A Boy Who Would Be President
Harry Truman at School, 1892–1901
Fall 2004, Vol. 36, No. 3
By Raymond H. Geselbracht
Harry Truman has been the subject of a massive amount of historical writing in recent decades, including three fine biographies, totaling more than two thousand pages, published in the 1990s. But despite all this attention from historians, surprisingly little is known about an important aspect of a man whose stature as President is based to an important degree on the kind of person he was, or as is usually said today, on his character.
We do not really know much about his education - his formal education, his nine years spent in Independence, Missouri, public schools. We know what books he read and learned from on his own, away from school; we know he greatly liked and admired his teachers; we know he was a good boy and young man during his school days. But our imagination has not been able go very far toward seeing that boy and young man sitting in the classroom, doing his lessons, taking tests, growing up and developing ideas about life.
Important new documentation of Truman's schooling has recently been discovered - two ledgers that record his attendance and his grades at Noland School for the first and second grade - and two of his high school English theme books were recently made available for research by members of Truman's family. These documents reveal some things that have not been known before about the schooling of a little boy who, fifty years later, became President of the United States at one of the most perilous and formative times in the country's history.
Truman's first serious biographer, his former press secretary Jonathan Daniels, said that all Truman's school records were destroyed in a fire in 1938. President Truman was probably the source of this information, and he very likely got it from one of his former teachers, Ardelia Hardin Palmer. Despite the fire - which burned down Independence High School and the school district's administrative offices (in 1939, not 1938) - not all of Truman's records were lost.
In the summer of 2000, this author discovered that two Noland School ledgers containing grade and attendance records for Harry Truman from the 1890s had survived the 1939 fire. The Independence School District very generously donated the two ledgers to the Harry S. Truman Library.
Each ledger contains the record of the attendance and grades of students - probably students in a single Noland School classroom - for several years. The students are listed in alphabetical order, the boys and girls sometimes listed separately. The records indicate that the school year was divided into three terms, running from September to early December, early December to early March, and early March to late May. The terms are designated in the ledgers by letters: c being the first term, b the second, and a the third.
The 1892–1893 school year, Harry's first-grade year, began on September 13. For some reason Harry's mother, Martha Ellen Truman, didn't send him to school until October 17. His teacher, Mira Ewin, entered his name in her ledger, "Harry Truemann." He was eight years old, or, more precisely, eight years and five months old, which made him probably about six months older than the average student in Miss Ewin's first grade. The ages of the first graders ranged from six to thirteen years old.
Harry was a very punctual and dependable student and apparently a good, well-behaved boy. After starting school five weeks late, he didn't miss a day for the rest of the year, and he was never tardy. His "deportment" grade was a perfect 100 for all three terms, a distinction shared by only ten of his classmates. John Anderson and Martha Ellen Truman must have insisted that their little boy keep to a very high standard of behavior.
In the first term, Miss Ewin gave Harry the highest possible grades in every subject. They were a little lower in the second term, but still among the highest given in the class, and they rose to near perfect in the third term. Miss Ewin gave him the highest possible grades in the third term in spelling, reading, language, and numbers.
When Miss Ewin was asked about her famous pupil in 1947, she said, "I never had to reprimand him a single time. He just smiled his way along. [He] was a very studious boy. When other boys were out playing ball he was reading." One of Harry's classmates in Miss Ewin's first-grade class remembered many years later that "he was always studious. I admired this in him."
Harry began second grade at Noland School in September 1893. His teacher was Minnie Ward. This was a fine term for Harry. His excellent attendance record was spoiled only by two absences, on November 9 and 10. Maybe he had a cold. He was present for all the other fifty-six days and never tardy. Of all Miss Ward's students that term, Harry's grades were the best. Harry averaged 96 for the five major subjects, compared with an average 88 for the other students in the class. He got the highest grades in the class in reading, language, and numbers, and he narrowly nudged out two girls to be the best student in the class.
Harry started the second term of the second grade on December 12, 1893, and was present every school day through January 19, 1894. Over the weekend of January 20–21, though, he contracted diphtheria. He had a very serious case. After starting to recover, he suffered a relapse, and he became paralyzed for perhaps a few months. His parents pushed him around in a baby carriage or laid him on the floor and gave him a book to read. According to his sister, Mary Jane, he developed his lifelong love of reading during the months when he could not walk. He missed the rest of the school year, and he never went back to Noland School.
According to an account of his schooling that Truman wrote in 1951 or 1952, he went to summer school after recovering from diphtheria, and the next fall he went to Columbian School. He skipped third grade, he says, and started the year as a fourth grader. This year at Columbian School provides the last opportunity to learn in some detail what kind of grades Harry got. None of his school records for this year have survived, but his report card has. It is a problematic document, though. Harry's teacher, Mamie Dunne, has written on the card his name and the name of the school, and the grade level - "Second." According to Truman's account, it should say "Fourth."
Miss Dunne noted something else on this card, though, which suggests it might be both a second and a fourth grade card. On the line for "Class" - or term - she has written "A." This is the last term of the grade, which would be exactly right for Harry Truman if in summer school he made up, as one would expect he would, only a single term - that is, the b term of second grade. If this is true, then Harry started at Columbian School in the fall of 1894 in grade 2a, exactly as Miss Dunne recorded at the beginning of the school year, on a card intended to record grades for the entire year.
