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Nathan Thomas (Tom) Veatch Oral History Interview

 

Oral History Interview with
Nathan Thomas (Tom) Veatch

Former member of the commission of engineers that planned and supervised construction of the Jackson County, Missouri road system when Harry S. Truman was presiding judge of the county court; personal friend of Mr. Truman since 1927; and member of the national firm of Black & Veatch, Consulting Engineers, of Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City, Missouri
November 9 and November 21, 1961
by James R. Fuchs

[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 August, 1962
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Nathan Thomas (Tom) Veatch

 

Kansas City, Missouri
November 9, 1961
by James R. Fuchs

 

[1]

FUCHS: Well, Mr. Veatch, I guess we might as well start with the obvious question. When did you first meet Mr. Truman -- come in contact with Mr. Truman?

VEATCH: That stumps me for the moment. My first knowledge of President Truman -- my first acquaintance with him came through Col. E. M. Stayton of Independence, who was then presiding county ,judge of Jackson County, Missouri, was desirous of having a report made on the need for road improvements in Jackson County. That I believe was in 1928. But I would have to check that date.

FUCHS: I think that was a little earlier, sir. According to the records you showed me, I believe it was 1927.

VEATCH: Well, I hadn't thought of checking that and it

 

[2]

was back sometime, and I really don't remember. But at any rate, shortly after that a meeting was arranged through Col. Stayton, and that was the first time I had ever met Mr. Truman, presiding judge of the county court.

FUCHS: Do you recall where you met?

VEATCH: I do not. I don't remember where, but I imagine it was at lunch -- probably. He outlined then what he wanted, and arrangements were made for Col. Stayton and myself to make this survey and report to him on what we would recommend in the way of a road system in Jackson County. He was quite a road enthusiast, as you perhaps have found out, and he had traveled all over the country studying road systems in other counties. Following this first conference, Col. Stayton and I made a very thorough survey of the county. We rode all the roads and collected the information we needed. We had numerous conferences with Mr. Truman out of which came our first report on roads. Shortly following that, Judge Truman -- I don't know

 

[3]

whether I am correct on this -- I think shortly following the first report, he arranged for or started the machinery to have a bond election in the county. The bond election, the first of two, was for $6,000,000. The bond election was held and the bonds were voted. He then made arrangements for Col. Stayton and myself to get started on the engineering work. We were to set up an office -- a separate office from those of the county, the personnel of which, including Col. Stayton and myself, were to be on the county payroll. This office was to make detailed designs and to supervise the construction of the road system for which the bonds were voted. This program got under way and the work was let in sizable contracts. We tried to arrange so that any one contract wouldn't be too big and result in shutting out moderate size contractors. I believe for the first time, at least for a long time in the history of this area, contractors were attracted from all over the country. It had been rather a closed shop here in Kansas City and Jackson County prior to then.

FUCHS: How do you mean that?

 

[4]

VEATCH: Well, at that time the county was under the very definite control of Mr. Pendergast. But before these bonds were voted, Mr. Truman had gotten Mr. Pendergast's promise to let him run it as he wanted to run it. He promised the voters he would see that the money was spent honestly and he did, too. He ran it that way. It was handled in a business-like way from the start, and through the whole procedure I am sure there was no shenanigan of any sort in the awarding of contracts. This was a rather unusual thing and I give credit to Mr. Pendergast for keeping his word with Mr. Truman.

After that program had gotten pretty well along it developed that more roads were needed than had been included. A second report was requested, on which Col. Stayton and I collaborated again, and additional bonds were voted. As I recall it, it was $4,000,000. At any rate the total program was $10,000,000, as I remember it. Does that check?

FUCHS: I believe so, sir.

VEATCH: Well, that's my recollection at the moment without --

 

[5]

I'd like to have a chance to check that. Subsequently, piece by piece, the program was put under contract and construction. Of course, there were a number of contracts going at one time. There may have been as many as ten different contractors employed at different points in the county. Generally speaking, any one of those contracts was not much over a half million dollars. We tried to keep it that way, so as to get more contractors interested and make it a more attractive thing for them. The job was completed and, I think, to everyone's satisfaction. Everybody felt that a creditable job had been done.

Previous to that time the roads in the county, mostly oiled dirt roads, would go to pieces quickly, requiring large expenditures for maintenance. There were a lot of the concrete roads that were found not to have very much cement in them. The saving in maintenance costs made possible by the new road programs, largely paid the carrying charges on the bonds issued. Some of these roads that were built in the later twenties are still good roads. That speaks pretty well for the quality of the work. That is

 

[6]

at least a thumbnail sketch of my connection with Judge Truman and the road program.

FUCHS: What did you discuss at the first meeting? The possibility of interference from Mr. Pendergast or some of his -- I don't know if he had contracting companies directly? He did have, I believe, concrete companies or company? Do you know of that or was it your point then to be reassured at that first meeting that this was going to be handled as he promised? Was that mentioned at all?

VEATCH: I can't say whether it was mentioned at the first meeting. I know that that was something that Col. Stayton and I worried a good deal about because we didn't, either of us, care to be connected with something that would not be creditable; and somewhere, either at the start or somewhere down the line, Mr. Truman told us of his visit with Mr. Pendergast and his promise to leave him alone. And on the strength of that we went ahead and did all the work -- preliminary surveys which outlined the amount of money needed and

 

[7]

the roads to be improved and so on down the line, until the system was completed.

