Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened May, 1990
Oral History Interview with
October 8, 1988
by Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: I would like to have some background. If you would tell me when and where you were born, and what your parents' names were.
ODUM: Well, I was born in Benton, Illinois in Franklin County. My father's name was Thomas (Britt) Odum, and my mother's name was Myrtie Powell. They were born in Williamson County, Illinois. You're from Illinois aren't you?
ODUM: Well, this was down where they had all that coal mine
trouble. In fact, some of the miners fought across one of my uncle's properties in Williamson County, Illinois.
JOHNSON: Would this be down around Centralia?
ODUM: No, on down, near Marion, Illinois and Herrin. Remember Herrin?
JOHNSON: Yes, sure. Your father's occupation was what?
ODUM: My grandfather was sheriff of Franklin County (and served in the Civil War), and my father once served as deputy sheriff. One of my uncles was shot and killed while serving as sheriff. After being deputy sheriff, my father had what would now be called a taxi service; he had a so-called span "bus", drawn by two horses. He would pick up traveling men who came by train from St. Louis. He would take them on their selling missions, and then return them to the train. He died when I was four and I never knew much about my father. My mother had their five children to care for, and she had a rather rough time of it.
JOHNSON: So your mother had to raise a family on her own?
ODUM: Yes, she did.
JOHNSON: And she never remarried?
ODUM: She never remarried, and she never had to work outside the home. My older brother, who is dead now, started to work when he was about 15, and brought in a little money. My sister; when she completed two years of high school, worked in the courthouse, and brought in a little more money. So we all seemed to get along. There was nothing like child support in those days.
JOHNSON: This was five children you say?
JOHNSON: And you were what?
ODUM: I was the youngest.
JOHNSON: And this was in Benton.
ODUM: Yes. I don't think I ever went to St. Louis until I was about 18.
JOHNSON: Then your education was in...
ODUM: Just in high school, and then when I did go to St. Louis. I took a business course. One of my brothers had gone to the University of Illinois, and that exhausted whatever spare cash we had at that time. He always said he would come home, get a job, and then put
me through college. What did he do but come home and get married. So that ended my chance of higher education, and I had to find employment.
JOHNSON: Now did we get your birth date?
ODUM: September 29, 1908.
JOHNSON: So after high school graduation, you went to St. Louis?
ODUM: No, not immediately. I worked in the First National Bank of Benton. But prior to that, Marion Hart had what was called the Franklin County Title Company, and he put me to work for about $10 a week. Then, there was a vacancy over in the First National Bank and Mr. Hart recommended me for the job. They gave it to me. I don't think I ever did anything but handle school savings, and do filing and post books, and things of that sort. But I was about the only one kept on when the bank went into receivership, you know, during the Depression.
JOHNSON: Okay, so we're talking about the late twenties, or 1930.
ODUM: Yes, the early thirties.
JOHNSON: You graduated from high school in what year?
ODUM: In '26, 1926.
JOHNSON: From the Benton Township High School.
JOHNSON: Then you worked for a title company, and then a bank. How long did you work for the bank?
ODUM: Well, for about at least four or five years. It closed in '33 when many banks were closing all over the country.
JOHNSON: It hung on to '33.
ODUM: Yes, and then a receiver by the name of Joe Horton came in and he hired me along with the others from other areas. He had about five little banks in receivership there in southern Illinois, so we were all very busy. Then I had the opportunity to go to the First National Bank in East St. Louis with Guy Hitt, who later became a president of the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. He was the conservator of the First National Bank in East St. Louis, and he took me along as his assistant.
JOHNSON: You must have been very good at this, whatever you were doing.
ODUM: Oh, I don't know. I never felt particularly brilliant or anything, but I had learned to work hard, and was able to aid my mother financially. They managed to reopen that bank, and then I was going to be out of work. So Mr. Hitt sent me over to Hollis Haggard, who was with the chief national bank examiner in St. Louis. Hollis was very kind to me, and he said, "Well, you just come over here and work with us. We'll find you something." I was awfully scared; I had only been into St. Louis to eat or shop. Then, I still lived over there in East St. Louis at the Buelah Club, which was a place for women to stay.
JOHNSON: So you had to commute across the river.
ODUM: Yes, the Mississippi River. Then Hollis said, "Well, John Snyder still has the Grand National Bank, and I think he had the Vandeventer National Bank, and a little bank down in Washington, Missouri." So I went out to see him and he did have a vacancy in the Grand National Bank receivership, so I worked there until I moved on to Washington.
JOHNSON: This is how you first met John Snyder?
ODUM: Yes, I first met him in the Grand National Bank.
JOHNSON: Do you remember what year that was?
ODUM: That would have been probably late '35, or early '36, because I went to Washington on October 1 in 1936. So it must have been sometime in '35. Somewhere in the course of changing addresses, I have misplaced a schedule of dates of my employment.
The then-Senator Truman came in the office one day, and he said one of his employees, a Jane Taylor -- I think she was from either Independence or Kansas City -- was going to be married, and he needed someone to come to the Washington office in her place. So Mr. Snyder said, "Well, I have three women here; you may interview them." I think I was 25 or 26 by that time, and he talked to me, and said to Mr. Snyder that he'd like me to go to his Washington office. I said, "Well I'll have to go home to southern Illinois and ask my mother." They thought that was very funny.
JOHNSON: Well, now, what kind of work were you doing for Mr. Snyder at this time?
ODUM: Well, by that time he was paying small dividends, so I
was addressing envelopes and figuring interest. I had never figured interest, but I soon learned how to do interest and figure dividends on deposit accounts, and then type dividend checks for mailing to depositors of the defunct bank.
JOHNSON: This is general office work, in a sense?
ODUM: Yes, I can't remember too many details, but we were very busy, even in a closed bank. In the old Grand National there, there was a Mr. Ed Mays, who had what was, I guess at that time, one of the tallest buildings in St. Louis.
JOHNSON: You were right downtown then.
ODUM: Well, it was on Grand and Olive. He had erected this tremendously tall building and had a penthouse on the top. But in the meantime, the bank got into trouble, and they went into receivership.
JOHNSON: So then John Snyder's position at this point was
ODUM: Was a receiver.
JOHNSON: And so there were three girls?
ODUM: Three girls, and I think there was a young man; I've forgotten their names, actually. I know there was a Miss Robinson.
JOHNSON: But Harry Truman, Senator Truman, at this point just needed one person.
ODUM: Yes, the Senator had one vacancy in his Washington office. There were four others working for him at that time.
JOHNSON: Did Mr. Snyder say that you were the one that...
ODUM: No, he said that the Senator could talk to all three of us, and make his selection.
Well, Miss Robinson was planning to get married, or was married, so that sort of eliminated her. I don't know why I was selected, but anyway Senator Truman said he would like me to have the job, if I could go to Washington.
JOHNSON: Do you remember your impression of Senator Truman?
ODUM: I was scared to death. A Senator -- I had never talked to a Senator before!
JOHNSON: Did he put you at ease?
ODUM: Yes, he did.
JOHNSON: In other words, you were impressed with his demeanor?
ODUM: Oh, yes, indeed.
JOHNSON: So you got off to a good start, so to speak, with Senator Truman?