Harry S. Truman believed there were several life experiences that prepared him to become our 33rd president. In particular, he cited his background as a farmer, banker and Army soldier as well as his prior experience in government. But there were two very personal activities that carried him through his younger years and profoundly influenced his service as President.
Truman was born in 1884 in Lamar, Missouri and grew up in Independence. Poor eyesight caused Harry to begin wearing glasses when he was very young, making him self-conscious and the target of taunting at school. A childhood bout with diphtheria meant he wasn’t able to participate in sports like most boys his age. Instead, he turned to reading and music and discovered an abiding love for both.
STUNNING SERVICE PLATE FROM THE TRUMAN OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE CHINA COLLECTION - MANUFACTURED BY LENOX - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION.
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He later said his “interiority complex” brought on by wearing glasses drove him to become “intellectually above” those who teased him. He liked to demonstrate his academic prowess in school, but believed one should not “lord it over those that you’ve defeated” in class.
Harry Truman claimed he had read every book in the Independence Public Library by the time he was 14, but historians suggest that was probably an exaggeration. At the time, the library contained more than 4,000 books. Nonetheless, young Harry clearly was a voracious reader and undoubtedly made his way through hundreds of the library’s offerings. One of his schoolmates remembered Harry reading two or three books on the weekends.
WELL PRESERVED EYEGLASSES FROM TRUMAN'S CHILDHOOD - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION.
Harry was especially interested in biographies of American presidents and other government leaders, and in history. He said history offered "solid instruction and wise teaching which I somehow felt that I wanted and needed." Years later in his Memoirs, Truman acknowledged, "My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government."
As for music, Harry’s mother began teaching him to play the piano when he was 10. Later, he studied with a teacher in Kansas City who had herself studied under the famous European pianist Theodore Leschetitzky. One of Truman’s friends, Charlie Ross, recalled Harry “didn’t lack spunk when he braved the jeers of the boys to go regularly to his music teacher, carrying his music roll.”
HARRY S. TRUMAN PLAYING THE PIANO, IN THE WHITE HOUSE, WITH LAUREN BACALL PEERING DOWN.
Nonetheless, Truman simply wasn’t gifted enough to realize his dream – and his mother’s dream – of becoming a concert pianist. When he was 15, he abruptly stopped taking lessons. But playing the piano and enjoying a broad range of music from classical to folk songs continued to have a powerful impact on Truman’s life. In 1945, while playing for a group of Methodist women at a county fair, he told them that when he played the piano for Stalin, the Soviet leader responded by signing the Potsdam Agreement.
Throughout his life, Harry S. Truman was famous for saying, “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” He often told people he never would have become president if he had been a more accomplished pianist. One can only imagine how that would have changed history.
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