Monday, December 26, 2022

50 years ago today: Former President Harry S. Truman dead at age 88

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Missouri's only president and Lamar's most famous native son Harry S. Truman at age 88.

The following is reprinted from my 2019 book The Buck Starts Here: Harry S. Truman and the City of Lamar:

“Death Finally Defeats Truman” was the banner headline at the top of the Tuesday, December 26, 1972 Lamar Democrat.

Lamar and the nation are in mourning for the city’s native son, Harry S. Truman, 32nd President of the United States.

The former president died at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday after a long illness brought on by old age. The famed Missouri Democrat was 88 years old and fought his last illness as fiercely as he fought all his life for what he believed was right.

His wife Bess was not at his bedside when death came but was notified several minutes afterwards. She had stayed at his side throughout Christmas Day, leaving only when the couple’s daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, arrived in Kansas City.

Truman’s death was the subject of three more page one articles in the Democrat that day. One recalled his August 31, 1944 visit while the other featured reminiscences of the April 19, 1959, Truman Birthplace dedication ceremony.

The 1944 article inaccurately stated that Truman left Lamar 18 months after his birth, rather than 10, and said he never returned until 1944, a visit that was actually at least his fourth since John and Martha Truman left the city.

Former Mayor Guy Ross was quoted in the 1944 article. There appeared to be no interviews with anyone for the 1959 article.

The fourth article was an assessment of Truman’s career by James Kirkpatrick.

Lamar readers were left to wonder what Madeleine Aull Van Haffen would have written about the death of Lamar’s most famous native son.



Jim Finley placed a wreath at the base of the granite monument in front of the Truman house and closed the historic site at the direction of state officials Thursday, December 28.

Two hundred fifty people gathered on the south lawn of the Truman Birthplace for a memorial service.

“We are in proud in Lamar of Harry S. Truman,” Mayor Gerald Gilkey said. “There is no doubt he will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents of the United States.”

Gilkey remembered the excitement in Lamar when Truman returned for the notification ceremony in 1944 and for the dedication of the birthplace in 1959 and closed his remarks with sentiments that were fervently echoed by those who listened to his words.

“It is with respect and affection that we say farewell to that man born in Lamar, the 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman.”

The most eloquent remembrance of Truman written by someone from Lamar came not from the Lamar Democrat, but in the pages of the Carthage Press, where Marvin VanGilder, the one-time teen reporter for the Lamar Republican and reporter and columnist for the Lamar Journal, wrote a tribute to the former president.

VanGilder did not make a habit of personalizing his reporting, but he made an exception for the Truman tribute, recalling some of the correspondence they exchanged over the years concerning Barton County history.


He shared the story of the kindness Truman had shown his nine-year-old daughter at the Thomas Hart Benton celebration in Neosho 10 years earlier, recalled ways in which Truman had helped the city of Carthage, then closed by putting into words the powerful connection Truman had with him and with the people of southwest Missouri.

In spite of differences in political philosophy, the writer will remember him as a cherished friend and confidant with a heart big enough to embrace the most famous and the least known with equal ardor and the soul of a historian whose every major act was the result of thorough knowledge of the lessons learned by his predecessors.

He was a big man, he who first was our neighbor, later our chosen leader and always our friend.

The world, which never knew him in quite the way we knew him, will forever remember him as man of strength and purpose who stood firmly in defense of human liberty and individual dignity and who exuberantly achieved his own goal and his own destiny by becoming a good and faithful servant of both the God he worshipped and the people he served.

(Photo- Truman with Walter Earp on August 31, 1944. Earp was the owner of the home where Truman was born on May 8, 1884, and was a relative of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, who was Lamar's first constable. Photo courtesy of Truman Library and Museum)

The Buck Starts Here: Harry S. Truman is available at Always Buying Books, Changing Hands Book Shoppe and the Book Guy in Joplin and at the Lamar Democrat and Truman Birthplace in Lamar. The Buck Starts Here is also available in paperback and e-book editions at Amazon.

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