Oral History Interview with
Seventeen year veteran with the Associated Press. Later news editor and acting managing editor of the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin, after which he served in the White House as liaison for the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In January, 1945, he became part of the White House staff as a press officer until he retired at the end of the Truman administration.
Eben A. Ayers
January 12, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
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This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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HESS: Mr. Ayers, would you for the record give me a little of your personal background, where were you born, where were you educated, and what positions did you hold before you became a member of the White House staff?
AYERS: I was born in the city of Watertown in northern New York, that's nearly up to the Canadian border, a small city and I lived there with my parents until I was about five years old when my father died, and I went to live with my grandparents who lived in the country about six miles out, a small community named Rices. My grandfather was not actually a farmer; he owned quite a lot of land, but he was a cheesemaker. He owned a couple of cheese factories. That country at that time was the largest cheese producing area in the United States, and he was very active in that industry, if you want to call it that. He owned two cheese factories. These were country cheese factories. One was there at Rices, and one was five or
six miles away. I was named after my grandfather, and he was quite prominent in that northern section. While he was still a cheesemaker, he was employed by the state, the State Department of Agriculture, I believe, as an instructor and went through the north country there instructing in cheese. As a matter of fact, I have a medal and a certificate for awards made for his cheese at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. That's immaterial. My grandfather died within the next year or so and I was finally left with my two aunts and they were quite progressive people. One of them was a schoolteacher, she became the head of the mathematics department in a high school in the city of Watertown. My grandfather had been the postmaster in Rices, a small rural community. My other aunt succeeded to that office as postmistress, and she became a telegraph operator at the railroad station there, station agent, and all the other agents: freight agent, passenger agent, and everything in this small railroad station. She had a house built for her near the station and after my grandparents' deaths she finished this house, I lived there with her and grew up, largely in that railroad station. There were very few other boys or girls in that area except a mile or two miles away on farms. So, I went to a one-room country school, and also hung around in the railroad station, learning telegraphy.
I didn't have many companions so I was pretty much alone, and I read everything in the world, I think. My aunts were pretty liberal and nothing was ever censored.
There was a railroad library in New York City, by which books were sent on the trains, and we had a list and we could make selections and send that in and they would send up books from the list. I got everything, read everything, did all sorts of things as a boy. That's where I learned to read, I guess, and I learned a great deal that way. I know my aunt bought an encyclopedia; she bought an unabridged dictionary, and they bought me books, until they thought it was time for me to get a little better education than the one-room schoolhouse; so, I went into the city of Watertown, which was about six miles away, and commuted every day. I went to the last year in the grade school and then into high school. I went to the high school, and about six weeks before I was due to graduate, the city editor on one of the two daily papers in the city of Watertown, came and offered me a job as a reporter. That was the result of my having attended a high school football game, and, on my own, writing about it on a Sunday after the Saturday game, and then when I had written it--which I did, as I say on my own--I took it in the next morning and dropped it in that newspaper office. That was in November, and the piece
came out, a full column in the paper on Monday and that is all there was to it until the city editor came up to the school the next spring and got hold of me and wanted to know if I wanted a job as a reporter. Well, I hadn't graduated, but I talked to the principal--I guess I didn't have any remarkable record as a student, I was president of my class--so, I knew the principal and he said, "If you can pass your examinations, go ahead and take the job, if you think you can pass them six weeks from now."
So, I took the job--and I did pass my examinations, and that's the way I got started as a newspaperman, a cub reporter on this evening paper; and, I was a newspaperman the rest of my life, as a result. I worked on that paper off and on for about three years; I worked on the other evening paper--which was one which still exists, which eventually absorbed that paper. I worked there for about three years, and I served as a correspondent and bureau manager for the Syracuse morning paper, the Post Standard, for about three years.
Then along about that time we got into the First World War; so, you see I didn't get any college education, and I never attended college. The war came along and with others of my friends, we all tried to get into the Army, and nearly all made it into the officers training camp, but I got turned down for physical reasons. My name came up the first day
in the draft, and I thought, "Well, I'll make it now," and darned if they didn't turn me down.
So, I tried for the second officers training camp and I got turned down again and I got called in the draft the second time and got turned down, and I was getting pretty much stirred up and at that time I tried everything I could think of, everything I'd see or hear of, I'd try. These fellows that I went to the first officers training camp examination with, practically all got in, four or five of them were killed--my closest friends, one of them was killed and one of them was shot, and there I was trying to get in the Army. I made it, finally, thanks to a doctor who didn't know what the rules were and he said, "I'll pass you if you can get another examination later."
I never got another regular physical examination and I was in France in three weeks. I spent a year in France, and came back all right, and was out after the end of the war, of course.
I went back to newspaper work, and about six months later, I landed with the Associated Press in New York City, and I was with the Associated Press for seventeen years--in New York and then in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I started and built the first Associated Press bureau they had had there--legislative, and that sort of thing--at the capital. Then they offered me the Boston bureau and I
served there as bureau chief for ten years. I left that at the solicitation of the Providence, Rhode Island Journal-Bulletin--a combination--and went there as news editor and acting managing editor. I was very unhappy there. I stayed two years and a half and then I resigned. I came to Washington in the Government--I think I was actually sworn in about a week or ten days after Pearl Harbor as an employee in the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which was headed by Nelson Rockefeller; and, that came about because I had known Frank Jamieson who was in the Associated Press when I was, and he had left the Associated Press and was the public relations man and adviser to the Rockefeller brothers. After I went in with him, within two or three days, he asked me to go to the White House as a reporter--and, whatever you wanted to call it, liaison with the White House, and I did. And I stayed there throughout the war. Stephen Early, who was press secretary to President Roosevelt, had been in the Associated Press when I was. Although I had met him, I didn't know him well, but he knew me. So, in January l945 (the war was still on), he called me in one day and without any preliminaries, said, "You're coming in here with me."
I had no desire to go in, or to be a press officer. But I did, of course, and I stayed there. Steve went to Yalta and also stayed in Europe for awhile to advise Eisenhower;
to assist him in his press arrangements, and Jonathan Daniels, who was an administrative assistant to President Roosevelt came in on the same day I did, which was the day that Roosevelt left for Yalta. Jonathan was to act as press secretary, and after Roosevelt came back, Jonathan became press secretary as Early had presented his resignation to take effect along the next June or July, I believe. Meanwhile, Early was made appointments secretary by Roosevelt to succeed General [Edwin N.] Watson, who died aboard ship on the return trip from Yalta. Steve took that job and Jonathan was appointed press secretary, and he and I carried on the work of the press office, and Jonathan stayed on until Roosevelt died, when he wanted to get out. And I stayed on after Roosevelt died--I won't go into the details of that now, I don't want to take up the various steps in there .
HESS: Whatever you want to say about the subject will be fine.
AYERS: Upon the death of Roosevelt there was, of course, great uncertainty as to what was going to happen with that new administration . I'd like to go separately into the swearing-in of Truman, so I'll just take the press office for the moment.
HESS: Mr. Ayers, thinking back, could you tell me about your first meeting with Mr. Truman?
AYERS: My first ac