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Harold M. Slater Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Harold M. Slater

Reporter and city editor, St. Joseph News-Press, 1927-1979; executive secretary to Congressman Phil J. Welch, 1949; and longtime friend of President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman.

St. Joseph, Missouri
June 2, 1982
by Niel 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 September, 1982
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

 

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

 



Oral History Interview with
Harold M. Slater

St. Joseph, Missouri
June 2, 1982
by Niel Johnson

[1]

JOHNSON: I would like to start, Mr. Slater, by asking you to tell us when and where you were born, and what your parents' names were.

SLATER: I was born in St. Joseph, March 28, 1907. My father was Pembrook Slater, and my mother was Mary Josephine Slater.

JOHNSON: So you have lived in this area all your life?

SLATER: My entire life, yes.

JOHNSON: Did you go to the public schools here?

[2]

SLATER: I went to the Cathedral grade school and then to the Christian Brothers High School. Then I went to work for the [St. Joseph] News-Press.

JOHNSON: After you graduated from high school?

SLATER: From high school, yes.

JOHNSON: What did you do there to start?

SLATER: Well, I was southside reporter. That's sort of a region of the city, and I was responsible for the news that broke down there. After that I was police and fire reporter. Then I served briefly as a business reporter, and for awhile I was sports editor. For twenty years, from 1929 to 1949, I was courthouse reporter for the News-Press.

At the start of 1949 I went to Washington as executive secretary to Congressman Phil J. Welch, I took a leave of absence from the paper and served as Mr. Welch's secretary for six months. Then I returned to the News-Press, July 1, 1949, and became city editor. I held that position for 30

[3]

years until my retirement, July 1, 1979.

JOHNSON: At this point I want to ask you when you first met Mr. Truman. Do you recall the first time that you met him?

SLATER: I think it's one of the greatest breaks I ever had in my life. It was in May of 1934, and I was courthouse reporter at the time, covering politics. The chief of police, Charles A. Enos, was at the courthouse that morning, and he said, "There's an awful nice little fellow down at the St. Francis Hotel. I think he'd like to have a story; he's running for the United States Senate."

Mr. Truman had given no advance publicity about coming to town, and he hadn't been a candidate very long. But I went to the St. Francis Hotel in St. Joseph, and he was in the lobby. I introduced myself and we became friends; we stayed that way until I sorrowfully stood at his grave in December of 1972.

I remember that interview as if it was yesterday.

[4]

I asked him, of course, about his Pendergast association. They'd had a real hectic election in Kansas City that spring. I believe that four people were killed in that election. There were all kinds of reports about Pendergast's crookedness, and the things that were going on there. The opposition was already shooting at Judge Truman because of his Pendergast association. He told me, "I just got through spending $10,000,000 of a Jackson County bond election, and I've got patches on my pants." He said, "I've never taken a penny, and nobody can say I ever took a penny."

He was very friendly. One of the things that he showed me were his eyeglasses, and they were peculiar things. He had a sort of a flat pupil. He explained that right in the middle of his glasses there was a little thing that looked like a half peanut, and that was necessary for his vision. He laughingly said, "On account of my poor sight, I couldn't play very much ball when I was a kid." Then he laughed and said, "I

[5]

couldn't play because I couldn't see, so they made me the umpire."

After that he told me that he was well acquainted with St. Joe. He had been a delegate to the Democratic State Convention here in 1928; he had many Masonic connections in St. Joseph; and he knew a lot of the Democratic politicians from his work for the state in the different recovery programs up to that time.

JOHNSON: To pick up again on this 1934 interview that you did with Mr. Truman, where was that conducted?

SLATER: At the St. Francis Hotel in St. Joseph a hotel that has since been razed.

JOHNSON: This was during the Senatorial campaign. Do you remember the date of that visit here?

SLATER: No, but I remember it was in May. I remember that somehow or other his birthday figured in it, and his birthday of course was May 8. I do remember that, and he was right at the 50 year mark at that time.

[6]

JOHNSON: Do you recall who he had with him on that trip to St. Joe?

SLATER: No, as far as I know he was by himself. When I saw him in the lobby of the hotel, I know that he was by himself then. Charlie Enos, the chief of police whom I mentioned, was a Democratic figure here, and they had a dinner for Mr. Truman that night at the same hotel. I remember Mr. Truman spoke at the dinner.

JOHNSON: What kind of an impression did he make at that time as a speaker?

SLATER: Well, he never claimed to be a real good speaker, but his sincerity was such that he came over strong. And there was this ease with which he met people, and the friendliness that he showed. He couldn't have been nicer to me if I was a millionaire and ready to put money into his campaign fund. He was always friendly, and right from the start.

JOHNSON: Was that the first article that you had written

[7]

and published on Mr. Truman?

SLATER: Yes.

JOHNSON: In 1934. Where did that end up in the paper? Was it front page?

SLATER: My guess is it probably made front page. We were pretty political minded then and were very interested in all things political, because it was, as you know, the beginning of the New Deal. The Roosevelt administration was just a year old and we were watching things. I do not remember for sure, but if I would make a wager, I'd wager it started out on page one.

JOHNSON: Your editor at the time was whom?

SLATER: Arthur V. Burrowes.

JOHNSON: He had already come out in support of Judge Truman?

SLATER: No, as far as I know we had not taken any part in the election at all. In those days the filing

[8]

deadline was In June, about two months before the primary. There probably were other people coming in. I imagine that the paper, if anything, leaned a little bit towards Congressman John Cochran from St. Louis, because he had a real good reputation. Truman was pretty much an unknown up here, although he was tremendously well known in the Jackson County area.

