Oral History Interview with
Attorney, civic leader, City Counselor, City Manager, and acquaintance of Harry S. Truman.
Keith Wilson Jr.
March 8, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
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. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 February, 1991
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Keith Wilson Jr.
March 8, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
Summary Description: Topics discussed include the Wilson lumber business; Harry S. Truman and Claire Booth Luce; Truman's memoirs; Truman home in Independence; election for Eastern Judge in Jackson County in 1922; Harpie Club; Republican party in Jackson County; city politics in Independence, Missouri; law firms in Independence; the Jaycees organization; visit to Oval Office in 1946; use of the atomic bomb; U.S. intervention in Vietnam; postwar population growth in Independence; Kroh brothers construction firm; and the patronage system in Jackson County politics.
Names mentioned include Arthur L. Wilson, Keith Wilson, Sr., Roger Sermon, Spencer Salisbury, Kenneth Bostian, Perry B. Wilson, Arthur Mag, Harry S. Truman, Francis Heller, Claire Booth Luce, Samuel Rosenman, Henry Haskell, George Hare, Tom Pendergast, L. Curtis Tiernan, James E. Latimer, Charles Binaggio, Elmer Ahmann, Art McKim, Ed Carroll, Paul Coker, Robert Weatherford, Roe Bartle, Rufus Burrus, George Armstrong Custer, George Lehr, Alvin Hatten, Henry McKissick, and Mark Eagleton.
JOHNSON: I'm going to start out by asking you when and where you were born, and what your parents' names are.
WILSON: I was born March 3, 1928, at 719 South Park in Independence, Missouri. That was the house of my grandfather, Arthur L. Wilson. I grew up next door at 721 South Park, in the house of my father, Keith Wilson, Sr. My great-grandfather, P.B. Wilson, lived up the street on the west side of Park, and I lived for much of my married life at 701 South Park, in a house built by Billy McCoy, the first Republican mayor of Independence. He was a student with Frank Lloyd Wright under Louis Sullivan, and it's a Wright design at 701 South Park. So, my daughter is the fifth generation of the Wilson family to live on one street, in one block, in
JOHNSON: All right, you mentioned your great grandfather, but now your grandfather...
WILSON: Arthur L. Wilson. My grandfather Arthur L. Wilson was in the AEF [American Expeditionary Force] in 1917-1919. He was one of five officers of the rank of captain to return to the city of Independence, the others being Harry Truman, Roger Sermon, Spencer Salisbury, and Kenneth Bostian. Sermon, Truman, Salisbury, and Bostian were all in the 35th Division; Art [Arthur L. Wilson] served in the Forestry Division of the Engineers; he ran a sawmill back from the front, which was preparing duck boards and so forth which they utilized in the trenches. He was in the Forestry Division of the Engineers.
JOHNSON: He was in the lumber business later on?
JOHNSON: Was that inherited?
WILSON: Oh, yes. Perry B. Wilson, my great-grandfather, and his brother Benjamin Wilson came from Cleveland, Ohio. There is a subdivision of Cleveland called Wilson's Mill; that was the Wilson family lumber mill. Perry
left after the Civil War -- his father served in the Ohio Volunteers -- and in the '90s he [Perry] and his brother came west. Benjamin went down to the Lake of the Ozarks and most of his farm is where Bagnell Dam flooded the land. Perry went to Manhattan, Kansas, and then went into the lumber business and had lumber yards in Indian territory, and in Kansas and Arkansas. He also had a lumber yard in Independence, which finally was inherited by Arthur, and ultimately by my dad, Keith Wilson, Sr. It closed in the 1970s.
JOHNSON: Bess Truman's grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, was in the lumber business in Illinois and then came out here and apparently provided lumber for the Hannibal Bridge. He then got into the milling business here in Independence. Do you know whether your great-grandfather was acquainted with George Porterfield Gates?
WILSON: Oh, I'm sure, because Perry was quite active in Independence. Wilson Road, which was the main east-west thoroughfare, was named after Perry. When I was a little kid, we had a lumber yard over on Wilson Road, facing what is now the Sheffield Steel works of Armco. He had a lumber yard there; he had a lumber yard at Bunston, Missouri, and one in Independence, which was
the last one. He had retail lumber yards at railheads throughout Indian territory [in Oklahoma], places like Okmulgee, Ada, Wewoka, Weleetka...
