President Harry S. Truman: Early Life and Career

About the early life and career of President of the United States Harry S. Truman, his experience in World War One.

Career: The son of a prosperous farmer and mule trader, Truman's main interest as a boy was piano playing, and he seriously considered a career as a professional musician. He also loved to read and by age 14 had finished all the books in the Independence library. College was out of the question, however, since business reverses and bad investments had wiped out the family savings by the time Harry graduated from high school. Truman remains the only President of the 20th century who never attended college. Starting at age 17, Harry worked at a long series of menial jobs: timekeeper for a railroad construction gang, mailroom clerk for the Kansas City Star, a bookkeeper in a Kansas City bank, and so forth. Most of his energy and earnings, however, were devoted to helping his parents build up a new family farm. At age 33, he was still living at home and had failed to distinguish himself in any way, when he decided to volunteer to fight in W.W.I. His Army comrades seemed to discern leadership qualities in this "regular fella" and gifted poker player and they elected him as one of their officers. By the time his unit arrived in France, Truman was "Captain Harry" of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery. In the service that followed, he proved himself a competent and courageous commander, who came close to being killed so often that his men began to think he had some special protection. "Captain Harry" eventually received such a glowing recommendation form his superior that it was returned with the notation, "There isn't anybody that good."

Back in Independence after the war. Truman was a local hero with a new sense of self-confidence. He decided to go into business and, with one of his war buddies, he opened a haberdashery in Kansas City. At 1st, they prospered, but after 2 years business slumped and the store had to close. Too proud to declare bankruptcy, Truman promised to pay off all his debts. It was in this context that he turned to politics for the 1st time. His father had been a minor official in the local Democratic party, and during the war Truman became friendly with Mike Pendergast, the nephew of the notorious "Big Tom" Pendergast, reigning boss of Kansas City Democrats. The Pendergasts proved only too glad to sponsor this well-spoken newcomer with the distinguished war record, and in 1922 Truman was elected judge of the eastern district of Jackson County--an administrative and not a judicial position. In this capacity--and later as presiding judge for all of Jackson County--Truman saved the taxpapers thousands of dollars, serving with determination, efficiency, and scrupulous honesty, rare qualities in the Pendergast machine. Naturally, "Big Tom" was somewhat hesitant about promoting this incorruptible lieutenant, but in 1934, when 3 other candidates declined to make the race for U.S. Senate, Pendergast reluctantly turned to Truman. In the primary, Truman narrowly beat out the candidate of the rival bosses from St. Louis, and he was elected to the Senate in November.

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