Bess Truman, First Lady, and P.E.O.

As the wife of a Missouri Senator, Elizabeth “Bess” Truman became a member of Chapter S of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, District of Columbia. The chapter was organized on January 29, 1941 and was known as the Missouri Chapter; all of its charter members were from the Show Me State. The chapter was sponsored by Chapter CW, Kirksville, Missouri. Mrs. Truman was the chapter’s first Vice President. Chapter members hailed from Missouri towns including Kirksville, Kansas City, Macon, Cape Girardeau, St. Joseph, Richmond, Shelbyville and Independence. P.E.O. is a Philanthropic Educational Organization that was founded in 1869 at Iowa Wesleyan College  in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

As wife of the Vice-President Mrs. Truman, along with Mrs. Wiley Rutledge, the wife of the Supreme Court Associate Justice, were guests at a tea given by the P.E.O. Sisterhood of the District of Columbia and the P.E.O. Round Table. It was held at the Woman’s City Club on Sunday afternoon, March 4, 1945. The tea was arranged to greet unaffiliated P.E.O.s. More than 325 P.E.O.s attended, 110 of whom were not affiliated with a local chapter. Many of the unaffiliates in attendance were WACs or WAVES in uniform, and it was said that they greatly appreciated the opportunity to meet the local P.E.O.s. A musical program was part of the afternoon’s entertainment.

On November 13, 1946, Mrs. Truman was the guest of honor at a reception in the Hotel Statler’s Congressional Room. More than 500 P.E.O.s attended. Dorothy Lee Weller, President of Supreme Chapter, was to to be in attendance, but a sudden illness kept her away. Bessie R. Raney, First Vice President of Supreme Chapter, attended in her stead. In attendance at the tea were fourteen unaffiliates who would soon form Chapter W, the 23rd chapter in Washington, D.C.

An article in the May 1948 P.E.O. Record noted that Chapter S was entertained by Mrs. Truman at the White House. The meeting took place in Mrs. Truman’s sitting room. After the meeting, the group adjourned to the President’s projection room where a film about Venezuela was shown. The program  was part of the chapter’s year-long study of South America. That year, the Trumans attended the chapter’s annual B.I.L. dinner, “Following dinner President and Mrs. Truman entered into the singing and games with zest, as did all present.”

A White House garden party took place on the afternoon of May 24, 1948. Seven hundred District of Columbia P.E.O.s attended. Mrs. Truman, “gowned in a lovely floor-length afternoon frock of grey and white print, graciously greeted the members as they passed down the receiving line, and later mingled with the guests.”

Other articles mentioned that Mrs. Truman also entertained her P.E.O. sisters at Blair House and on the presidential yacht. Mrs. Truman remained a member of Chapter S her entire life.

An article in a June 1950 Prescott Evening Courier gave this assessment of the First Lady, “one feels she still hankers to do her own housework, still prefers meetings of her P.E.O. Sisterhood, a secret nationwide women’s philanthropic and educational organization, to White House functions and state dinners, and still looks forward to the day when she can shop again for her own groceries back in Independence.”

The President and First Lady met as schoolchildren and were in the same 1901 graduating high school class at Independence High School. After high school, she studied language and literature at Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City, Missouri. Upon her return to Independence, she helped her widowed mother run the household. On June 28, 1919, she married Harry S. Truman at Trinity Episcopal Church. The bridegroom had served in the Army and had been discharged several weeks before the wedding. Mary Margaret, born on February 17, 1924, was the couple’s only child. When Margaret, as she was then known, entered George Washington University, she became a member of Pi Beta Phi. Mrs. Truman became an active member of the chapter’s Mother’s Club (a story saved for another day).

Mrs. Truman passed away on October 18, 1982 at the age of 97. She has the distinction of being the First Lady who lived the longest life.


My thanks to Joyce Perkins at P.E.O. International Headquarters for her assistance in locating information about Mrs. Truman.

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