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Wallace H. Graham Oral History Interview

   

Oral History Interview with
Wallace H. Graham

President Truman's personal White House physician, 1945-53; Truman family doctor, 1945-82.

Independence, Missouri
March 30, 1989
Niel M. Johnson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

NOTICE
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. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
Wallace H. Graham

Independence, Missouri
March 30, 1989
Niel M. Johnson

[1]

JOHNSON: Dr. Graham, I'm going to start by asking you when and where you were born, and the names of your parents. Would you give me that?

GRAHAM: Yes. I was born in Highland, Kansas, that's in Doniphan County, on October 9, 1910. My mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Marie Venneman. My father's name was James Walter Graham, M.D. He was born in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. He and his family then settled in Almena, Kansas, which was homesteaded land. (My father, Dr. James W. Graham, was a baby at the time.) They moved again and established a place at Long Island, Kansas. They were in the last Indian raid in that area. The year, I do not recall. The Sioux Indians migrated north near the Cheyennes. The Sac and Fox Indians remained in mid and western Kansas.

JOHNSON: Are you talking about the 1860s?

[2]

GRAHAM: Yes. Then my father's family returned to Tarentum, Pennsylvania, which is just to the outskirts of Pittsburgh. My father was in school at the University of Pittsburgh. Then he entered medical school and graduated with a M.D. degree. He came out west to establish the ground that his mother had homesteaded near Almena, Kansas. He came out to Almena, in western Kansas, and began raising corn and wheat to make enough money to continue his medical studies. My mother and father later moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where my older brother, John James, was born in January 1901, nine years prior to my birth on October 9, 1910. My father was associated with Ensworth Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri at that time. I believe it's called The Sisters Hospital at the present time. My father James W. Graham then did night duty for extra income at the St. Joseph Hospital Number 2.

When World War I began, my father left Highland, Kansas for active army service. He enlisted as a First Lieutenant in the Medical Corps, and later returned to Ft. Riley, Kansas, in 1919. From there he was sent for a short time to Camp Funston, Kansas. After World War I he returned and immediately gathered the family--brother John, my mother, and me--and moved us from Highland, Kansas, to Kansas City, Missouri, which was in his words, "more progressive" and a better place to grow.

[3]

JOHNSON: Again, what was your older brother's name?

GRAHAM: His name was John James Graham, and he was attending the Wentworth Military Academy at the time in 1917. After serving on active duty in World War I my father came back to the Midwest and practiced medicine and surgery for a short time with Dr. McGill and Dr. Breifogel in Kansas City, Kansas. Then my father moved to Kansas City, Missouri, because he thought it was more progressive. He established himself there. We had a home at 5731 Troost Avenue, from 1919 to 1928.

JOHNSON: Did you have just the one brother?

GRAHAM: Yes. I had a sister who died as a baby, with pneumonia, in 1908.

JOHNSON: I see. When your father was practicing in St. Joseph, Missouri, that was before World War I.

GRAHAM: Yes, that was quite a long time back, prior to my birth in October, 1910. My father practiced with a Doctor McGill in St. Joseph, Missouri and there he performed surgery along with the general practice of medicine.

JOHNSON: He might have become acquainted with the Cronkites; you know, Walter Cronkite's father was a dentist, and I think his grandfather was a dentist in St. Joe.

[4]

GRAHAM: Possibly.

JOHNSON: So your father served in the military in World War I.

GRAHAM: As a matter of interest, my paternal grandfather enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War at Ft. Leavenworth. He was in Company D, Kansas Volunteers--8th Regiment, Infantry, under Captain D.W. Williams. Colonel Robert Graham organized for service along the border.

JOHNSON: Do you know when Truman first became acquainted with your father?

GRAHAM: It was through the Army, probably in 1919 or near that time.

JOHNSON: Was it during the war, or in the Reserves after the war?

GRAHAM: I think it was in the Reserve Officers Association.

JOHNSON: Your father was not in the 129th?

GRAHAM: No.

