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People On The Move - Elizabeth Shea Arthur
10/20/2009 - By Teja Anderson
FORMER WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY & AUTHOR
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, to Irish immigrants, Elizabeth Shea was the second youngest of 10 children. Her father was a steamboat engineer and her mother was a stay-at-home mom and part-time cook for some of the city’s rich and famous. “We never did have a lot, but what we had was clean and paid for,” she recalls.
A smart and involved young woman, Elizabeth was eighth grade class president and valedictorian, as well as orator for her high school graduation. Although she eventually took classes at Strayer University (then Strayer College) and Brookdale College, her immediate college plans were interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II. With her older brothers drafted or enlisted, she felt she also had to do something to help her country, so she took a job as a government employee with a War Service Appointment and, at the age of 17, began work as an Assistant Supervisor in the Military Personal Transfer Branch. That fall she met a jovial, sharply dressed young sailor named Johnny Arthur, whom she would marry 6 years later in June of 1948, after he had served on three submarines during the war. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, John enrolled at George Washington University in Washington DC, and Elizabeth was able to procure a job with the President’s National Security Resources Board. It wasn’t long before her straight-talking sense of humor (and the fact that she resembled his daughter) caught the attention of Dr. John R. Steelman, Assistant to President Truman. Two months later he took her on as his secretary to work at the White House, which is where she stayed for the next 5 years.
Considered by many to be one of our country’s greatest presidents, Harry S. Truman was probably best known for his decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, founding the United Nations, formulating the Marshall Plan, and the first President to propose universal health care. To Elizabeth, however, he was “just one of the nicest men you ever met…very humble and down to earth.” President Truman was also known for his quotes like, “The buck stops here” and “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen,” as well as for his strong affections for wife Bess and daughter Margaret, both of whom were harangued in the press. “Bess Truman was a wonderful woman. We would exchange recipes, and I was just in awe of Margaret who was just in college at the time…the way she handled the press. She used to sneak away from the Secret Service men all the time. They were such a close family.”
Elizabeth remembers, “I always considered myself to be a ‘Truman Democrat’ because Truman never cared if you were a Republican or a Democrat. It was always what was best for the country, and that’s how I feel too. Even now.” It was her fierce loyalty to President Truman that affected her White House position, when the new Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, referred to him as a haberdasher. “Haberdasher?! Well, my Irish temper got the best of me and I let him have it. How dare he stand there in the White House and disrespect a former President of the United States?!” she asks.
Surprisingly her outburst did not cost her the job; but she knew she would be unable to work for such a man, and with Dr. Steelman’s help she eventually became an Administrative Assistant for the C.I.A. When her husband got transferred to New York City they moved with their two young sons to Hazlet, New Jersey, and Elizabeth became a full-time mom. They had their third son the following year, and just 3 years after her second daughter was born (their first daughter died shortly after birth) John suffered a massive but nonfatal heart attack. Elizabeth was forced to go back to work.
Elizabeth, a proud grandmother of nine, has spent the past 53 years in New Jersey, and the last 14 in Brick. Several years after her husband’s death in 2003 Betty wrote and had published “The Strength of a Woman,” a story of her life that is filled with personal poems and thoughts to her loved ones. She is now working on a second book about her ancestors.
Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse
my husband’s singing
The Sound of Music
THREE PEOPLE YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE DINNER WITH
Harry S. Truman, my husband John, and Michelle Obama
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