Living history
Re-enactor honors Truman’s memory with his accurate portrayal

By Deborah Reinhardt
Managing Editor

Published: Jan/Feb 2002

Neil Johnson re-enacting the famous scene of Truman displaying the Chicago Daily Tribune that erroneously reported Thomas E. Dewey defeated him in the 1948 presidential election.
Dressed in a double-breasted suit, hat and bow tie, Neil Johnson stands before visitors at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Mo. He’s about to conduct a presidential press conference, and the visitors will be the press corps. Maybe, just for a few seconds, they will marvel at the resemblance, but it should be no surprise. Johnson, 70, has been impersonating Truman for eight years and he has Harry down to a tee.

Johnson, an Independence resident, worked for 15 years at the museum as an archivist and oral historian. His knowledge of our 33rd president reaches as wide as one of Truman’s grins. Soon after retirement in 1992, Johnson said he slipped into the impersonator’s role. He taught an evening history course in 1993 at Park University and dressed up as Truman for that. The same year, the Truman home in Independence hosted a book signing for author David McCollough (“Truman”) and Johnson made an appearance.

“There I stood at the end of the driveway,” he said. “Mr. McCollough comes out of the limo and couldn’t believe Harry Truman was there to greet him.”

From this, appearances at the museum and library naturally flowed together, and gradually increased to several times a week during the summer, although he’s not there each day. Johnson estimated that he has made 70-80 appearances in 2000 as Truman.

To prepare for these appearances, Johnson has read dozens of biographies and thousands of documents, much of the material from his days as an archivist. He fine tunes the stories and events that cover most of Truman’s important moments for a 45-minute monologue.

Qualities of Truman’s that Johnson said he admires were his honesty and integrity.

“He had a sense of humor and wit, also,” Johnson said. “He had high ideals and a serious side.

“I don’t portray him as a cocky, cursing man you get out of the show, ‘Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.’ He actually was a modest man.”

Johnson said he gets a lot of enthusiastic remarks about his performances, and sometimes, people will ask if he is related to Truman.

“I say we’re related in spirit,” Johnson said.

He hopes visitors to the museum might take some of Truman’s wisdom back to their homes. The messages from the president to young people were especially important, Johnson said.

“Study your history and find out how we got this republic,” Johnson said. “Then learn what it takes to keep it.”

Also see: The buck stops in Independence


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