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Fred L. Lee Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Fred L. Lee

Historian, son of an acquaintance of President Truman.

Independence, Missouri
July 23, 1991
by 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 Lee 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May, 1997
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

 



Oral History Interview with
Fred L. Lee

 

Independence, Missouri
July 23, 1991
by Niel M. Johnson

[1]

JOHNSON:  I'm going to start out by asking you when and where you were born and what your parents names are.

LEE:  My full name is Frederick Lyman Lee II.  I'm named for my grandfather, Frederick Lyman Lee I, obviously.  Our family first came to Kansas City in 1869 and has been here ever since. The family was in the lumber business, owning the Lee-Lyman lumber yards up until the 1930s.

Myself, I was born on October 7, 1935 here in Kansas City.  I grew up in Kansas City, with the exception of World War II years when my dad was in the Army.

JOHNSON:  What are your dad's and mother's names?

[2]

LEE:  My dad's name is John Morton Lee and mother's name is Jean Elizabeth Moore Lee.  They too were born in Kansas City like myself.

JOHNSON:  You mentioned the lumber business.  Do you know if they had any acquaintance at all with the [George Porterfield] Gates family, since Gates started in the lumber business here about 1867 in Kansas City?

LEE:  The family probably did.  I think they were certainly aware of them, because when my great grandfather came here in 1869 he worked for J.W. Merrill, who had a lumber yard where the old Emery Bird Thayer store was located, and which now is the site of United Missouri Bank.  My great grandfather, Herbert Morris Lee, was bookkeeper for them and then he eventually owned his own yards.  So, I'm sure that they were knowledgeable probably of each other.  I don't think that there is any connection there, since Independence and Kansas City were quite a ways apart.

JOHNSON:  Yes.  And Gates got into the milling business over in Independence.  I have a letter here, a copy, from the Post-Presidential Papers at the Truman Library; it's in the Post-Presidential General File, dated November 23, 1962, a letter from John M. Lee,

[3]

Lieutenant Colonel U.S.A.R. retired, to Harry Truman.  Colonel Lee is your father.  Are you acquainted with that particular piece of correspondence?

LEE:  Not the correspondence, but I certainly remember the incident and dad still, I'm sure, has that.

JOHNSON:  In his reply on December 4, Harry Truman says "I have autographed your Certificate of appointment to the grade of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve and it is enclosed herewith.  I was glad to sign it for you and appreciate the fact that you wanted me to do so."

Almost a year later, on November 20, 1963, Harry Truman wrote, "Dear Colonel Lee: I deeply appreciate your interest and participation in the Hall which was set up in my honor.  Naturally it makes a man wonder why people continue to be so very kind to him and I guess I will never stop wondering."  Again this is a letter from Harry Truman to Lieutenant Colonel John M. Lee.

LEE:  Very, very typical of his thinking.  I think it's very nice.

JOHNSON:  This happens in 1962 and '63.  Maybe what we should do is go back a ways, and the first question then is, when did you or your father first become

[4]

acquainted with Harry Truman?

LEE:  It was really basically my father, say through his Army Reserve program.  They dedicated the Armory, which was at about 16th and Central here in Kansas City, I think some time between 1955 and '57, somewhere in there.  The reason I say that is because my mother died in 1956, and I don't recall her being at that dedication, but her dad was.  It was at that dedication where I first met him [Mr. Truman].  It was also in subsequent activities at that Armory where I would meet him and talk, that sort of thing.  At that time I was only, say, in my twenties, and so it was...

JOHNSON:  It was at the dedication of the armory here, used by the National Guard and the Army Reserve?

LEE:  I don't know if the National Guard used it, but I know of my dad's involvement with it there.  Dad was regimental Executive Officer of the 406th Infantry Regiment, which is a part of the 102nd Infantry Division, which was a subsidiary of the 5th Army headquartered in Illinois, in Chicago.  Dad was regimental Executive Officer, and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Crawford was the Commanding Officer there.  But it was at that dedication of the Armory that we first

[5]

met.

JOHNSON:  Was that when your father first met him, also?

LEE:  I really suspect that's when they met.

JOHNSON:  Do you remember any highlights of that particular event, what Truman's involvement was?

LEE:  I suspect that he was probably the guest speaker that day.  I would imagine.

JOHNSON:  Do you remember him making remarks?

LEE:  Making remarks of some sort, yes.

JOHNSON:  How about subsequent contacts?

LEE:  Well, I went off to college and that sort of thing.  My next involvement or personal contact, say, with Mr. Truman was the latter part, I think, of the 1950s at the Truman Library.

As we were talking on the phone last week, my paternal grandmother and grandfather wanted to go out to the Truman Library.  My grandmother was a short woman; she was stocky, and she had small feet and it was difficult for her to get around.  Grandad was kind of tall and lanky and what have you.  They kept talking about how they wanted to go to the Library; they wanted

[6]

to go to the Library.  So I said, "Why don't we do this.  Let's go out on a week day; there won't be as much traffic as on a weekend, and you can walk around, grandma.  You can walk around and you can sit; you can do what you want to do."  She thought that was a good idea and so we went.

We were sitting there in the entrance to the Oval Office. Grandmother had taken her shoes off, I remember, and was wiggling her toes and saying, "Oh, at last."  Grandad and I were just standing and talking.  Grandad had his back to the Oval Office there and I was halfway out in the hall.  We heard this commotion down at the other room down there at the end of the hall.  Grandad and I kind of looked there; grandmother was too busy working with her feet I think.  We looked there, and Mr. Truman came out.  He saw me and naturally I knew who he was, but I was very much surprised when he said, or shouted, "Hi, Fred, how are you doing."  And he came over to me.  I have difficulty remembering names...

