President Harry S. Truman never forgot where he came from in Missouri or why he was in the White House. “The Buck Stops Here” was more than a saying to Truman.
“I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from, and where I was going back to.” Harry S. Truman
Which President of the United States kept a sign saying “The Buck Stops Here” on his White House desk?
An even harder question – what did the back side of the sign say?
“A lot of people don’t know that,” said Janeen Aggen of Independence Tourism.
““They might know that Harry S. Truman had the sign on his desk but they don’t know that the back of the sign said, “I’m From Missouri.’ President Truman wanted to remember where he came from, his humble beginnings so he would never get a big head.”
The sign along with a wealth of other memorabilia is on display at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in his hometown of Independence, Missouri.
“His home was very humble and so was he,” Aggen said. “He worked his way up to the presidency and didn’t feel that he was anything special. He knew what ordinary folks were like because he was one of them.”
Truman’s Missouri Childhood
Born May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, Truman and his family moved to Independence when he was six years old.
“He knew what it was like to work hard,” Aggen said. “He didn’t have a college degree and he wasn’t successful in business … He just worked his way up to being President.”
When he was a teenager, Truman got an after-school job as a $3 a week floor sweeper and handy man at the local drug store. He also worked as a timekeeper for a railroad construction contractor and as a clerk in two Kansas City banks. He helped his father run the family farm and worked as a farmer for more than 10 years.
From 1905 to 1911, Truman served in the Missouri National Guard and helped organize an artillery regiment when the United States entered World War I in 1917. The artillery regiment was called into action and Truman served in battles in France.
On June 28, 1919, Truman married his childhood sweetheart Bess Wallace and ran a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with his wartime friend, Eddie Jacobson.
“The store failed,” Aggen said. “Truman narrowly avoided bankruptcy and it took him years to pay off the his share of the store’s debts.”
Truman’s only child, Mary Margaret, was born Feb. 17, 1924. Truman was elected to his first office in 1922 – Jackson County Judge. He then served as a U.S. Senator and was nominated as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president.
On Jan. 20, 1945, Truman was sworn is as vice president. Eighty-two days later, Roosevelt died unexpectedly and Truman became the nation’s 33rd President.
“He immediately had tremendous burdens put on his shoulders,” Aggen said. “He had to wrap up the war and he had to decide to drop the atomic bomb.”
Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945. Japan surrendered on Aug. 14. The first year of Truman’s presidency also saw the founding of the United Nations. Although he was widely expected to lose, Truman won reelection in 1948. Many credited his win to his famous “Whistlestop” campaign tour which took his message to the voters.
A popular photograph shows a beaming Truman holding up a newspaper whose headline erroneously proclaimed, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
After the Truman Presidency
“When he left the presidency, Harry S. Truman returned to his hometown of Independence,” said Clay Bauske, museum curator.
The former president spent his days reading, writing, lecturing and taking long brisk walks. He also spent considerable time founding and supporting his library and museum, which was dedicated in July of 1957.
“He saw the library as a memorial to the presidency, not to him,” Bauske said. “He kept his office here at the library for many years and often led people on tours of the museum. He trained the tour guides.”
Truman Museum Highlights
Highlights of the museum include a replica of the Oval Office as it appeared in 1950, including period furnishings, photographs and desk accessories. As the voice of Truman describes the room, note the old-time television, which made it first appearance in the Oval Office during Truman’s’ presidency.
The famed “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Renovo, Oklahoma. A friend saw a similar sign at the reformatory and asked if one would be made for Truman.
Mailed to the president on Oct. 2, 1945, the saying derives from the slang expression “pass the buck” which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. Truman often referred to the saying.
In his farewell address to the public in January 1953, Truman said that, “The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the decide for him. That’s his job.”
After a $22 million renovation, museum exhibits are interactive with advanced audiovisual technology. Children can make campaign buttons, sort mail like Truman did as a postmaster or dress up like the President and First Lady.
A popular activity lets children “race” to see whether it was faster for young Harry Truman to take the train or his 1911 Stafford car from his farm in nearby Grandview to visit his girlfriend, Bess Wallace, in Impendence.
Truman died Dec. 26, 1972. Bess Truman died Oct. 18, 1982. They are buried side by side in the library’s courtyard. Margaret Truman Daniel died in Chicago on Jan. 29, 2008, and also is buried at the library gravesite.
For more information: Contact the museum at 800-833-1225 or Independence Tourism at 816-325-7111.