Truman's School Years

By Roberta Page
Publications Coordinator, Independence school District
Independence Examiner, Truman Centennial Edition, May 1984

When 8-year old Harry S. Truman started school in 1892, he could already read, and by the time he was 14 years old he had read all the books in the public library of interest to a boy and had read the family Bible three times. 

He began first grade at the old Noland School. During second grade, he developed diphtheria and dropped out of school because the illness left his arms, legs, and throat paralyzed for some months.

According to a Noland School record book dated Sept.18, 1893, to June 1, 1894, Harry S. Truman was an excellent student as a second grader in the classroom of Minnie L. Ward. His first term grades included a 95 in spelling, a 96 in reading, a 92 in writing, a 99 in language, a 99 in numbers and a 95 in deportment.

He attended summer school with Miss Jennie Clements, instructor, to "catch up." In the fall, when the original Columbian School opened, he skipped third grade and went directly to Miss Mamie Dunn's fourth grade class.

His fourth grade report card is in the archives and is signed by his mother, Martha Truman. Best grades again were in language, reading, spelling and writing.

Mary Ethel Noland, a first cousin, indicated in a recorded history that he dearly loved his teachers. "I am sure he was always the teachers' pet because he was a very fine little boy." In his memoirs the former president wrote about his education: "My first year in school was a happy one. My teacher was Miss Myra Ewing, with whom I became a favorite, as I eventually did with all my teachers.

"I do not remember a bad teacher in all my experiences. They were all different, of course, but they were the salt of the earth. They gave us high ideals and they hardly ever received more than $40 a month for it." 

His poor eyesight and the need for wearing glasses prohibited him from participating in sports, although he had a reputation as an excellent umpire.

History and biography were Harry's favorite classes. He also studied geometry, music, rhetoric, logic and, according to the president, "a smattering of astronomy." His love of history and extensive reading experiences would prove to be a valuable skill later in his life.

Mr. Truman wrote, "Reading history, to me, was far more than a romantic adventure. It was solid instruction and wise teaching which I somehow felt that I wanted and needed. I could see that history had some extremely valuable lessons to teach. I learned from it that a leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do, and like it."

Miss Adelia G. Hardin, who later married Prof. W.L.C. Palmer, a superintendent of the Independence School District, taught two years of high school math and Latin to the future president. She recalled seeing him spend many hours after classes reading in the school library.

In her oral history of the president at the Truman Library, Mrs. Palmer stated, "I believe he even read the Encyclopedia Britannica. In a conversation with Chief Justice Vinson in Washington, D.C., there was something going on in Congress that neither of them approved of and Chief Justice Vinson said, 'Well, like old Cato said in the Roman senate, it ought to be destroyed, Carthage ought to be destroyed-- Carthago delenda est.' Mr. Truman corrected the Chief Justice with 'Delenda est Carthago.' Reporters wondered if Mr. Truman knew Latin and they looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

"I wrote him a letter on his Latin and said I don't suppose I taught it to you. You probably read it in the Encyclopedia Britannica."

The president sent a photo and said, "To Mrs. W.L.C. Palmer from her old Latin publicity man, with affectionate regards, Harry S. Truman."

Mr. Truman graduated from Independence High School in 1901. The school was built in 1898 where the present Palmer Junior High School now stands. The high school Mr. Truman knew burned in 1939.

The top student in the class was Charlie Ross who later became the president's press secretary. Ross was Miss Matilda Brown's prize English student. At their graduation, Miss Brown rushed up on the stage after the program and grabbed Charlie and kissed and congratulated him. Harry was standing by and said, "Well, don't I get one too?"

Miss Brown replied, "Not until you have done something worthwhile."

Years later when Ross first became presidential press secretary, he said, "Wouldn't Miss Tillie be glad to know we are together again?" The president picked up the telephone and put in a call to Independence and Miss Brown answered. "Hello, Miss Brown, this is the president of the United States. Do I get that kiss?"

"Come and get it," she said.

Ross was editor of the first high school yearbook, the Gleam, which is still published by William Chrisman High School.