JOHNSON:  He met you once and he remembered your name?

LEE:  Well, several times, but it had been several years before.  He came over and we shook hands and I said, "How are you Mr. President?"  "Fine. Fine."  He put

[7]

his arm on my shoulder and he said, "How's that old man of yours?"  I said, "Okay, the last time I checked."  He said, "Is he staying out of trouble?"  I said, "Yes."  So then I introduced him to my grandparents. Of course, at that point my grandmother quickly put on her shoes and she probably didn't have them all the way on, but she was standing there and so I introduced him to grandmother and grandad.  I mean, quite frankly, here was a former President of the United States talking about their son, not my father, but their son.  My grandmother, of course, was just beaming; she was so proud that this had happened.

We were talking, oh, a couple of minutes there, and then Mr. Truman said, "Are you going to be here for a second or two?"  I said, "Sure. Sure."  He said, "I've got somebody I want you to meet."

So we went back down the hallway there, and he came out a minute or so later and who should he have with him but Jack Benny.  They were doing a walk-through for Benny's program.  As I said, he came out and we were introduced, all of us, and we stood out there in that hall a good, I would say, 15 minutes to half an hour, talking.  Just talk.

JOHNSON:  With you and your grandparents and Harry Truman

[8]

and Jack Benny.

LEE:  And Jack Benny.  I look back on it now.  I'm so happy that the good Lord happened to plan it that way, because it was a very pleasant memory for me.  You know, your grandparents are always doing things for you.  They spoil grandkids, and our family was no exception.  Here, I had taken them out there and this happened to transpire and it made an exceptionally great day out of what would have been an exceptional day.  So they had a memory.  I look back on it because of that, and it brings a warmth to me.  Also, the thing that strikes me, and has continually, is that here were two men, Mr. Truman and Mr. Benny, two men individually who had given of themselves to the world, literally.  They had by their presence on this earth contributed of themselves and made great contributions; they could be swelled heads -- they had every right to be -- because most people in life don't achieve those heights.  But there is that humanness, you know, to just stand and talk, to somebody they encountered and to do this.

I remember Benny was kidding Mr. Truman about their act that they used to do you know. Benny was saying something about "I'm going to try to teach this guy to do a soft shoe; I think that's the next thing

[9]

I'm going to get him to do."  I look back on it and I cannot quite picture that.  But Mr. Truman...

JOHNSON:  He was kidding Mr. Truman about teaching him the soft shoe?

LEE:  Right. And he said something about, I remember Mr. Truman said something like, "I don't think I'm that well coordinated," or something like that. Anyway Benny said, "We'll teach you; it doesn't take any talent."

JOHNSON:  So they joked around.

LEE:  Sure they were joking around and kidding.  I never did see the program.  I never really did.  I've looked for it on video tape, to get a copy, but I've never seen it.

JOHNSON:  Well, come on out, and you can see it on our monitor at the Library.

Here's a report, a quarterly report, either quarterly or monthly report, from the director of the Library, which he wrote on September 4th, 1959.  He says, "Our experience in the last three days warrants a special note.  Mr. Benny came Tuesday with his staff of J & M Productions, CBS representatives from both New

[10]

York and Los Angeles," and so forth.  He talks about the script being prepared carefully in advance and so on.  So this is the occasion that you're talking about.

LEE:  Yes that would be September 8th, or the 4th.

JOHNSON:  It sounds like it was right around Labor Day of 1959 that they were out here.

LEE:  Around that time.

JOHNSON:  Well, he said the half hour show would be produced on October 18th, so they had done this ahead of time, it looks like, about five or six weeks in advance of the show itself.  I guess it must have been recorded and then played back.

LEE:  Was it just a half an hour show, his regular half hour?

JOHNSON:  I think it was. Okay, there's another notice here of it.  There's a little column here by Paul Malloy that ends up saying, "It did show Mr. Truman as a deft straight man, or was Benny the straight man?"

LEE:  Who's kidding who?  I like that about Truman asking Benny his real age, standing under a portrait of George Washington.

[11]

JOHNSON:  Yes, right.  Did they make any jokes about that while you were talking to them about the stage thing.

LEE:  No.

JOHNSON:  Or being stingy?  Benny's reputation for being stingy?

LEE:  No, there was none of that.  Of course, I think in real life he was the complete opposite.

JOHNSON:  Yes, I think so.  Did you meet them again after that, at any time?

LEE:  No, I didn't after that.  I do remember one time when some of us had gone down to see a performance of "Hello Dolly" down at the auditorium, in the Little Theater, with Mary Martin, and I think we were sitting orchestra, center orchestra, about row M or so.  The lights dimmed, the orchestra started playing the overture, and we saw this group of people over to our right coming down the aisle.  We paid no attention to who they were.  They sat oh, maybe, four or five rows ahead of us in the center there.  We got through with the performance, and of course, there was a standing ovation for Mary Martin and all that sort of thing.  She stepped out there on the proscenium and she said to

[12]

her audience, "We have a very special somebody in our audience tonight."  Right away, of course, you knew who that was, but you weren't quite sure.  She said, "To him," and then you knew, "I would like to sing a very special song."  She pointed to the orchestra and they played "Hello Dolly."  But instead of singing Hello Dolly she says, "Hello Harry," and "it's so nice to have you back where you belong.  You're looking swell, Harry.  I can tell...," and she was singing it right directly to him.

Now, the beauty of all this, Niel, is that when she said, "I'd like to sing this to him," I think the audience stood out of respect