JOHNSON: Now the important race was the primary . . .

SLATER: Yes.

JOHNSON: . . . which was in August.

SLATER: In August, yes.

JOHNSON: Because that would more or less determine the winner in the fall election.

SLATER: Yes. Everybody knew it was going to be a Democratic sweep in the fall, and the big thing was how the primary came out. Mr. Truman did a tremendous job in Jackson County, and he came

[9]

through--my recollection is--by a fairly good margin.

JOHNSON: Did he come up again to St. Joseph during that campaign?

SLATER: Oh, I'm sure he did, and he also went to some area towns. I remember going to hear him speak up at a northwest town, I think it was in Trenton. I made it to several of his speeches. That was the day before television, of course, and even radio was not used much by political speakers. It was not unusual to have speeches an hour or so long. Mr. Truman could make long speeches with the best of them, and he could also make an awful lot of speeches in one day.

JOHNSON: So you heard him speak around Trenton?

SLATER: Trenton. 1 probably heard him talk three or four times.

JOHNSON: Were you covering the campaign of all the candidates for the News-Press?

[10]

SLATER: All of them, for the News-Press, yes; the Republicans and the Democrats alike.

JOHNSON: So you were traveling quite a bit then?

SLATER: No, not too much. We didn't go very far. I'd say probably as far away as we got would be 70 or 80 miles.

JOHNSON: Do you remember the reactions of the crowds to Truman in these Senate days?

SLATER: No. No, I don't.

JOHNSON: Was that sort of the beginning of his whistlestop-type tour?

SLATER: It was. It was his first statewide campaign, and he was completely frank about everything. I mean he even answered questions, and he made a lot of stops.

JOHNSON: Where would he usually speak in these small towns? What kind of a setting would they have for him?

[11]

SLATER: They would usually come into the courthouse or a public park. In St. Joe they used to have rallies at Bartlett Park, a neighborhood park, where they had a limited number of seats. Ordinarily they would come in, though, and talk at the courthouse or the city hall.

JOHNSON: From the steps, you mean, to the people assembled in front?

SLATER: On the steps or in the yard.

JOHNSON: So they didn't have any platform?

SLATER: There were no platforms. I can’t recall them even having any public address systems.

JOHNSON: That's what I was wondering too. Did he really have to project?

SLATER: He had to project power.

JOHNSON: Did you meet any of the other people that were with him by the end of that campaign? Did you meet Fred Canfil for instance?

[12]

SLATER: I knew Canfil. I’m not sure that's where I met him or not. We had some WPA troubles up here shortly after Mr. Truman went to the Senate, and Canfil came up as sort of a troubleshooter. That was before he was United States Marshal.

JOHNSON: What was he doing before he was Marshal, do you know?

SLATER: I always thought he kind of chauffeured for Mr. Truman, who was then Judge Truman.

JOHNSON: Yes, he did chauffeur Mr. Truman.

SLATER: Yes, I think he was kind of a chauffeur, a loyal assistant, and general errand boy.

JOHNSON: We may have the information somewhere but I can't recall offhand how they got acquainted in the first place, but he certainly was a help.

SLATER: Oh, a tremendous help. I know Mr. Truman told me one time that Canfil was with him when they had made the trip to Louisiana. They modeled the

[13]

Jackson County courthouse pretty much like the parish courthouse in Shreveport. I remember he said that Canfil was with him at that time. I might add, very frankly, that Canfil did not like newspaper reporters. I was included in that group I’m sure.

JOHNSON: He was skeptical of them?

SLATER: Yes, Ordinarily they are kind of smooth. I think he was more of a bodyguard type fellow in those days.

JOHNSON: Did you have any incidents, any problems, covering that campaign with any of the candidates?

SLATER: None whatever. I can say truthfully that in all the political campaigns I covered I can’t remember anything disagreeable.

JOHNSON: Were you involved in Democratic politics here at all in the county or the city?

SLATER: No. I think everybody knew I was a Democrat. I covered the Republican side and had no trouble

[14]

that way. Incidentally, one of the things that I worked with Mr. Truman on, handling some publicity, was in 1944. It's strange the way the fates toss you around. Phil Welch was then Mayor of St. Joseph, and he was a real good friend of Senator Truman. They worked together on a number of area projects. They decided to have a big Democratic rally here. It was in April of 1944. They wanted to get Robert Hannegan to be the speaker. So Mayor Welch called Senator Truman, and Truman said, "Yes, I'll arrange it."

And he said, "Okay, will you talk, too?"

Mr. Truman said, "Yes, I'd be glad to; I’ll talk." He said, "Sam Rayburn has been asking me to make a speech promoting his candidacy for Vice President, and I'll make it in St. Joe." And so they had Truman, Hannegan, and Rayburn. They brought in Democratic candidates for Governor, and for other state offices. They had a mammoth rally here. It was strange the way things worked out. That was in the latter part of April 1944. A year

[15]

later Mr. Truman not only had been Vice President himself, but was President.

JOHNSON: You say there was a mammoth rally here in St. Joe?

SLATER: Yes. They had it at the auditorium, and the place was jammed.

JOHNSON: This would be ten years later, ten years after you first met Mr. Truman?

SLATER: Yes.

JOHNSON: How about meetings between 1934 and 19449,

SLATER: I would see him every time, I think, when he was in St. Joe. I remember particularly the time that he made one of his major speeches in St. Joseph, in 1940, when he had his real tough campaign for United States Senator. He was running against [Maurice] Milligan and Lloyd Stark. He really had a tough battle. Stark had a lot of patronage here, like the head of the

[16]

police department,