Truman's hat becomes part of Medford history

Rob Barry

It was a curious gift — a black fedora, size 7 3/8 in a worn, black Dobbs hatbox with a stagecoach painted on the side. But beneath the crinkled tissue paper was a piece of history.

The city of Medford last week became the proud owner of the hat, crafted decades ago by Lee Fifth Avenue with an inscription reading the “Honorable Harry Truman.”

“I know Fields would have been happy if I gave it to Mayor [Michael] McGlynn,” said Mayland Fields, wife of the late Alonzo Fields, who was valet to no less than four presidents. “The club I belong to said, ‘Let’s raffle it off.’ But I thought that wouldn’t be right.”

The hat would remain a gift, as it has been for the half a century since Truman gave it to Alonzo Fields at the end of his presidency. McGlynn delicately lifted the pristine hat from the box to inspect it during a ceremony held July 24 in City Hall.

“When Truman left office, he gave Fields two gifts,” said Mayland, 90. “One of them was this hat. If you think of the pictures of Truman, everybody knew that hat.”

The other, which Mayland still owns, was the infamous sign from Truman’s Oval Office desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” Traditionally considered a phrase that involved holding great responsibility, Mayland said it really comes from poker. She said Truman was a big fan of the game and often played in such a fashion that a buck knife would be placed in front of the dealer.

“When it was your turn to deal, the buck would stop in front of you,” said Mayland.

Alonzo Fields endeared himself to Truman as a butler in the White House. Originally born in the all-black community of Lyles Station, Ind. he spent some years living in the care of former MIT President Samuel Stratton. Stratton cared much for Fields and financed his education at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.

Mayland said her husband’s first connection to the White House came when he played piano at a party Stratton held which President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry attended.

“A few months later Stratton got a letter that [Thomas] Edison had died,” said Mayland. “He read it and dropped dead.”

With his mentor suddenly gone, Alonzo had nowhere to go. Fortunately for him, Lou Henry remembered him from that party and invited him to spend a year in the White House as a butler.

“He went there for a year and ended up staying 21 years,” said Mayland.

When Truman became president in 1945, he kept Fields on staff. Truman’s wife, however, was not happy in Washington D.C.

“Mrs. Truman didn’t like the food,” said Mayland. “She’d look at the bread and she hated the bread.”

Apparently, Truman was greatly affected by his wife’s mood. Bess Truman missed the fresh baked bread and dinner rolls she always had in Missouri, Truman lamented to Fields at one point.

“He said, ‘Well, she will have some rolls tomorrow,’” Mayland said of her late husband. “But when he went to the cook, he said, ‘What are ya crazy? We’ve got enough to do.’”

So Alonzo went out on his own, bought ingredients and prepared the dough that very night.

“When dinner time came, they were all ready,” said Mayland. “He put the rolls where she would sit. He was standing by the door watching her. She’d take a roll, put some butter on it ¾” Mayland imitated the gesture. “¾ and eat it. Then she’d take another one with a big smile on her face.

So later that night she asked, “Those rolls were delicious, where did they come from?”

And Truman said, “Well, I believe Fields made them. He said he’d do it even if he had to do it himself.”

Mayland cracked a big, fond smile at the memory of her husband’s tenacity. Before a day had gone by, she said, Truman called Alonzo into his office.

“He said, ‘Have a seat.’ And you knew that was going to be one hot seat,” said Mayland.

Alonzo thought he was done for at that point. He had been given a job by the Hoovers that was supposed to last for only one year. But to his surprise, Mayland said, he got a promotion.

“He said, ‘Fields, my wife was so happy with those rolls. They made her feel at home,’” Mayland said. “‘So from this day forward you’re in charge of the kitchen, the staff — you’re going to be maitre ‘d.’”

After that, Truman began requesting the company of Fields on trips and at gatherings. He was at all the parties, met important people and, Mayland said, even learned that Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England liked a touch of sherry with his breakfast.

McGlynn, entranced by one of his favorite stories of local historical figures, had been gazing at Truman’s fedora for some time. He carefully replaced the hat and the crinkly tissue paper inside the box and said it would be put on display in City Hall for all to see.

“It is things like this that give people a reason to come to City Hall, aside from taxes and parking tickets,” said McGlynn.

In 1952, Fields moved to West Medford to be with his wife at the time, Edna. It was shortly after her death in 1973 that he became reacquainted with Mayland, who he’d known from childhood. The couple married in 1980 and lived together until Fields’ death in 1994.

“He served four presidents,” said Mayland, “but Truman was his buddy.”