Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened September, 1976
Oral History Interview with
February 17, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin this morning, Doctor, I believe, according to Who's Who, that you came to town in 1936, is that correct?
PRUDEN: That's correct. I began my pastorate here in December of 1936 right after the election at which Mr. Roosevelt was elected to his second term.
HESS: That was one year after Mr. Truman came to town. He came to town in 1935. What are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?
PRUDEN: I recall, of course, the stories concerning his activities in the Senate, his special committee on which he spent so much time, and other activities as a leader in the Senate, and a member of the delegation from Missouri; but the first time I met Mr. Truman was after he became Vice President. Knowing that he was a Baptist, one of my church officials and I went to his
office in the Capitol to extend a personal invitation to him to attend our church. I do not know whether he attended during the brief months that he was Vice President, but his first visit to our church that I know definitely about came in the fall of 1945, after he had succeeded Mr. Roosevelt in April of that year.
HESS: Approximately how often did Mr. Truman attend here during the time that he was President? Do you recall?
PRUDEN: He came fairly regularly, though his visits were spaced according to particular crises and responsibilities that he was called upon to face. Sometimes he would come within two weeks of a previous visit; at other times there would be two or three months between his visits to church.
I recall the first time he came. I was quite impressed with his sincerity, the nice way in which he greeted everyone, and the thoughtfulness he demonstrated regarding those who were around him. He participated in the service, he refused to accept any special favors because he was President. He said he wanted to be like any other worshiper and he wanted no particular notice taken of his presence. His coming was never announced previously in the newspapers; in fact, I would not know that he was coming until he had already left the White
House and someone would call to tell me that he was already walking up to church and would be there within a few moments. So there was never any opportunity, even if I had wanted to do so, to make alterations in the sermon.
HESS: Did he usually walk up from the White House?
PRUDEN: Yes, I think most of the time when the weather was good he would walk, perhaps accompanied by one Secret Service man. There may have been others at a distance, but we could never detect more than one or two after his first visit. We did feel there must have been several here on his first visit, but after it became a rather regular routine, we gathered that the force was reduced. Mrs. Truman and Margaret were Episcopalians, but they did come with him occasionally, particularly on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Easter, and all of them were very gracious individuals and made us feel that they wanted to be treated as average human beings.
HESS: At the times that Mrs. Truman and Margaret would come, would they ride up rather than walk up, do you recall?
PRUDEN: Yes, yes, I think when they came they would come in a car.
HESS: They left the walking to the President.
HESS: Who usually came in the President's party? Were there various members of the White House staff who might come?
PRUDEN: No, he usually came alone when he was not with his family. We kept the pew reserved until the hour of worship and then if he had not come by that time, we would let other communicants use it. He was always quite punctual, getting here several moments before the service, so we knew that if he was not here by the regular time, he would not be coming. He chose to come to our early service. We had two morning services: One at 9:30 and another at 11, and he chose the earlier service because it was not as largely attended; there would be less likely to be tourists and other visitors who might be looking for him; and he preferred to worship in our smaller family service, where the parents and their children came together.
HESS: Did you ever have an opportunity to visit with Mr. Truman in some of his more relaxed moments, either here at the church or at the White House, or perhaps aboard the presidential yacht, the Williamsburg?
PRUDEN: Of course we had a little chance to visit each Sunday as we walked out of church together. According to long-established custom, the congregation was asked to remain seated until the President and his party had left the building, and I would always walk down to his pew and walk out with him to the sidewalk. We would have an opportunity to chat a while in that way. I called on him several times in the White House and talked with him in his office, and then one morning I had a walk with him on one of his usual morning walks around the monument grounds, and I found that to be very enjoyable.
HESS: Did you have any difficulty keeping up with him?
PRUDEN: Well, I must say that I did. I had to step a little faster than usual, because he didn't walk in a very relaxed manner, but it was a very interesting occasion. The way it came about was this: One Sunday morning in church he said, "One of the Secret Service men told me that he saw you at the airport last Wednesday when I arrived from Missouri where I had been for Christmas, and I wondered why you didn't come and speak to me?
I replied that I didn't want to hold him up or delay his departure for the White House, and that I had
just gone to the airport primarily to let some of my relatives see him who were here on a brief visit, and who had never had an opportunity to see him in person.
"Well," he said, "if you're ever anywhere else, and I'm there, you must let me know."
So, on the spur of the moment, without any previous thought, I said, "There is something that I'd like to do sometime."
And he said, "What's that?"
I said, "I'd like to come down and go walking with you one morning, since I notice you take a walk every day."
I waited for about a month, and chose a cold, clear morning in February, and not knowing what time he would leave. I got to the Blair House where he was living at that time while the White House was being repaired, around 8 o'clock, and he met me at the door, invited me in, and asked me if I'd had breakfast. I told him no, that not knowing when he might leave I didn't take time to eat breakfast.
Then he said, "Well, I'm getting ready to eat mine now, so come and eat with me." So we had breakfast together, just the two of us, in Blair House. He told
me that Mrs. Truman and Margaret, and Helen Traubel, the opera singer, had been out at a concert late the night before, and they were sleeping a little longer than usual that morning, so there were just the two of us at the breakfast table. We had a typical American breakfast of grapefruit and scrambled eggs, bacon and toast and so on, and had a very interesting conversation. Then we put on our coats and took a walk around the monument grounds. He told me a good deal about his earlier life in political circles, and about some of his dealings with his opponents in the Congress who stymied some of his plans and desires. And I found it a very fascinating experience.
HESS: Did he at that time mention his possible association with the Pendergast organization in Kansas City?
PRUDEN: No, I believe not. The thing that occupied my mind primarily that morning was something he said to me at the breakfast table regarding his thought of appointing a full-time ambassador to the Vatican.
Just a few days before that it had been announced that Mr. Myron C. Taylor, the personal representative first of President Roosevelt and then continued by President Truman, was going to be called home, and
most of us assumed that that was the end of such a mission. So when he announced the possibility of a full-time official ambassador, it came as quite a shock to me, being a Baptist, with my background of separation of church and state. I didn't want to seem too shocked to the point of making him feel sorry he had told me, and I certainly couldn't divulge the information to anyone else, because I felt that it had come in a private conversation. So I was greatly troubled for quite a while as to what I should do, if anything, and finally I called him up two days later and asked for an appointment. His secretary said that he was tied up for several days, and that it w