JOHNSON: He was probably in the 35th Division though?

GRAHAM: I do not believe so. I do not know.

JOHNSON: Your father then was an officer in the Army Reserve after the war?

[5]

GRAHAM: Yes, and my father was on the Army pistol team. Harry Truman could not make the pistol team because his sight was poor.

JOHNSON: And your father attended yearly summer training camps?

GRAHAM: Yes, that's right. He went to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, during the early part of World War II.

JOHNSON: Was it sometime in the 1920s that he became acquainted with Harry Truman?

GRAHAM: Yes. I think so.

JOHNSON: I am trying to establish Harry Truman's relationship with your father. Was your father a family doctor to the Trumans?

GRAHAM: No. Dr. Charles Allen was Truman's doctor at the time. My father and Truman became friends through the Reserve Officers Association.

JOHNSON: Did he ever have any of the Trumans as patients, perhaps in the 1930s?

GRAHAM: Not to my knowledge.

JOHNSON: But Harry Truman talks as if he knew your father pretty well.

[6]

GRAHAM: Yes, they knew each other very well as good friends.

JOHNSON: Are we talking about the '20s and '30s?

GRAHAM: Yes.

JOHNSON: Your father then was living in Kansas City, Missouri and having a private medical and surgical practice in Kansas City, Missouri?

GRAHAM: Yes. That is correct.

JOHNSON: But you're not sure whether the Trumans were patients of his?

GRAHAM: No, they were not.

JOHNSON: Did your father ever say anything to you about the Trumans, or did he ever have any stories or anecdotes about the Trumans that he ever told you?

GRAHAM: On several occasions. One in which Truman was standing in the back of a motor boat when it started up suddenly. Truman was thrown out of the boat. He climbed back in, soaking wet. Also President Truman wanted to get on the pistol team, and my father was captain of the pistol team at the time. He wanted Truman on the team, but Truman's eyesight was not good enough; the president was told he had "a flat eyeball" which caused defective vision. Truman

[7]

would drive around at night in the dark thinking that it might help his sight some; however, that had no beneficial effect.

JOHNSON: This would have been at Fort Riley, for instance, this pistol team?

GRAHAM: No. This was in Kansas City, Missouri, in the Reserve Officers Association. Those who won went to Camp Perry. My father was an expert marksman; he would practice by the hour, just bringing that .45 caliber pistol down and holding it straight out many minutes at arms length. He made his own ammunition which he would use for target practice in the field.

JOHNSON: He still had the frontier spirit.

GRAHAM: Yes. He had the will and the powder. I can remember that little granular powder he put together. He would use old shell casings. He would pick them up from the firing range in the Armory, where they fell, and fill them with powder and his own lead by hand, after melting the lead to fit.

JOHNSON: So he said that Harry Truman wanted to be on the pistol team, but his eyesight was not adequate to be a good marksman.

[8]

GRAHAM: Right. Yes, he was not a good marksman; consequently he could not hold a place on the team.

JOHNSON: Yes, I guess Harry Truman had other talents.

GRAHAM: Yes, obviously.

JOHNSON: That brings us up to World War II. You entered the Army before Pearl Harbor, didn't you?

GRAHAM: Yes, I entered the Army through Ft. Leavenworth as a Reserve Officer. I was in advanced ROTC while at the University of Missouri. Every summer, from age 17, I was in the CMTC (Citizens Military Training Camp) in Ft. Snelling, Minnesota.

JOHNSON: When did you go into the Reserve Officers program?

GRAHAM: I was a Reserve Officer--first Lieutenant--immediately upon graduation from the Creighton University School of Medicine in 1936.

JOHNSON: Did you meet Harry Truman as a Reserve Officer?

GRAHAM: No.

JOHNSON: You didn't meet him before . . .

