Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened December 1967
Oral History Interview with
August 24, 1967
by J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Mr. Easley, would you relate a little of your background to start this interview?
EASLEY: My folks came to southwestern Missouri about three generations ago, and I was born and raised in Webb City. I attended the public schools here, after which I obtained the bulk of my education at the hands of private tutors and finally went to work for the Atlas Powder Company, at a plant situated not far from Webb City, as a chemist. I was situated at this plant several years and subsequently transferred to one of the company plants in southwestern Pennsylvania where I was supervisor in charge of chemical
operations. I moved from this particular plant to Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, where I became the superintendent of the heavy chemical division of the plant and remained in this capacity, spending my time between Wilmington, Delaware, and Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania, until 1931, at which time I resigned and returned to Webb City. This came about through the murder of my brother-in-law, and there were no other male members of either family to carry on the family business. I engaged in business then with my father-in-law, Mr. A. D. Hatten, and ultimately took over the management of the Webb City Bank, with which my family had been associated for many years. Our family owned controlling interest in the Independence Ice and Creamery Company Plant at Independence, Missouri, and it was managed by my brother-in-law, Alvin Hatten. I was on the board and had occasion to visit Independence frequently. During these visits I met many townspeople, and among them
was Judge Truman, who used to come to the American Legion affairs, and I learned to know him quite well.
FUCHS: What year would you have met him, do you know?
EASLEY: This occurred in about 1932, at which time Mr. Truman was presiding judge of the county court of Jackson County. My acquaintance with him continued and I got to know many other people around Independence, including Roger Sermon who was mayor, and a political luminary, as it were. Finally, there was talk of Mr. Truman running for the United States Senate on the Democratic ticket.
FUCHS: What was your first impression of Mr. Truman?
EASLEY: I found that he was a very congenial person and had the ability of meeting people well, and he possessed a great deal of energy, and it
seemed to me that he was bent on achieving something worthwhile in life, I was very favorably impressed with Mr. Truman; so when it was finally determined after Mr. Aylward decided that he would not run for the Senate, or Mr. Shannon, on account of his health, also would not run, it then appeared that Mr. Truman was destined to make this race. I was contacted and it was requested that I meet with Judge Truman and attempt to show him around over the territory down in southwest Missouri and afford him an opportunity to meet a number of Democrats in the territory, inasmuch as he was not familiar with the area and was entirely without any acquaintances,
FUCHS: What were the principal counties that you would have taken in in such a tour?
EASLEY: Well, in this we started in the tier of counties extending from Nevada to the Arkansas
line, a double tier of counties there consisting of about thirteen counties, Finally we moved on over into Greene County and established some excellent connections over there with Mr. Howard Hannah, particularly; and Lester Cox, who was a prominent manufacturer in Springfield, also was interested in Mr. Truman's candidacy, which helped us considerably, especially from a financial point of view.
I might add that the contacts with Lester Cox were made through Mr. Dan Nee, who was at that particular time serving as collector of internal revenue for western Missouri and located in Kansas City. I had known Lester Cox for many years. As the campaign progressed, it began to appear that Mr. Truman was gaining in our part of the country, which we figured consisted of about thirty counties. These counties were ordinarily Republican, but of course this happened to be a Democratic primary, and that's what we were
primarily concerned with. John Cochran, out of St. Louis, appeared to be the principal person who was offering the most opposition, but Mr. Truman steadily gained on Cochran, who was Representative from St. Louis, Missouri. Tuck Milligan was the other opposition, and we ran into some trouble. He was essentially a Bennett Clark man, and the old Bennett Clark group were pretty well fighting Mr. Truman at this particular stage of the game. They fought him pretty bitterly, as it were. However, Truman consistently gained ground and finally won the election hands down, I think by about 40,000 votes, if I remember rightly.
After he was elected I had the opportunity to see him sworn into the Senate. He was somewhat handicapped by Clark's crowd. Because of seniority, Bennett was the man in the saddle. They were very aggressive, Mr. Truman had a substantial amount of difficulty obtaining
recognition on patronage. The situation continued until the WPA was set up in about 1934. At that time on account of the kind of campaign he had conducted, he had made himself widely known among all Democratic politicians across the state. As a result of this acquaintanceship and the influence that he could bring to bear, he was in a position to pretty well set up the WPA organization in Missouri, and most of the people in the key positions were Truman people when it came to the showdown. There was quite a lot of friction for quite some time with the Clark crowd, to the extent that there were even fisticuffs engaged in by the proponents of these two fellows from time to time. Along in about 1935 when the organization of the WPA was being set up, I was being considered for director of the southwest Missouri area. However, Matthew Murray, who had been named the state administrator, called me to Jefferson City and said that on account
of certain qualifications I possessed, Mr. Hopkins had recommended that they consider me for personnel director in the Jefferson City office. Well, I was reluctant to leave home. They told me that it would only take about ninety days to set the organization up and that I would be free to do what I wanted to after that. As things turned out I was in the organization for more than three years before I got out of it. It developed into a tremendous program, which at one time had 142,000 people on the payroll in the State of Missouri alone. So that is sort of the manner in which I became acquainted with Mr. Truman, and as time passed, on account of the very nature of my work, I of course corresponded with him constantly on matters of patronage, and on the development of the program as it affected our state. During the interval I think the relationship between Senator Clark and Senator Truman became more warm, the strained relationship at
least seemed to disappear as time passed. But definitely Mr. Truman was the person who had to be reckoned with insofar as matters political were concerned, so far as they affected the Works Projects Administration. I continued my work with this group and ultimately administered the program. In 1937, early in the year, I finally resigned my position, primarily because of the press of personal business.
