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Reathel Odum, 97; Secretary to Harry Truman, First Lady

July 17, 2006|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the midst of the Depression, Reathel Odum was learning to decipher interest and dividends at a bank in receivership in St. Louis when she was introduced to Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman. She was about 25 and admittedly "scared to death," never having spoken to a senator before.

Truman came to the bank looking to fill a vacancy in his Washington office. After interviewing Odum and two other women, Odum was offered the job. She had one condition before she could accept, though.

"I said, 'Well, I'll have to go home to southern Illinois and ask my mother,' " she recounted in an oral history interview. "And they thought that was funny, a girl of my age having to ask permission of her mother. But I had never been away from home except for a stint in East St. Louis."

In 1936, the shy young Midwesterner came to Washington. The shyness dissipated over the years as Odum rose from being a secretary in Truman's bustling Senate office to writing some of his letters when he became vice president. Confident in her abilities and manner, Truman asked her to become his wife's personal secretary when he became president in 1945.

Odum, who died at 97 of congestive heart failure June 9 in Benton, Ill., spent 20 years with the Trumans and during that time had a up-close view of one of the most crucial presidencies in history. She lived almost a year with the Trumans at Blair House and the White House.

In August 1945, shortly after atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities, she was seated on a couch beside Bess Truman in the White House when President Truman announced the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.

Long after she left the Trumans' employ, she contributed her letters, photos and remembrances to the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence, Mo.

Odum shared little about what went on within the Truman family. Like her boss, Bess Truman, she was described as "press shy."

"She really enjoyed her life, but she didn't want to talk about" it, said her nephew Richard Odum Hart of Benton, Ill. "She was very genial, very professional and impressed everybody with her ability to keep confidences."

The youngest of five children, Odum was born in Benton, Ill. Her father died when she was 4. Her mother raised the family.

After finishing high school, Odum worked at a title company, making $10 a week, before spending several years working at banks from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s.

"I never felt particularly brilliant or anything, but I had learned to work hard, and was able to aid my mother financially," she said in the oral history for the Truman library.

From Truman's secretarial pool at the Senate office building, she moved to a small office at the White House that she shared with the first lady.

She and Bess Truman also worked one day a week at the USO, peeling carrots and entertaining soldiers. She found Bess Truman to be friendly and straight-laced. Sometimes, they rented bicycles and rode around the Tidal Basin.

Odum also helped take care of Bess Truman's mother, who lived with the Trumans.

And Odum watched the first daughter grow up and would sometimes baby-sit. She accompanied Margaret Truman on her concert tour and later went with her on a six-week trip to Europe.

In 1953, after the Truman presidency ended, Odum began what she called "a checkered career." She worked as a secretary for three years in Sen. Stuart Symington's office, 15 years for a coal institute and in the late 1970s at the Truman Scholarship Foundation.

Forty-five years after coming with trepidation to Washington, Odum returned to her hometown a "Southern Illinois pioneer," as she was described by a newspaper there.

Hart, her nephew, said, "She set an example for anyone of what can be achieved without making a big deal about it."

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