October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
From the time I was a young boy, one of my heroes was President Harry S. Truman. To me, the former haberdasher and county judge epitomized the model public servant.
Truman even had a physical impact on me. When I was in elementary school I read that he walked at a rate of 120 steps per minute. For months I practiced his pace, walking long distances and timing myself with a stopwatch until it became second nature. To this day I walk with a “Trumanesque” gait. And though I never had the privilege of personally meeting Harry Truman, he did come to know me, albeit fleetingly.
In 1969 I was attending the seventh grade at Ben Franklin Junior High School in Colma, California. During that year my history teacher, Mr. Puhr, assigned the class our first long-term homework project. We were to research and type a five- to seven-page biography of the subject of our choice. Naturally I chose Truman. I dived into my task with zeal: Instead of taking the allotted three months, I finished my paper in three days.
After completing my project, I reflected on something I had read in Truman’s book Mr. Citizen . Truman said a former President was obliged to answer mail from young people. I decided to take him up on his claim.
I wrote to Truman, told him about my assignment, enclosed my report, and asked him to read it over, make any necessary corrections, and let me know what he thought of it. I mailed the letter and report to Truman’s home at 219 North Delaware Street in Independence, Missouri.
I never thought to make a carbon copy of the report (I don’t think I knew carbon paper existed), and hard as it is to imagine now, copying machines were not commonplace in 1969. So I sent the only existing copy of my essay. It simply did not occur to me that I might never get it back.
Weeks passed, then months. On the day our papers were due I still had not heard from the former President. I went to class empty-handed and explained my dilemma to Mr. Puhr. He held me up to ridicule before the whole class, calling me a liar and accusing me of neglecting the assignment.
“Don’t tell me you sent your paper to Harry Truman,” said Mr. Puhr. “Truman’s been dead for almost twenty years. I ought to know. I watched his funeral on television!”
His funeral on television? There was no arguing with the teacher. I was a liar, Truman was dead, and I got an F.
As the weeks rolled by, I forgot about the unhappy incident. Then one day after school I came home and found waiting for me a large white envelope bearing the postmark of Independence, Missouri. In the upper right corner was the free-frank signature of Harry S. Truman. My heart pounded as I tore open the envelope.
Slowly I withdrew the contents. Enclosed was my original report, along with the following note written on Truman’s personal letterhead:
April 29, 1970
I was very pleased to have your letter and manuscript. I am sorry I cannot help you with it, as I have a rule against working on another author’s paper. It is clear, however, that you did your homework well.
Best wishes for success in your life.
Sincerely yours, Harry S Truman
Not only did President Truman read my report and write me a personal letter, but he recognized me as a fellow author ! This was pretty heady stuff for a twelve-year-old boy.
Also inside the envelope was a photograph of Truman bearing the inscription “To James Rogan from Harry S Truman.”
The next day I made a point of being a few minutes late for Mr. Puhr’s class, knowing he would demand I produce a late slip from the attendance office. When I walked into the classroom, he interrupted his lecture.
“Rogan,” he demanded, “show me your late slip.”
I walked up to Mr. Puhr and handed him Truman’s envelope and its contents. “Here’s my late slip, Mr. Puhr,” I said with an air of defiance.
Mr. Puhr’s lips tightened as he reviewed the documents. His face reddened. “Take your seat,” he said. Having unfairly humiliated me before my classmates, my teacher made no effort to rectify his error. I sat down, but when the recess bell rang, I ran to the door, blocking the exit, held aloft my letter, and announced to my departing classmates, “If anybody wants to see the letter and autographed picture I got yesterday from the late President Harry Truman, I’ll show it to you on the playground.”
The Truman saga did not end there.
Mr. Puhr still refused to accept my paper, because it was late. I petitioned the principal and explained the circumstances. She overruled Mr. Puhr and told him to receive my project.
The following week Mr. Puhr handed back my paper in front of the entire class, telling me it was only a “fair” effort. He added he was marking it down for “repeated punctuation errors,” among them my recurring blunder of failing to put a period after the middle initial S in Truman’s name.
I explained to Mr. Puhr that the punctuation omission was purposeful, because Truman’s middle name was simply “S” and did not require a period. Mr. Puhr rolled his eyes and commanded my classmate Dan Kelleher to bring him the T volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica .
“Let’s see what the encyclopedia shows.” Mr. Puhr thumbed through the book and located Truman’s biography. The encyclopedia listed the entry as “Harry S. Truman,” with a period after the initial. Mr. Puhr smiled. “What do you say to that, Rogan?”
Confident in my research, I told him, “The encyclopedia is wrong.”
“So!” thundered Mr. Puhr. “The encyclopedia is wrong, and Mr. Rogan is right! My, aren’t we lucky to have such a brilliant student in our midst!”
My classmates laughed, and he teased me for the rest of the session, repeatedly calling on me to “confirm” that Columbus discovered America and George Washington was our first President.
After school I went home and again wrote my author friend in Missouri. “Dear President Truman,” I scrawled, “You won’t believe this teacher of mine . . . ,” and I laid out the entire story.
The school year ended without any response, and again I forgot about the debate. During summer vacation another letter arrived from Independence:
August 19, 1970
I was glad to autographed [sic] your engraved picture of the White House and it is being returned to you herewith.
The “S” in my name stands for the first letter of the first name of each of my grandfathers. In order to be strictly impartial in naming me for one or the other, I was given the letter “S” as a middle name. It can be used with or without a period.
I appreciate your very kind comments and send you best wishes.
Sincerely yours, Harry S Truman
I took a closer look at Truman’s letterhead. Sure enough, it bore the name Harry S Truman with no period after the middle initial.
A month later, on the first day of school, I went looking for Mr. Puhr and found him seated alone in his classroom. I showed him the second Truman letter; again he refused to give me credit. Only after I threatened again to go to the principal did he grudgingly agree to raise my grade.
As I walked out of the classroom, Mr. Puhr called out my name. I turned in the doorway and faced him.
“Rogan,” he said, “Fm very glad you won’t be in my class this year.”