How My Dad Missed Out On Meeting President Harry S. Truman
The deeper I dive into newspaper archives the more interesting are the stories I find. I go looking for stories explicitly related to family members and most of the time I end up finding engagement announcements or obituaries. It’s great data for genealogy research but not the gripping information we’d all like to know about our families.
But sometimes I strike gold.
Back in the summer of 1954, my dad was a typical 15 year-old who worked odd jobs to make extra money. His friend, Bob Spratling, same age, had a newspaper route that was rather large and included Kansas City’s Research Medical Center as part of the service area. You can imagine that stopping in on each and every room took some time, so he was all too happy to have a friend help out, even if it meant giving a cut – a whole dollar and a quarter per day – to Dad.
Dad helped Bob out just about every day. Then one fateful week had had made other plans with his friends, Tom and Jerry, so he talked his kid brother, Billy, into filling in for him. He let him have the $1.25-cut, too.
That was the time Dad missed out on meeting former President Harry S. Truman.
Harry Truman In Kansas City, Summer 1954
In early June of that year, a production of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam came into town, playing at the city’s premier outdoor venue, Starlight Theatre. It was the inaugural production of the theatre’s season, in fact. The musical is a political satire about the fictional duchy of Lichtenburg (a play on Luxembourg). The lead character, Sally Adams, is an American ambassador (whose real-life counter part was Perle Mesta, US Ambassador to Luxembourg). Sally is approached by principles in the Lichtenburg government about hitting up her old friend, President Harry Truman, for a loan. This was at a time when the US was, via the Marshall Plan, sending all sorts of aid into Europe. One character who puts the kibosh on the plan is the Lichtenburg foreign minister, General Constantine, with whom Sally soon falls in love, much to the consternation of Truman, who calls her back to D.C., and so on. The play resolves, as all musicals of the era do, happily, with everyone in the right arms of her or his paramour.
To really sell the production and give a big boost to the season, the producers arranged for former President Harry Truman to play himself in the Kansas City production. While waiting backstage the evening of June 8th, he felt sudden, sharp pains in his abdomen. Mrs. Truman took him to Research Medical Center, literally just up the road from the theatre, along Meyer Blvd. Over the course of the next several weeks it was discovered that he suffered acute cholecystitis and acute appendicitis (see post-surgery pathology report, below).
In an operation that lasted just over two hours, President Truman had both his gall bladder and his appendix removed, early Sunday, June 20th. He then recovered peacefully in his room in Kansas City over the next few weeks. At least it was mostly peaceful. The retired Independence police officer who was guarding his room must have stepped away, allowing a wily 11-year old kid (and future CFO of Sprint before he retired) into the room to schlep his paper.
The rest of the story is told in the clipping (below), from the June 24th, 1954 edition of the Kansas City Star, page 3:
REST AND A SIGNATURE
TRUMAN, RECOVERING RAPIDLY, GOES ON LIQUID DIET
In Good Spirits, Former President Signs Newspaper for Boy Who Delivers It to Hospital Room.
The routine of rest and quiet which Harry S. Truman has observed at the Research hospital since he underwent surgery there early Sunday was modified yesterday when the former President went on a full liquid diet, walked about his room and gave his autograph to a newspaper boy.
Dr. Wallace Graham, Mr. Truman’s physician, reported last night that he was very happy with the progress the former president is showing.
Couldn’t Be Better
“He is doing just beautifully,” Dr. Graham said. “He just couldn’t be doing any better.”
Dr. Graham said he wouldn’t want to say how much longer he expects Mr. Truman to remain in the hospital or how much weight he had lost because of the operation. He said that a post-operative patient usually remains in the hospital about ten days. Some weight is always lost on an operation of this sort, he added.
Mrs. Truman again spent most of the day with her husband and then visited him in the evening.
About 4:30 o’clock an attendant carried into the room a tray containing soup, a vanilla malted milk, vanilla pudding and prune juice.
Shortly after 4 o’clock Billy Gunter, 11, son of Mrs. George Gunter, 2622 Charlotte street, delivered a newspaper to Mr. Truman. He left the room, then re-entered a short time later. When he left the second time he was grinning broadly and carrying a copy of the paper autographed by Mr. Truman.
The First Conversation
“When I took his paper in the first time, he asked me what my name was and where I lived,” Billy said. “So I told him and I told him I had seen him on television. Then I got scared to stay in any longer because I didn’t want to make the nurse mad.”
Billy said his friend, Bob Spratling, 15, the regular newspaper boy he has been helping for the last two days, really put him up to getting the autograph. Bob is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Spratling, 2704 Robert Gillham road.
They first thought they might wait until today to ask for an autograph, but Bob later told Billy it probably would be all right for him to try immediately.
It was, for when Billy emerged he was carrying the paper. Written across the top of the front page, in red pencil, was “To Bob and Bill, Best Wishes, Harry S. Truman.”
Billy didn’t tell anyone at home about this right away. Instead, this very same newspaper article appeared to my grandpa George when he, himself, read the paper the very same morning. According to Dad, he yelled “What the hell?”, and then had Billy come in and explain himself.