FUCHS: Did Mr. Truman in that first meeting impress you as having a good grasp of what he wanted done and a detailed knowledge of the problem that was before him?

VEATCH: I think I could say, to a remarkable degree. He had been a student of roads and of road systems. He had been active and enthusiastic for good roads for a long time; and he had an unusual grasp, for a civilian, of the things that were necessary to get good roads, and how they should be laid out and whether they would serve the areas that were involved. He was unusually well informed on the whole subject. He was a very cooperative and very helpful client for Col. Stayton and me and the whole relationship was very pleasant throughout.

FUCHS: Had you before that meeting acquired some sort of a preconception of Mr. Truman? Of course, you knew of him as county judge and did you find that, if you

 

[8]

had one, that preconception changed after you met him?

VEATCH: Yes, I did. It wasn't very definite. I had heard of his war record. It came out in his campaign for presiding judge, and he was unusually well spoken of by everyone that I came in contact with. So I entered into the thing with a preconceived favorable attitude, and a favorable impression of the man personally. I know Col. Stayton, who knew him better, felt that very strongly and he, of course, imbued me with the same feeling and we were never disappointed in it.

I'm a little lost to know just how detailed you want me to go into the different things and whether you've got some special questions.

Getting back to the general fabric of the whole program, I wouldn't want to say we didn't have worries and troubles as it went on. There were contractors who wanted to utilize their political power and would frequently create a problem, but in all of them Judge Truman backed us up in our judgement, which was strictly engineering. We did not allow any personal feelings to enter into it in any way. From that standpoint it

 

[9]

was very, very satisfactory because we were working, we were afraid, under conditions that might bring embarrassing conditions every once in a while, but they didn't develop.

FUCHS: Were these things always brought out in open court, or was sometimes a little pressure put on you behind the scene and then you went to Mr. Truman?

VEATCH: I don't think any of them were ever brought out in open court. I think they all put pressure on us and also on Judge Truman and the other judges. One thing we did, throughout the program we would have frequent conferences with the three judges. Judge Truman was the leading spirit in the thing, and I think much better informed and more active in the whole project, but we would frequently have conferences with the whole group (generally at a luncheon or something like that) so that the whole court was kept advised as to what was going on. Throughout the project, I think undoubtedly due to Judge Truman's efforts, there was no unfortunate publicity, which was a wholesome thing

 

[10]

from the public standpoint.

FUCHS: I believe Judge Vrooman and Judge Barr were the other two judges at the time. Did they seem to agree with Mr. Truman and get along with him well, especially in regard to the road project?

VEATCH: I think he had their support. There were several other judges during the period of the program, which lasted several years. What were their names?

FUCHS: Bash was one.

VEATCH: Bash was one, Tom Bash, and then there were one or two others that worked with Mr. Truman.

FUCHS: Yes, there was Purcell.

VEATCH: Purcell -- that's the man I was thinking of.

FUCHS: One question comes out of that. Mr. Truman was elected as presiding judge in 1926, and he served a four year term, of course -- 1927, '28, '29, and '30. Well, in 1926 Barr and Vrooman were elected with him. Then in 1928, Vrooman did not run again. Was there

 

[11]

any particular reason you can recall for his not running again?

VEATCH: I couldn't tell you. I don't know. I have a feeling it was -- I'd better be careful here too -- when you first asked me that it seemed to me it was ill health, but I'm not sure. There was some reason, ill health or he had gotten mixed up or something. I don't remember what. It seemed to me it was either ill health or some family troubles or something. I wouldn't like to be quoted on that at all because I don't remember. The facts could undoubtedly be brought out by someone. Judge Truman himself could straighten that out, I know.

FUCHS: Probably, sir. Well, the more important question that I was leading up to was, why, when Bash became the candidate the paper said that he was "noncommittal" about the road program? I wondered if, perhaps, that was indicative that he wasn't in complete agreement with it. It would seem to me it was a popular thing and it would have been favorable to his candidacy to

 

[12]

come out for it. I'm quoting the Kansas City Star in saying that he was noncommittal about it.

VEATCH: Well, I am reaching back quickly in my memory. It's my recollection that Tom Bash came from a different faction of the Democratic party than Judge Truman and his other associates. I think that's probably why he was noncommittal. He was cooperative after he was elected. I'm not sure, but I think he came from a little different group than the Pendergast group.

FUCHS: I see. He was perhaps a Shannon "Rabbit?"

VEATCH: I think he was a Shannon Rabbit. That's my recollection but I'm not sure. Harry Truman would be the best judge of that right now.

FUCHS: I believe -- you can correct me -- when these bids were accepted or opened it was in a session of court? Is that not correct? And one of your gentlemen was present?

VEATCH: Always. We were always represented, or one of our

 

[13]

force was there. I think either Col. Stayton or myself were at all of the lettings. Perhaps not all, but most of them and we'd have blanks prepared to tabulate the bids. The bids would be opened by the court and read. We would tabulate them and then we would adjourn to our office and analyze them; and generally at the following meeting of the court we would go and make our recommendations, and the court would then award accordingly.

FUCHS: That gave you good opportunity to observe Mr. Truman in court in his administrative capacity. Did you get an impression of him there? Did you have one as to his handling of the court, his demeanor?

VEATCH: My impression of him always was that he was a most efficient presiding judge of the court, and that he handled things in a businesslike way. The meetings were always handled that way. I t