The Truman period: Exploring the president’s middle initial


The exterior of the Harry S. Truman building, which is the headquarters of the United States Department of State in Washington. The building does not place a period after the "S" in Harry S. Truman, which is technically an incorrect spelling of the former president’s name. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 11, 2013

There is only one thing a journalist likes more than being able to prove he was correct after being accused of making an error. (That one thing? A back rub.)

Answer Man brings this up because of the many readers who gleefully told him he was wrong last week to render the name of our 33rd president thusly: Harry S. Truman.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“Aha!” these readers more or less said. “Truman didn’t have a middle name, and so the S doesn’t stand for anything and so it doesn’t take a period. It should be ‘Harry S Truman.’ You, Answer Man, are wrong, wrong, wrong!

Answer Man’s back tenses at communications such as these. He really doesn’t like to be wrong. And so he again consulted The Washington Post Stylebook to make sure he had not erred. “Use the period,” the stylistic oracle pronounced. “Truman used it.”

But let us consult a higher authority: the folks at Truman’s presidential library in Independence, Mo.


The gravestone of 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, in Independence, Mo. The official Presidential Library and Museum placed a period after the "S" in Harry S. Truman, the correct spelling of the former president’s name. (Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum)

“Oh my heavens,” said Tammy Williams, an archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. “Every five to six months, almost like clockwork, someone comments on it.”

So many people tell the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum to lose the period that it has devoted a page on its Web site to explaining why the period belongs.

“We have examples of Truman’s handwriting when he was a little kid, where he’s written on the side of textbooks Harry S period Truman,” Tammy said. “It’s very emphatic. We have medical records where it’s Harry S period. We have copies he signed when he was president with the period.”

To be honest, they have examples of Truman’s signature without the period, too. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” Tammy said. “He would squirm his signature into one stroke without lifting the pen.”

Tammy said there is even a period after the S on Truman’s gravestone. What about his birth certificate? They didn’t have them in rural Missouri in the 1880s.

Why the confusion? It isn’t exactly true that the S doesn’t stand for anything. It actually stands for two things. In 1959, six years after leaving the White House, Truman visited Washington. During the trip, he explained to reporters that his family couldn’t decide whether his middle name should honor his maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, or his paternal grandfather, Anderson Shippe Truman. The Post wrote: “The matter was settled by using only the initial ‘S,’ intended to stand for either or both. The style the former president follows is ‘S.’ — with a full stop or period — on the theory that the period could be dispensed with, properly, only if the ‘S’ did not represent abbreviation.”

Not everyone agrees with the Truman library. Take the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site, for example. The people who staff the small frame house in Lamar, Mo., where the future president was born, are adamant that there is no period.

And then there is the State Department’s main building, which was named after Truman in 2000. Throughout the Foreign Affairs Manual, the document that governs the State Department, the Foggy Bottom building is referred to as the Harry S Truman Building (in contrast with the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, which in 2002 was named the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center).

That is the thin reed upon which Answer Man’s critics rest their argument. Of course, he must defer to The Post Stylebook — and to the Truman library. “We’re patient with everyone who thinks they’re the first person to tell us there shouldn’t be a period after the initial,” said Tammy, the archivist.

Of course, we haven’t even touched on the issue that really got Truman’s goat: He didn’t think he should be referred to as the 33rd president. He even wrote a letter to the publisher of Who’s Who arguing that he should be called the 32nd.

Why? Truman didn’t consider Grover Cleveland both the 22nd and the 24th president, just because Benjamin Harrison was between Cleveland’s two terms.

“He could get riled up about that one,” Tammy said.

Some readers also got riled up over a column from April 30 about local properties competing in the Partners in Preservation contest. The Kennel at Aspin Hill Memorial Park was mentioned. Readers shouted as one: It’s Aspen Hill!

No, the pet cemetery was named after a kennel in England that was called Aspin Hill.

Answer Man has been wrong before and is likely to be wrong again, but in these two instances, he was correct. Now, about that back rub . . .

Send me your huddled questions yearning to be answered. Write answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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