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Over three days, which coincided with the 1998 Martin Luther King Day weekend, the recipients of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship gathered at the Little White House to discuss tax reform, higher education policy, and environmental concerns, as well as issues concerning women and politics, youth and community service, and strategic planning to form and sustain a lifelong commitment to public service. The Scholars were also privileged to meet with US Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) and Sheila Mullins, the Mayor of Key West, and to hear a talk by Ken Hechler, who served as an aide to President Truman, and later wrote the book, "Working With Truman." Mr. Hechler also served as a Congressman from West Virginia, and is currently the Secretary of State for West Virginia.
The conference, organized with significant assistance from the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service, marked the first time that past recipients of the Truman Scholarship met under the banner of the Truman Scholars Association. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship program was established by Congress in 1975 as a living memorial to President Truman. Each year some 75 college students who are preparing for careers in public service are selected on the basis of academic merit and proven commitment to public service to receive the prestigious scholarship, which provides funds for undergraduate and graduate school expenses.
The Truman Scholars in Key West ranged from the first class of Scholars, selected in 1977, to several recent recipients who are still completing their studies. They met in Key West to formally convene the Truman Scholars Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting in Truman Scholars a lifelong commitment to public service in all its forms and to nurturing all aspects of public and community service. The TSA elected its officers and held its first board meeting on Sunday, January 18, 1998, on President Truman's private balcony.
The significance of gathering at the Little White House was not lost on the Truman Scholars. "The setting was both inspiring and relaxing," said Tom Burack, a 1980 Scholar from New Hampshire, who was elected President of the Truman Scholars Association. "Everything from the photos of Truman taking his legendary brisk walks through the streets of Key West to the desk with the plaque, "The buck stops here," emanates Truman's character. It's clear how much he loved this house, and that it provided him with a place from which to reflect on the many difficult decisions which faced him as President."
Hal Walsh, director of the Little White House since 1993, personally conducted a tour of the residence for the Truman Scholars. "This was a special group. I really enjoyed it," he said. "I felt people connected to the history. It shows that there's a younger generation coming up that is really going to be able to provide leadership in the 21st century."
During his years in government service, President Truman, among his many other achievements, worked to reduce waste in government, desegregated the armed forces, and oversaw the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild a devasted Europe after the Second World War. In this fiftieth anniversary year of Truman's 1948 election to his second term in office, the scholars discussed how strongly Truman's ideals resonate today and how their newly-formed association can work to further the late president's vision.
The Little White House was built in 1890 as the naval commandant's quarters. President Truman first visited in 1946, and as there was no naval commandant at the time, the President was housed in the cool, comfortable structure distinguished by its symmetrical double facade and its encircling porches enclosed by wooden louvers. The President wrote his wife, Bess, how pleased he was with the residence, and with the fact that he was not "out-ranking" someone out of the house. He returned ten times for vacations during his administration, spending over 170 days in Key West.