved structure cannot?

Reading 4 was compiled from correspondence in the Truman Papers at the Truman Presidential Library; Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S Truman: A Life (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1994); Richard S. Kirkendall, ed. The Harry S Truman Encyclopedia (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989); David G. McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Merle Miller, Plain Speaking (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1973); Charles Robbins, Last of His Kind: An Informal Portrait of Harry S Truman (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1979); Harry S Truman, Mr. Citizen (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1960); and Margaret Truman, Harry S Truman (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972)

¹ Harry S Truman, Mr. Citizen (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1960), 24.
² Charles Robbins,
Last of His Kind: An Informal Portrait of Harry S Truman (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1979), photo section.


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