Oral History Interview
Kansas City friends of President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman
May 19, 1964
by Dr. Philip C. Brooks, Harry S. Truman Library
As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Jessee transcript.
Opened April 1966
Oral History Interview with
American Embassy, Copenhagen, Denmark
DR. PHILIP C. BROOKS: This will be a discussion by Randall Jessee, who has had a long and interesting association with Mr. Truman. I suggested that he elaborate on what he wrote for an article in the Danish Newspaper, Jyllands, Posten, on Mr. Truman's eightieth birthday.
Randall, would you be willing just to talk informally with Mrs. Jessee helping you out from time to time?
MR. RANDALL S. JESSEE: Well, the first time I ever met Mr. Truman, was right after he came home in 1948. At that time, I was News Director for WDAF in Kansas City and I'd just covered the arrival. I was present and Fred Canfil was standing outside the doorway to the Muehlebach. He was the United States Marshal, and he was quite a character. He was built like a truck, you know, and some people called him the "bull of the woods". He was a very controversial figure, very much liked by some people and disliked by others, but he was Mr. Truman's friend.
BROOKS: Was he really a pretty capable person?
JESSEE: Oh, I think so. He was a good United States Marshal. He was rough and ready and he didn't hesitate to say what he thought of people, so he made some enemies, naturally.
Well, I was standing there in the doorway when the President came in and--I've often wondered why he (Canfil) singled me out--but Canfil said, "Randall, have you ever met the President?"
I said, "No."
So he said, "Come with me."
Just then, we went into that little elevator in the corner of the Muehlebach Hotel lobby and went on up, and Fred went barging on into the Presidential suite. There the President was, sitting and talking to Tom McGee, Louis McGee's father and long time friend of the President's. So, after Mr. McGee had finished visiting with him, Canfil introduced us, told him who I was and that I was a reporter for the Kansas City Star and WDAF. Mr. Truman made some crack about the Star, I've forgotten exactly what it was. We passed a few pleasantries and so I told him it was a great pleasure to meet him and we went on our way. Mr. Truman stayed in the suite and of course, people were coming in and out all the time.
At that time I had no way of knowing, of course, that four years later, he would come back to Kansas City and Independence, and over the years we'd get to be pretty good friends and take part in many radio and TV broadcasts together.
Then, the next time that I had anything to do close to him, was when he arrived home that night in Independence in January '53. Of course, you remember, at that time we had just finished a red-hot campaign, and Mr. Truman had come in for a tremendous amount of criticism. You got the feeling, sometimes, that everyone was against him nearly, but I had made up my mind that our newsroom was going to welcome him back, even though no one else was there. It seems silly now that we actually had the idea that maybe there might be a few hundred people out at the Independence station and this was, I thought, a disgrace for the former President of the United States to be welcomed home in such a manner. But, this wasn't true at all, because there were thousands of people there when we arrived.
BROOKS: At Independence?
JESSEE: At Independence, yes. The train pulled in and I think for the first time--I've never heard of Mrs. Truman saying anything before the radio and TV people--she said something about how she was glad to be home, that it was just so good to be back in Independence again. I thought, well, this was a real television first, but NBC didn't use it. It was for the National Broadcasting Company, but they didn't use it.
Anyway, we covered the whole homecoming and as I said, there were thousands of people there. On the way back, I was driving, and Walt Bodine was sitting up in front with me and another newsman--incidentally, we had taken everybody out of the newsroom, which is always a mistake, but, we were all for Mr. Truman. We noticed a glow in the sky as we got a little closer to Kansas City. And sure enough the biggest fire of the year, I think it was one of those big lumber companies, had caught fire while we were out there and burned down. WDAF was the only station in town that didn't have a word about the fire. Anyway, we'd welcomed Mr. Truman home, along with thousands of other people that night.
Later on, I would get assignments from NBC to go up to his office in the Federal Reserve Building. We got pretty well acquainted. He was very kind with reporters and they all really thought a lot of him.
But I am digressing a little bit, because the next day after he came home, Tony Vaccaro, who was the principal one I remember, I think Merriman Smith was along, and some of the other regulars, that have covered him all the time he was in the White House . . . Vaccaro was with the Associated Press; Merriman Smith was with the United Press, and I was the NBC representative and covered the arrival.
Anyway, we had a luncheon at the Muehlebach, I think Vaccaro got everybody together and it was Mr. Truman's farewell to his White House reporters. Someway, I got in on it. Tony probably invited me, because we knew one another pretty well. Anyway, I got in on it and Mr. Truman, in making his remarks, said that--he kidded something about the Star again, and said the Star's radio station was pretty nice to him, and the TV station, so this made me feel good. And I thought, well, I have a friend here, maybe, and, then later on, NBC would have me cover lots of things for them with him and we got along famously, as he did with most reporters. So, over the years, we grew to be pretty good friends.
Then, along about in 1953 or '54, it must have been, one time I told my wife, "I think that Mr. Truman and Mrs. Truman are lonely. They don't get invited out as much as they should. I think people are just afraid to invite them out. They just think that, "Oh, they wouldn't want to come to our house."
So, she said, "Oh, well, do you think they would want to come to our house?"
I said, "Well, I don't know, but I'm going to ask them and find out." So, I asked Mr. Truman, and he said, "Well, I'll have to check with the Boss, but I think we'd like to."
The next thing I knew, my wife got a nice note from Mrs. Truman accepting and I told him that Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri painter, would be there. Tom was a neighbor of ours. And Mr. Truman made some remark such as "Well, he's the fellow who made a mistake in painting those murals about Mr. Pendergast down at Jefferson City. I've got a long memory, you know, and I don't know whether we'll get along or not." That's what he said, "I've got a long memory."
So, then Fern got this note from Mrs. Truman, and then the fun started, because Mrs. Benton and Fern were planning this dinner. This is a story all by itself, because Rita, you know, speaks her mind and has opinions on everything. At that time, NBC was sending Dave Garroway, who was a famous TV performer, to cover the American Royal for the "Today" show. This must have been October 1953. Dave and I were pretty good friends, so I invited Dave, and Frank Blair, and Jerry Green, the producer of the show, to come to the dinner. And I believe at that dinner, Louis McGee and Carolyn Schutte were also present.
The planning on this was hilarious, because Rita--Tom's wife--got out the book of etiquette and said, "It says nothing in here about entertaining a President of the United States. Where are you supposed to sit?" They agreed, "Well, obviously, he's the most important person," so he had to sit at the hostess' right. "Then," she said, "who's the next most famous person? Well, nobody has ever heard of this Dave Garroway." Of course, he talked to millions of people every morning, but at that time the Bentons didn't have a TV set. She said, "My Tom is the next most important man to the President of the United States." And, she was right. Anyway, Tom sat on Fern's right. Then came the question of what he would like to eat. So I checked with the restaurant owner -- Max Bretton -- Mr. Truman ate there once in a while -- as to what he'd like to have. Max said, "Stewed chicken wings." So, we had stewed chicken wings and steak.
MRS. RANDALL S. JESSEE: Because Mrs. Truman loves steak.
JESSEE: And she doesn't like chicken?
MRS. JESSEE: No.
JESSEE: So, anyway, we had stewed chicken wings and steak, which, come to think of it is sort of a strange combination. Anyway, that's what was served and that was the first time, I think, that Tom Benton and Mr. Truman got together. And, actually, I suppose that contributed in a small way to the mural at the Library because they really got to be good friends, I felt, that night around our table, although they had known one another in the past and Tom had visited Mr. Truman in the White House at one tim