“If you want a friend in Washington,” Harry Truman once said, “get a dog.”
Though we have two stellar quotes from President Harry Truman (1884-1972) about canines, it would seem that the Truman family was not wild about keeping pets at the White House.
Irish Setter Sent to Margaret
In May of 1945 an Irish setter pup was given to Margaret Truman, Harry’s daughter, by Postmaster General Robert Hannegan. (Truman was sworn in as President April 12, 1945 after the death of Franklin Roosevelt.) Margaret named the dog Mike, and Mike spent that first summer at the family home in Independence, Missouri. According to information on the Truman Library website, Mike had dog house with his name painted on it. Mike seems to have spent some time in D.C. with the family as the site notes that Margaret opted to find another home for Mike because he was frequently sick from the added treats given him by staff members.
Another of the pups who found himself at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Truman years was not there by family request either. A woman, Mrs. Peter Joseph Marsden of Galena, Illinois, who had formerly worked as a nurse to Harry Truman’s mother decided that just as FDR had Fala, Harry Truman would benefit from having a dog.
The canine gift made news. With a dateline of December 21, 1947, an article in The New York Times announced the dog’s arrival: “Truman’s Spaniel Arrives” and noted, “’Feller’ a five-weeks-old [sic] silver buff cocker spaniel arrived here this morning to become the nation’s ‘first dog.’”
We can only imagine how terrorized the five-week-old puppy must have been. His flight from Chicago had been delayed because of low visibility at the airport. Certainly his rough trip might help explain the sad look in the photo of him on his arrival. (His crate is in the background.)
The President eventually gave the dog to the White House physician Brigadier General Wallace Graham. The public was very critical of this and deemed Truman “anti-canine.” The story goes that Graham became so tired of the negative publicity surrounding his ownership of Feller and gave the dog to the man in charge of Shangri-La (now known as Camp David). It seems that the dog stayed at Shangr-La with staff members for a time until Chief Boatswain Robert W. Lyle asked for permission to take the dog to his father. After Feller was delivered to the Lyle family farm in Greenfield, Ohio, he spent many happy years there.
While the Trumans did not seem to want the responsibility of pets, Truman was not anti-animal. He sometimes fed squirrels at the White House, and he spent part of his childhood at a farm in Jackson County Missouri where he and his brother were surrounded by animals. They had a dog named Tandy and a gray Maltese cat named Bob, and they frequently rode farm ponies.
Great Dane Story
While looking for additional evidence of dogs at the White House during the Truman years, I came upon a story involving Eleanor Roosevelt and Great Danes during this era. On January 23, 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt made her first public appearance behind a White House microphone at the invitation of Mrs. Harry Truman. The occasion was to ask that “two dimes instead of one” be given by Americans to the March of Dimes campaign to fight polio (infantile paralysis). The Infantile Paralysis Fund was started by Franklin Roosevelt to fight the disease from which he suffered.
After the former first lady’s speech, there was a rally for the cause on the steps of the General Post Office. It featured a parade of Great Danes, all with March of Dimes canisters attached to their collars.