JOHNSON: Oh, you had a chain, a chain of lumberyards.
JOHNSON: Where was it located here in Independence?
WILSON: It was just a block south of the Square, at the corner of Kansas and Liberty Streets. It was there all of my lifetime. I think it was put in there in the '20s, and Arthur ran it after he returned from France in 1919.
JOHNSON: Well, how far away is that from the old Waggoner-Gates Mill?
WILSON: It's about two blocks.
JOHNSON: You got your education here in Independence?
WILSON: No, my folks got divorced when I was nine years old, and I went to Florida Military Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida. That's where Art always wintered. He liked to play golf and fish; so I went to Florida Military Academy, and then I went to the University of Kansas. My father had attended the University of
Kansas; I went there as an undergraduate, and then went through its law school. I went to work, out of law school, at the Stinson, Mag law firm in Kansas City. Arthur Mag was Mr. Truman's local attorney. While in law school I became a very close personal friend of Francis Heller, who was employed by Time and Life to assist President Truman on his memoirs. Interestingly enough -- do you like anecdotal material?
WILSON: Heller told me about the early weeks of Mr. Truman's employment by Time-Life, Inc. to write the memoirs. He mentioned that Mr. Truman always was very sensitive to any slights delivered toward his family, and Mr. Truman never forgot, when he was in the Presidency, that Clare Boothe Luce, Henry Luce's wife, when she was in Congress had referred to Bess Truman as a "dowdy housefrau." So, that while he remained in the White House, Mr. Truman excised Mrs. Luce from any invitations to Congressional receptions at the White House. Then, after Truman left the White House, and was officing down at the Federal Reserve Bank Building, he cut a deal [for his memoirs]. As I recall, Heller said that Truman's principal lawyer was Judge Rosenman.
JOHNSON: Sam Rosenman, yes.
WILSON: Rosenman, in New York City, and he had worked with FDR. Arthur Mag was sort of local counsel, but his principal legal adviser was Judge Rosenman. Heller said that after Truman had cut the deal with Time-Life, that Time-Life then employed Heller to be of assistance. He said that Henry Haskell -- whom I believe had the title of Assistant Publisher or Assistant President or something at Time-Life -- that Henry Haskell, whom Heller described as an "effeminate Victor Mature," came to visit Mr. Truman at the offices in the Federal Reserve Bank Building in Kansas City. And, he continues, "this 'effeminate Victor Mature' said to Mr. Truman, 'We're happy to welcome you to the Time and Life family, and you'll be pleased to know that Mrs. Luce will accept your apology for what you did to her'." After the guy left, Truman blew up. He went right through the ceiling and said, "Get Judge Rosenman on the phone; I don't give a goddamn if I signed it, I'm breaking the contract. I will not tolerate that shit." Haskell, hearing of this, retracted his offer to accept the apology of Mr. Truman. But the whole deal almost fell apart on that note.
JOHNSON: Mrs. Luce apparently never apologized for her characterization of Bess.
WILSON: No, she did not. By the way, Heller, who is a
fascinating guy in himself, was born in Vienna, and he was actually, as a young man, manning a machine gun on one of the bridges into Vienna at the time of the Anschluss of 1938. He then left the country, came to the United States, won a battlefield commission in the U.S. Army in World War II, and then taught at the University of Kansas in the Political Science Department. He is a brilliant guy; I not only was a close friend of his, but my late wife, who was from Dodge City, Kansas, was a friend of Heller's wife, who came from Garden City. Heller's was one of the few units in the Army Reserves that was recalled during the Korean conflict, because he ran such a tremendous unit, spic and span, and they pulled him in. Heller just recently retired over at K.U. and, again, he has had a fascinating career in political science and in constitutional law; he's a lawyer.
JOHNSON: When did Truman first come to your attention?
WILSON: Well, of course, as a kid, I was aware of the Truman family, and I was around Independence in the summertime when Harry came to the "summer White House" [the home on Delaware Street]. Later, as City Manager, I was involved in dialogue with the Park Service on removing the lead paint from the Truman Home on Delaware, and
what no one realized is that I was the kid that had delivered that lead paint. It was painted while h