President Truman’s mother: ‘Be a good boy, Harry’

Published 2:04 pm Saturday, April 29, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Author Bonnie Angelo wrote a book titled, “First Mothers, The Women Who Shaped the Presidents.” The chapter concerning the mother of President Harry Truman is titled, “Be a Good Boy, Harry.”  That is exactly what Martha Truman wanted—she wanted her son to be a good person; she never thought about her son being President of the United States.

Martha Young was born to Solomon and Harriet Louise Greg Young on Nov. 25, 1852. The Young family was a true frontier family. They moved from the East to the Missouri/Kansas border in 1841 when that was the country’s westernmost edge. Mr. Young was a farmer and a wagon master who led Conestogas wagon trains as they moved to new homes in the western territories.  Sometimes there would be as many as 80 wagons in a train.

Being a wagon master was a lucrative business, but it meant that Solomon Young was sometimes away from his home for months at a time. His wife, Harriet Young, was a tough, resilient lady who met all difficulties head on.

Once when she was alone with her large family of eight children, a band of Indians came to their home and threatened the family if they didn’t meet their demands. Mrs. Young turned a vicious dog loose, and it chased the Indians away.

Martha Young (Truman), who years later became the mother of a President of the United States, learned from her strong mother how to care for herself and her family.

The Young family were southern sympathizers.  Because of their sympathy for the South, a band of man called Red Legs, who were dressed in Union uniforms, came and forced the Young family into captivity.  They stayed in what was really like a concentration camp for about three years. The Red Legs also stole many of the Young’s valuables, their silver, etc.  This experience caused Martha Young to have such strong anti-northern feelings that when she visited the White House after her son became president that she refused to sleep in the Lincoln bed.  She said that she would sleep on the floor first.

Living on the frontier was not easy, and Martha Young learned much from her mother about meeting every situation without flinching. After Martha finished high school, she decided that she wanted to go to college.  Going to college was unheard of for most girls at that time, but not for Martha Young.  She found a way to enroll in Baptist Female College in Lexington, Mo. She studied art, music and literature. The girls were allowed to meet boys from Wentworth Military Academy, and Martha enjoyed the dances each month.

When Martha went back to her home, Grandview, there was a lot more dancing. She is quoted in Angelo’s book as saying “I’m what you might call a Lightfoot Baptist.” That was unusual at that time in history because Baptists were against dancing.

All of this background helps one understand the strong, enlightened woman who married John Truman on Dec. 28, 1881, and became the mother of four children, one of whom died as an infant. Martha Young Truman could be called an ideal mother.  She found ways to provide her children everything they needed, but she never tried to control their every move.

John Truman was a farmer and a mule trader.  Martha fulfilled the role of a farmer’s wife, but being a good mother to her children was her first priority.  When Harry was young, she taught him to read using the family’s large print Bible. She also began to teach him to play the piano.   Martha was observant lady.  Once during a Fourth of July celebration, she saw all the children being carried away by the fireworks. She saw that Harry was sitting nearby and not even paying attention. She realized that Harry could not even see the fireworks. Her husband was away from home, but, the very next day, Martha Truman hitched up two horses to a wagon and took her son, Harry, to an eye doctor in Kansas City, which was about 15 miles from her home. The doctor discovered that indeed Harry could barely see. He put strong glasses on Harry and that opened up a whole new world for the boy.

The Truman family moved from the farm to Independence. Harry continued his piano lessons. Martha felt that her son was really talented and that he might become a professional musician. Harry began taking lessons from a local music teacher, and, then, she got him signed up with a Vienna-trained professional in Kansas City. He would ride a trolley from Independence to Kansas City. Harry was a serious student who practiced two hours per day. Harry got to meet the famous pianist, Paderewski, who was performing in Kansas City. Harry’s mother even arranged for Harry to meet the famous pianist backstage. Harry told Mr. Paderewski that he was having trouble with his Minuet in G. That famous man sat down at the piano and helped Harry with the part of Minuet in G that was troubling him. Years later when Truman was attending a party honoring the Kennedys in the East Room at the White House, Harry sat down at the piano and played Minuet in G from memory.

Martha Young Truman did not force her children to do things; she provided the opportunities and let them decide. Martha Truman provided good books such as the complete works of Shakespeare, Plutarch’s Lives, a four-volume sets of Great Men and Famous Women and books of poetry. Harry wanted to read; he read all those books, and, by the time he was a teenager, he had read all the books in the Independence Library.   

Mr. Truman continued trading, and he began investing wheat futures. He did well for a while, and then he lost everything in one fell swoop. When Harry graduated from high school, there was no money to send him to college. He really wanted to go to West Point, but his eye sight was too poor. Harry, who was largely self-educated, took a job in a bank.

When he was a young boy, Harry saw a little, blue-eyed Bess Wallace on the playground. He said that he fell in love with Bess then, and he never loved another girl. Harry spent many years courting Bess.

World War I came, and Harry wanted to volunteer.  He wanted to enlist so badly that he memorized the eye chart so he could pass the physical. Harry passed and ended up in some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Throughout the time he was serving in the military, Harry carried a picture of Bess in one of his shirt pockets and a picture of his mother in the other. He wrote hundreds of letters to both women.

Back home, Harry won his Bess’s hand. He was 35 when they were married, and she was 34. Harry was able to get a job as a judge, not a legal judge, but a man who was overseer of road building, etc.  in the county. From that political job, he moved on up the ladder and was finally elected as a Senator from Missouri.  His success in the Senate caught the attention of President Roosevelt who asked him to run with him as his vice president.  The Roosevelt/Truman ticket easily won the election.

Just a few months after that election, President Roosevelt died. Harry Truman from Missouri became the 33rd President. His mother did not seem to be overly impressed because she said that Harry wasn’t actually elected by the people to be President; he was elected by the people to be  vice president.  Even when he was President, Harry never forgot his mother, and he never forgot the character traits which taught him by example.  Those were the traits that endeared him to the American people—his humility, his honesty, his “what you see is what you get” down-to-earth personality.

Harry still wrote letters to his mother by the dozens and also called her. If something important happened like the end of World War II, Martha knew she would get a call. That call always came through. Martha lived two years after her son became the president, but she died before the people elected him President.

In 2021, President Truman was ranked as the sixth best when historians ranked the presidents.  That was/is a mighty fine ranking for a farm boy from Missouri. who did not get to go to college but who never forgot his mother’s admonition, “Be a good boy, Harry.”