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The Visit with Former President Truman

During the summer it was customary for my family and me to drive to Williams Bay, where we enjoyed the cool comfort of the basement apartment in the house belonging to my wife's parents. In the mornings I would work on my astronomy problems, but in the afternoon we would go to Geneva Lake, where our children learned to swim, etc. On Monday evenings I would attend Chandra's seminar relating to the latest subject in which he was doing research. He preferred, indeed enjoyed, having a participating audience, particularly when he had encountered difficulties, such as in formulating boundary conditions. There would be much interesting discussion, and no one ever got bored. During other times of the week I would get the opportunity to describe to him what I had been doing, and get his reactions.

On occasion he would tease me for being a political conservative, because he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen and prided himself (and his wife, Lalitha) in being stalwarts of the democratic party. I in turn prodded him, and whenever feasible would invite him to give a colloquium at K.U. But at first to no avail. Later, I mentioned that I had grown up in Kansas City, and that it is only a short distance to Independence, Mo., where President Truman lived and a new library recently constructed in his honor. The next time I brought up the subject of the possible colloquium, he said he would do it provided I could arrange a visit with Truman for him and Lalitha!

When I returned to K.U. at the end of the summer (1962), I made some enquiries and found that a certain K.U. professor had helped Truman write his memoirs. It was Dr.Francis Heller, Associate Dean of the College, and it was through his efforts that the appointment with Truman was arranged and in turn that the Chandra colloquium occurred. Chandra's lecture was presented in the main lecture hall of Lindley Hall to a capacity audience, and he discussed the subject of rotating stars, including an interesting history of the difficult hydrodynamics involved. That evening a dinner had been arranged in his honor at the Student Union Building. As I recall, Dr.Ling and I were talking to him after dinner, and Chandra told us an interesting short story about the famous mathematician Von Neumann. It seems that Cambridge University only recognizes advanced degrees from one other institution, namely, Oxford, and vice versa. Von Neumann had been invited to give a lecture at Cambridge, and noticed that his name was written on the schedule as Mr. Von Neumann instead of Dr. This irritated him somewhat, and the situation was politely explained to him. He than asked whether he could earn the title by passing the final exam. The answer was in the affirmative, so Von Neumann took the exam, passed it and became Dr. Von Neumann.

Now I shall return to the visit with Truman. I have a letter from the Truman library showing that the visit took place on Friday, October 12, 1962. The Chandras, Dr. Seagondollar (professor of physics; he was the Chairman of K.U.'s Science and Mathematics Day), his wife and I drove to the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., and were ushered into Truman's office by a gentleman who suggested that we speak with sufficient clarity and loudness, since Truman's hearing was failing. My first impression of the ex-President was pretty much what I had expected, although I was surprised that he had such broad shoulders (being an ex-baseball player I notice things like that). We found that it was rather easy to converse with him. He expressed a high opinion of scientists, too. However, Chandra and his wife didn't quite know what to say, which was unusual for them. So I remember asking Truman about the MacArthur situation in Korea, and he replied straight to the point: "MacArthur disobeyed orders, and I fired him!" The Seagondollars asked more political type questions, and we were all impressed at Truman's knowledge of the Constitution, and its legal implications. I remember his saying emphatically that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. The entire interview lasted about twenty minutes. As we left, I remember seeing the room that was a faithful representation of the oval office including the sign on his desk with the famous words "The Buck Stops Here." Also in the lobby there was a very interesting exhibit of U.S. silver coins; unfortunately a couple of weeks later a thief broke into the place and stole the entire collection.