But what of Truman's claim that he skipped third grade and started at Columbian School in the fourth grade? Perhaps Truman's recollection on this point was only partly right. He actually writes in his autobiographical memorandum that he went to summer school after he recovered from diphtheria "to catch up to the Third Grade," but then, a few lines later, he says he "went back to school and skipped the Third Grade." Perhaps the first part of this memory is as true as the second. Perhaps he actually started in the fall of 1894 in grade 2a, as his report card says, and skipped terms during the year. Perhaps by the end of the year he was, as he later claimed, in fourth grade. Another report card that has survived, for another student, suggests that this might be what happened. It is Bess Wallace's card from the fourth grade, the only one of her cards to survive. According to the notes her teacher wrote on the card, Bess started the year in grade 4c, but then she skipped to 4a in the second term, and to 5b in the third term. Since term skipping was clearly practiced in the Independence schools at this time, perhaps Harry Truman skipped ahead during the 1894–1895 year, putting him somewhere in the fourth grade by the end of the year. This would explain what one sees on Harry's report card, and it allows Truman's memory on this point to be seen as at least vaguely true.
In any event, the card records things about Harry the schoolboy very much like what the Noland School ledgers reveal. He was seldom absent during the year and never tardy. His grades in the first term were a little low for him, but one would expect that his illness and his long absence from school the prior spring might have put him a little off his normal form. His grades rose in the second term, though, and again in the third. His final set of grades includes two perfect 100s, in language and numbers, a 96 in spelling, a 90 in writing, and an 89 in reading. His deportment grades hovered around 90 all year, a drop from his first two years, which might suggest that he had developed by this time what would become a lifelong love of talking to people.
Unless other new documents appear, Truman's schooling in grades 5 through 7 must remain obscure. He probably went to Columbian School through the end of December 1895, when he was midway through fifth grade. Then, around the first of the year, his family moved, and he transferred to Ott School. This was in the long run one of the most important things that ever happened to Harry Truman, because Bess Wallace went to Ott School too. She was a year younger than Harry, but they were in the same grade nonetheless. Bess sat right behind Harry. It was probably beginning at this time that Harry began to develop his incredible determination to love no woman in the world other than Bess Wallace. Beyond this sense that romance was in the bud at this time, Harry's days in the fifth through seventh grades are featureless. He apparently returned to Columbian School for seventh grade, perhaps because Ott School, burdened with both an elementary or "ward" school downstairs and the high school upstairs, was overcrowded.
For eighth grade, the first year of high school, Harry moved to the upper floor of Ott School, where five or six teachers ran what was called simply "the High School." As Harry went through his first high school year, a new high school was being built near Bess's grandparents' house, on the corner of Maple Avenue and Pleasant Street. The building was completed in the spring of 1899, and Harry may have started school there in the fall, or possibly in January 1900. Truman remembered that the high school moved to Columbian School for half a year, but it is not clear whether he means during his eighth- or ninth-grade year.
Among Harry's classmates was Charles G. Ross, who would forty-four years later become Truman's White House press secretary. Charlie was probably the best student in the class. Truman later remembered of him that "teachers and students alike acclaimed him as the best all-round scholar our school had produced." Truman also remembered that academically "I was along about the middle."
No grading books or report cards survive to indicate what kind of student Harry was in high school, but two very revealing theme books have survived - one from his eighth grade or freshman year, and one from his tenth grade or senior year. In 2000, Truman's niece allowed the Truman Library to copy them and make them available for research.
The eighth-grade book, prepared under the guidance of Miss Matilda Brown, Harry's and Charlie's English teacher during all three of their high school grades, reminds one why Harry once wrote to Bess that "the English language so far as spelling goes was created by Satan I am sure." The short essays in the book (including some on loose pieces of paper) include such stumbles as "anaversery," "bond fires," "conserned," "comming," "miror," "principle thing," "natoin," "allmost," "sophamore," "coppies," "acuratly," and "beatiful." But it also contains several passages that suggest the development of an independent habit of mind and a personal philosophy of life.
At the end of one essay, Harry writes, "We should . . . learn to judge for ourselves the things that we see and learn from some one's point of view." In his essay on James Fenimore Cooper, he writes that the Leatherstocking novels "are interesting and famous, but [the] sentences are too long." Cooper's sea tales are interesting too, "but I think they have too many words in them." In his essay on John Greenleaf Whittier, the young student, who in his long life to come would form all his truly intimate bonds with women, concludes that "Whittier was happy . . . in all but one thing, and that was he was a bachelor." In his meditation on "Courage," Harry writes that "a true heart[,] a strong mind and a great deal of courage and I think a man will get through the world," which describes fairly well the attitude he would try to bring to his presidency many years later.
The English theme book from Harry's tenth-grade year is especially interesting, both for its content and because it can be juxtaposed with Charlie Ross's theme book for that same class. Besides being the best student in the class and a future White House press secretary, Charlie was also a future Pulitzer Prize–winning correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His essays provide a contemporary benchmark of student excellence against which Harry's essays can be compared. Miss Brown gave Charlie's book a perfect grade of 100, and she gave Charlie a note that gushed, "Your notebook certainly illustrates your motto 'Excelsior.'"
Raymond H. Geselbracht is Special Assistant to the Director at the Harry S. Truman Library. He has published several articles on historical and archival subjects, including Truman's relationship with the Marx brothers, his love of playing poker, and the courtship and marriage of Harry and Bess Truman. He has also published a map showing places in the Kansas City area that had special importance to Truman.