The presidency is thrust on Harry Truman in the last months of World War II when Franklin Roosevelt dies after being president for twelve years. No one knows who Truman is when he takes over but the country warms to the feisty man from Independence, MO who provides steady leadership in tumultuous times. But death comes twice to the White House in the Truman years.
The first is that of his dear friend and press secretary, Charlie Ross. Truman, Ross, and Bess Wallace (who would later marry Harry) attend school together and graduate from Independence High School in the class of 1901. Ross goes on to a successful career in journalism, winning a Pulitzer Prize while at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He has no interest in being White House press secretary but can’t say no to his dear friend Harry Truman when the call comes. But five years at the White House takes its toll and Ross dies at his desk from a massive heart attack on December 5, 1950. Truman was shocked when he heard the news. Later in a statement he said “The friend of my youth, who became a tower of strength when the responsibilities of high office so unexpectedly fell to me, is gone. To collect one’s thoughts to pay tribute to Charles Ross in the face of this tragic dispensation is not easy. I knew him as boy and as man. In our high school years together he gave promise of these superb intellectual powers which he attained in after-life.”
Exactly two years later there is another death at the White House, that of Madge Gates Wallace, Truman’s mother-in-law. Truman’s feeling may have been different this time. Madge sat atop of the social hierarchy of Independence and never approved of her daughter Bess marrying the poor dirt farmer and failed businessman that was Harry Truman. Even while living in the White House Madge let it be known how much she like Harry’s 1948 opponent Thomas Dewey. Harry never spoke poorly of Madge. Which must have been hard since he did not take insults lightly. But one time at a campaign stop with Iowa farmers he did tell the story of the gentleman who was at the funeral for his beloved wife. When the service was over the undertaker asked if he’d be willing to ride to the cemetery in the same car with his mother-in-law. “I’ll do it,” he said, “but it will ruin my whole day.”