Donald Dawson Dies; Assistant to Truman

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Donald Shelton Dawson, 97, a lawyer who served as special executive assistant to President Harry S. Truman, died of a stroke Dec. 25 at his home in Bethesda. He was one of the architects of Truman's 1948 whistle-stop presidential campaign, and after the election he was made responsible for all presidential appointments.

What Mr. Dawson was perhaps most known for was being accused by a Senate Banking subcommittee in 1951 of being part of a "web of influence" that affected the loan policies of the old Reconstruction Finance Corp. The RFC was set up to provide loans to private firms that could not get private financing but which operated in the public interest.

"Senator, I did nothing improper," he said when he testified before the subcommittee, quickly adding, "but I would not do it again."

He acknowledged accepting free hotel rooms on three visits to the "swank" Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach, which had obtained a $1.5 million RFC loan. But he said he did not know the hotel had gotten a loan, and he added that other White House aides had also accepted free rooms. Mr. Dawson also said he exercised no undue influence over the appointment or decisions of RFC directors, the people who determined who got loans.

The presidential aide asserted to the media that his two days of Senate testimony clearly demonstrated no impropriety on his part, but Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) said he completely disagreed.

"That's only his opinion," said Fulbright, the subcommittee chairman. "There's quite a difference of views on what is proper and improper."

Fulbright told Mr. Dawson that it "strains my credulity" to believe Mr. Dawson did not wield political power over RFC directors. Mr. Dawson had been director of personnel at the agency from 1939 to 1943 and for another year after World War II. He had oversight of presidential appointees and often met with the agency's directors. He was also chairman of the White House Loyalty Review Board.

Mr. Dawson was never charged with a crime, and after W. Stuart Symington was appointed to replace the five RFC directors, the subcommittee said it was satisfied that "the umbilical cord connecting Dawson and the RFC has been cut."

Mr. Dawson was born in El Dorado Springs, Mo., and graduated from the University of Missouri. He moved to Washington in 1933 to work for the RFC, and later for the Federal Loan Administration. He received a law degree from George Washington University in 1938. During World War II, the 34-year-old rejected an officer's commission and was inducted into the Army as a private, but he soon accepted a nomination to Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He served at several domestic bases.

From 1953 until 1980, he was senior partner in the law firm of Dawson, Riddell, Taylor, Davis and Holroyd. At the time of his death, he was senior attorney in his own law firm.

In 1972, he and his second wife hosted a party at their Bethesda estate, Happy Valley, in which the guests included two Canadian timber wolves. The party celebrated the opening of the Washington office of the Fund for Animals Inc.

He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1970 as a major general. Among his awards was the Distinguished Service Medal.

He was a founding member, and a four-time president, of the National Democratic Club and a board member and past president of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute for National and International Affairs. He was director of the Humane Society of the United States and the United Givers Fund. He was also a member of the Army-Navy Club and the Metropolitan Club.

His marriage to Alva Ansley Patten ended in divorce. His second wife, movie actress Ilona Massey, died in 1974.

Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Virginia Jenkins Friedland of Bethesda; a daughter from his first marriage, Diana Star Coyner Dawson of Boca Raton, Fla.; two stepchildren, Virginia Fox of New York City and Robert Fox of West Palm Beach, Fla.; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company