When I was in seventh grade in 1969, I spent untold hours at the Daly City Public Library, looking up the addresses of retired government leaders so I could write them for both autographs and advice on entering politics. Getting former president Harry Truman's address came in handy for one particular middle-school project, although not without causing some indigestion along the way.
That year my history teacher, Mr. Puhr, assigned us to write a biography of a historic person. This was my first long-term homework assignment: our paper had to be typed, researched, and at least seven pages long. In the pre-personal computer era, few twelve-year-olds were keyboard literate, so Mr. Puhr gave us three months to complete this monumental task. "But you'd better have it ready to turn in on the due date," he warned us ominously, "or there will be consequences."
For my subject, I picked the eighty-six-year old Truman, who was then two decades removed from his White House service. I approached my task in earnest, and instead of spending three months on the project, I finished it in three days. With so much time to spare, and having learned during my research that Truman once said his only obligation in retirement was to answer personally the letters he received from young people, I decided to mail my report to Truman and ask him to look it over. Long before readily available copy machines (and the invention of hard drives), I had no duplicate of my homework. It never dawned on me that Truman wouldn't return it.
Months passed; when the paper came due, I was empty-handed. Mr. Puhr rejected my explanation: he called me a liar in front of the class, accused me of never doing the report, and gave me an F. "Besides," he announced to everyone, "Truman's dead – I watched his funeral on television twenty years ago!"
More months went by, and I forgot about the incident. Then one afternoon, I returned home from school and found a large envelope postmarked from Independence, Missouri. Inside I found my report returned, an autographed picture of the great man, and this letter:
The next day in class, I walked up to Mr. Puhr's desk and placed on it silently my proof. His face reddened as he looked over the documents.
"Take your seat," he said sternly.
"Is that all you have to say to me, Mr. Puhr?" I asked in surprise. "I said, 'take your seat'."
After humiliating me earlier, Mr. Puhr now refused to acknowledge his mistake. I fumed over this injustice for the rest of class. When the recess bell rang, I exacted my own vindication: jumping from my desk, I rushed to the door and blocked the exit. Holding aloft my treasures, I called to my classmates, "Hey, if anybody wants to see the letter and autographed picture I got yesterday from the late President Harry Truman, I'll show it to you on the playground!"
Despite my protests, Mr. Puhr refused to accept my paper. I went to the principal, Mrs. Zenovich, and presented my case. Marching me back to class, Mrs. Zenovich confronted Mr. Puhr and ordered him to accept it.
Later, Mr. Puhr handed back my paper in front of the entire class and announced that he marked me down for "repeated punctuation errors" because I kept failing to put a period after Truman's middle initial "S." I told him the omission was intentional, because the S didn't get a period – S was his middle name. Mr. Puhr grabbed volume T of the Encyclopedia Britannica, turned to Truman's entry, and cackled aloud, "The encyclopedia lists him as Harry S-with-a-period Truman! What do you say to that, Mr. Rogan?"
"The encyclopedia's wrong."
Mr. Puhr chortled, "So! The encyclopedia is wrong and Mr. Rogan is right! My, aren't we lucky to have such a brilliant student in our midst!" Students laughed as Mr. Puhr mocked me for the rest of class. For days afterward, he called on me to "confirm" facts, like our first president was George Washington, or that Columbus discovered America in 1492 ("Or was it in 1493, Mr. Rogan?"). Growing tired of the abuse, I took matters into my own hands:
"Dear President Truman," my new letter began, "You won't believe this teacher of mine . . . ." I asked Truman to settle the issue.
Sadly, the school year ended without any reply, and again I forgot about it. Then one day, as my 1970 summer vacation ended, another letter from Missouri arrived.
Now, for the first time, I noticed Truman's engraved letterhead: sure enough, it bore the name "Harry S Truman" with no period after the middle initial.
On the first day of the new school year, I tracked down my former teacher. Mr. Puhr looked baffled when I entered his classroom, as if I had made another mistake. I walked to his desk and showed him the second Truman letter. Again he refused to re-grade my report, but changed his mind when I threatened him with more Mrs. Zenovich therapy.
As I walked away, Mr. Puhr called to me sharply: "Rogan," he said, "I'm very glad you won't be in my class this year."
Former president Harry S Truman died at age eighty-eight on December 26, 1972. In the early 1990s, American Heritage magazine first published my story about Harry Truman helping me with my homework. A few years later, I gave Reader's Digest permission to republish it in its April 1995 issue, which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Truman's presidency.
A couple of weeks later, while on a trip to Missouri, I toured Truman's house in Independence (now a national historic site). The guide led about twenty of us to the rear porch and said, "Here's where Mr. Truman sat each morning, answering his mail. In fact, in this month's Reader's Digest, there is a story of how he helped a young boy with his homework. This porch is where he would have read the boy's letter and wrote his reply."
When the tour ended, I mentioned to the guide that I was the author. He asked me to wait while he called his wife (who worked at the nearby Truman Presidential Library). A few minutes later, a couple of cars arrived with staff and docents from the library. They led me back to the porch and asked me to recount the entire story for them, and it pleased me greatly to do so.
Some years later, I attended a weekend legislative retreat with fellow members of Congress. The guest speaker was one of my generation's preeminent historians, David McCullough, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on Truman. When I asked McCullough to autograph my copy of his book, I mentioned with a grin that I was pleased to meet a fellow Truman "scholar." He asked me in seriousness what Truman work I penned; I laughed and told him about my little story of Truman helping me with my homework when I was a boy. McCullough's eyes brightened. "The 'homework' story in American Heritage!" he said. "Truman wrote you back about the S in his middle name! I not only read it – it helped me win a bet on that S issue!"
It seems that when Harry Truman took the time to help a young admirer long ago, both David McCullough and I came out winners.
(This story is a sample from my second book, "And Then I Met … Stories of Growing Up, Meeting Famous People, and Annoying the Hell Out of Them.)