President Harry Truman

Wheaton Lodge 269 recently had a special presentation by Brother Jim Wescott from Missouri who shared his knowledge about the Past Grand Master of Missouri, and President of the United States, Harry Truman.

I wish I could fit Brother Wescott's full 30 minute presentation into this post because he was a fantastic storyteller and presenter, and the discussion in lodge afterwards revealed that several people in the room that evening had either met President Truman themselves, or had friends and family members who had met him.

Did you know that President Truman was a 33rd degree Mason and coincidentally was the 33rd President of the United States? He was a 62 year Mason when he passed away in 1972, and very vocal about expressing his pride in being a Freemason throughout his life.

After listening to the stories and accounts of his tenure as President, I simply cannot imagine how he would have fared in office if he was faced with the media scrutiny of today's society. He started every day with a 2 mile walk followed by a shot of whiskey to, "get the engines running" for the day he said.

He was a very interesting character for sure. He would often travel with just two secret service men, although he should have had many more, and would walk around in public with them. Often he would walk to the White House from where he stayed at the Blair House while the balcony project he ordered was underway (which took 2 years to complete).

The balcony project, now known as the Truman Balcony which overlooks the South lawn, was a decision met with strong opposition, but he went ahead with it and thankfully he did because they found structural issues with the White House building that likely would not have been found otherwise until a disastrous collapse may have occurred. He was a strong willed individual, determined to keep America strong, and focused on the service of others.

The Courageous Tyler

The stories among Missouri Masons about the experiences shared with their Past Grand Master continue to be shared through the ages. I had heard rumors of this Tyler story here and there, but the stories often conflicted about which lodge, which state, and what really happened. To hear this brother from Missouri tell it that night, it was as if he heard it directly from someone who had been there. While I can't recall it word for word with the the descriptive detail like he did, I'll give it my best shot.

One time President Truman wanted to attend a lodge meeting to see a degree, and he arrived with his two secret service men who went everywhere with him. As he walked into the meeting room the service men were behind him, but the Tyler - correctly - stopped them at the door before they could enter room because they didn't have their aprons on. They should know that he cannot allow anyone to enter the lodge room who wasn't properly clothed, he told them.

They explained to the Tyler that they do not have aprons because they are not Masons, but they still must be allowed go where ever the President goes to keep him safe. Upon learning this, the Tyler adamantly stood his ground and would not let them enter because they were not Masons!

First of all, can you imagine that? These are secret service men to the President of the United States, undoubtedly heavily armed and combat trained. In my experience, the Tylers I know have very little combat skills, nor do they get training in how to aggressively use a sword to defend a building! The courage this must have taken for that Mason to stand his ground and keep the lodge a secure place for Masons only ought to be commended!

Upon hearing the commotion, President Truman walked back to the Tyler's station and asked the Tyler what was going on. He listened to the Tyler's account and then turned to his secret service men and said, "I'm safer in there with those guys than I am out here with you guys" and then proceeded to go back into the meeting while the service men were left to wait for him outside! Amazing.

A Tyler's Joke

This wasn't talked about at our meeting, but while we're on the subject of Tylers, I heard this recently and thought it was funny so I thought I'd share...

When a local lodge was being renovated, they were forced to meet in the conference room of a hotel until the project was completed. One day, a visiting Mason stopped at the front desk to ask where the Mason lodge was meeting that night. The woman behind the counter gladly pointed to the conference room down the hall and he was on his way.

The next person in line stepped up to the counter and, overhearing the previous conversation, asked the attendant if he heard right, if that man was a Freemason, and she confirmed that he was. In making conversation said he had read about Freemasons and they were a good group, but he heard it's very hard to get in.

She quickly replied, "It sure is! You see that guy at the end of the hall holding the sword? That poor guy has been standing outside that door at every meeting for last 6 months and they STILL won't let him in!"

Pictured here from left to right are Wheaton Lodge 269 Past Master Brother Tom Egan, Brother Jim Wescott (the speaker), WBrother Randy Watz, Brother Jerry Hope (Brother Hope received his 60 year Mason pin just a few nights after this picture was taken).

The Assassination Attempt

President Harry Truman was the target of an assassination attempt in 1950, as our speaker explained. He was at home in the Blair House at the time, and there were two guards stationed in booths on either side of the gate in front of his driveway entrance. There were two gunman from Puerto Rico determined to assassinate the President of the United States.

Their plan was to split up and each go to a booth, and then simultaneously take out the guard at their booth and proceed to the house where they knew the President was located. The first gunman attempted to shoot the guard at the East gate in the back, which was officer Donald Birdzell, but that gunman had never fired a weapon before and forgot to chamber a round in his pistol. Hearing him fumbling with the weapon and attempting to chamber the round, Officer Birdzell was able to turn and apprehend the gunman.

The 2nd gunman, however, was an excellent marksman. He surprised the guard at the West gate, Officer Leslie Coffelt (pictured on the left), and shot him 3 times in the chest at close range, mortally wounding him.

Then he proceeded to help the first gunman by shooting Officer Birdzell in the knee, incapacitating him. As another secret service man approached, Officer Joseph Downs, this gunman shot him in the hip before he could draw his weapon. The gunman then turned his sights on the house where President Truman was currently in a 2nd floor bedroom.

While all this was going on, somehow Officer Coffelt, who had been shot in the chest 3 times at close range, managed to get out of the West gate booth, prop himself up against it and from 30 feet away using his .38-caliber service revolver, with his last conscious breath, shot the 2nd gunman in the head killing him instantly and thereby saving President Truman's life.

After taking that shot Officer Coffelt went limp, fell back into the booth, and died. To this day there is a plaque installed at the Blair House commemorating him, and there is a room in the house named after him to honor him for his heroic actions that day.

Officer Leslie Coffelt was a Freemason. He was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery with a Hero's Honors, and Masonic Funeral Services were performed by Potomac Lodge No. 5. His funeral was attended by Mrs. Coffelt, President Truman and his wife, and numerous Masons from throughout the District of Columbia. Both Officers Birdzell and Downs eventually recovered from the attack; Brother Coffelt was the only casualty.

Attending Lodge

As I stated at the beginning, I wish I could share more - not because it's a "secret", but because I was only able to recall what I've written for you here. This was an open meeting at our lodge, friends and family were welcome. The moral of the story is, the next time you hear there's a special presentation happening at a lodge near you, go! You'll be glad you did.