FUCHS: What was your title?
EASLEY: I, at the time, was deputy administrator. They had no administrator. Murray had been holding down two jobs. He was the director of public works in Kansas City. He received pay for that. He was also Works Projects administrator and he left the responsibility of running the organization on me, and I would frequently go for weeks at a time when I would never even see him. This was not a very happy
situation and they changed my title, consequently, from that of assistant administrator to deputy administrator; and there was still a sufficient amount of interference, particularly from Kansas City from Mr. Murray and City Manager McElroy, as far as our projects were concerned. It gave me a substantial amount of trouble. I finally broke with them because they were expecting me to sign projects for millions of dollars sight unseen that I had no knowledge of, and this I refused to do. It was essentially and primarily for this reason that I decided that on account of the fact that my business was suffering and there was nobody to run it, I thought it would be a good time to get out, which I did.
FUCHS: Were you living in Jefferson City during this period?
EASLEY: I lived at the Missouri Hotel. I had an apartment there, and then I would come home
frequently, most every weekend and look after my affairs down here.
FUCHS: To go back a minute, did you know about a movement in 1931 to run Mr. Truman for governor? I understand you met him in approximately 1932, but I was just wondering?
EASLEY: No, the only thing -- I never heard that -- I know that Mr. Truman told me himself that he wanted to be collector of Jackson County at one time, but he could never get the proper endorsement. He was once defeated, I think the only time he was ever defeated for public office, and in that interval, he was made director of the Missouri State Employment Service and it was operated at Jefferson City. He would go back and forth, and I know that he held that job for a while until he went back onto the court. But I never knew of him to have been mentioned for statewide office.
FUCHS: There are two stories about his aspiration to be county collector: one referring to 1926, when he subsequently ran for the presiding judgeship, and the other story places it in 1934 when it turned out that he ran for the Senate. Do you know when he had this aspiration, when he hoped to be county collector?
EASLEY: I always understood that it was prior to the time that he ultimately ran for county judge. That's my understanding.
FUCHS: One young historian has written in his doctoral dissertation that Cochran simply entered as a stalking horse for Truman in 1934. Do you have a comment on that?
EASLEY: No, I knew Mr. Cochran. He was a dedicated man. He had a very strong following in St. Louis and he had made an outstanding Congressman. He was crippled. He only had one leg and he had a handicap on that account. I think Mr. Cochran
was a fine gentleman, he ran a fine campaign, and I don't believe he'd be a party to that, and I am sure that he was in that campaign to win. That's my feeling about it. He made a hard campaign and if St. Louis had been organized from the Democratic Party standpoint at that particular time, as well as it subsequently became organized, Mr. Cochran would probably have defeated Mr. Truman in my opinion. I think that there was a lot of ill will between the Clark crowd and the Truman crowd and that's why Tuck Milligan ran. I've always admired Mr. Truman's ability to forgive people who do him injury, and have done him injury; and his own cousin, "Snapper" Truman, supported Tuck Milligan and worked against him in this particular campaign, as well as in subsequent campaigns. Finally, it's a matter of record that Mr. Truman favored "Snapper" Truman's family and was very kind to him and very good to him in later years.
FUCHS: You say that he supported Tuck Milligan in the '34 campaign, but do you know that he also supported other opponents of Truman in subsequent campaigns?
EASLEY: Those others, who were in the campaign are of the opinion that he also supported Maurice Milligan, when Maurice Milligan ran against Mr. Truman at the time he defeated Governor Stark.
FUCHS: Who do you remember as being Mr. Truman's campaign manager in 1934?
EASLEY: I really don't think that Mr. Truman had any campaign manager in 1934. To me, from the standpoint of having an organized campaign, he just didn't have it, and he managed his own campaign, in my opinion, and worked tirelessly and endlessly to bring about his own election.
FUCHS: I see. The reason I asked, one account I have read says that James Aylward was his manager,
and another says that Fred Canfil was his manager, and I just wanted your comment about this.
EASLEY: My feeling is, I know Mr. Jim Aylward and he was chairman of the Democratic State Committee, and he is a fine man and he's a great organizer. Undoubtedly he threw the weight of the State