GRAHAM: No, and purposely I didn't. Now, that sounds rather harsh. I did not want to go with my father, at all, when he

[9]

wanted me to meet Senator Truman. I felt like, well, it was like a father taking "little stinky" to meet the Senator, you understand; I just felt that way. I said, "No, he didn't have any interest in me except as a friend of my father's and you understand that, Dad." He said, "Oh, you're a good boy." I remember that. "I want you to know him." I said, "If we happen to meet in our various roads of life, fine; but it's just like taking little stinky up to meet the Senator."

JOHNSON: Was that a nickname?

GRAHAM: Oh, no, no. I just said that to myself, that it would be analogous. "This is my young son, you know, and I want you to meet friend, Senator Truman."

JOHNSON: This was Senator Truman at the time.

GRAHAM: Yes, that's right.

JOHNSON: But your father's opinions of Senator Truman were very favorable?

GRAHAM: Extremely high as an honest, straight-forward Army officer and gentleman; a splendid leader, the best, and very personable--but not a good marksman.

JOHNSON: He was a real New Deal Democrat?

[10]

GRAHAM: Absolutely, all the way. Very strong. My father was a Republican when he came to the Midwest from Pennsylvania, but he said later, "The Democratic Party is the only party for the general populace." I remember him saying that. He said, "It's the party for the majority of the people; we're Democrats now."

JOHNSON: Do you think the Depression is what converted him?

GRAHAM: Well, actually this was before the Depression, in 1928 and '29.

JOHNSON: Oh, this was before the Depression.

GRAHAM: Yes.

JOHNSON: Maybe it could be traced to Woodrow Wilson or even to [William Jennings] Bryan. Would it go back to Bryan?

GRAHAM: The "Cross of Gold" speech was a winner which cinched the victory. Dad thought that was great. My Dad was quite strictly religious. I do not mean he was a fanatic, but he was the kind of man that would be on his knees to pray every morning and every night, asking for proper guidance, wisdom, and power to follow the correct path and help his family and patients ease the suffering of the sick and afflicted.

JOHNSON: What denomination did he belong to?

[11]

GRAHAM: Well, out in Kansas we were Presbyterians. But then when we moved, my father made a study of religious precepts. After we left Highland, Kansas we went to several of the churches in Kansas City, Missouri. He thought the Baptist Church had more to offer. He liked the minister, Dr. Abernathy, at that time, who later was sent to Washington. Dr. Abernathy, who was followed by Dr. A. Ray Petty, and later by Dr. D. J. Evans. Dr. Abernathy was transferred to Washington, D.C. Then there was A. Ray Petty, who was sincere and articulate. When any young fellow, ten and twelve years of age, enjoys going to church rather than going to Sunday School, that speaks well of the minister. I went to Sunday School as long as I thought was necessary, but I wanted to get to church. In adult church, the lectures were more intellectual; they were superb and enjoyable. The minister would always relate his sermon to everyday life.

JOHNSON: What Baptist Church was that?

GRAHAM: That was the First Baptist.

JOHNSON: In Kansas City, Missouri?

GRAHAM: Yes. On Linwood Boulevard and Park Avenue.

JOHNSON: So your father was a Baptist like Harry Truman?

[12]

GRAHAM: Yes.

JOHNSON: Very strong for the New Deal?

GRAHAM: Yes, all the way.

JOHNSON: New Deal legislation, and liberalism?

GRAHAM: Yes, absolutely. My father took time and explained it to me very well.

JOHNSON: So they had that in common.

GRAHAM: They had very much in common. My father was a Federal doctor, who would talk to and treat the prisoners. He would go to the Courthouse prisons at least once or twice a week on stipulated days. He would minister to the prisoners; he helped many and financed several to get started--one in a grocery store, and for others he obtained permanent work elsewhere.

JOHNSON: They did not have a Veterans Hospital before World War II?

GRAHAM: No.

JOHNSON: Did your father have a special practice with veterans?

GRAHAM: No, not just for veterans; he just took care of all he possibly could.

[13]

JOHNSON: Just general . . .

GRAHAM: Yes, general care and surgery if and when needed. And he took care and treated the prisoners, both in the city and county jails.