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Reathel Odum, at 97; shy bank worker became confidante to Trumans

WASHINGTON -- In the midst of the Great Depression, Reathel Odum was addressing envelopes and learning to decipher interest and dividends at a bank in receivership in St. Louis when she was introduced to Senator Harry Truman of Missouri. The young woman of about 25 was ``scared to death," never having spoken to a senator before.

Truman came to the bank, operated by his friend John Snyder, looking to fill a vacancy in his Washington office. After interviewing Ms. Odum and two other women, Ms. Odum was offered the job. However, she had one request before she could accept.

``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 Midwesterner came to Washington. The shyness dissipated over the years as Ms. 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 comfortable with her reserved ways, Truman asked her to become his wife's personal secretary when he became president in 1945. She also helped take care of Bess Truman's mother, who lived with the family, and their daughter, Margaret, later chaperoning the young singer on her concert tours.

Ms. Odum, who lived almost a year with the Trumans at Blair House and at the White House, had a front-seat view of one of the most crucial presidencies in history. 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 kept in touch with them and contributed her letters, photos, and remembrances to the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Mo.

After her death of congestive heart failure June 9, more of the 97-year-old former secretary's memorabilia was donated to the library.

During 20 years with the Trumans, some of it intimate family time, Ms. Odum shared little about what went on within the family. Like her boss, Mrs. 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."

She was born in Benton as the youngest of five children. Her father, once a deputy sheriff who later operated a taxi service, died when she was 4.

After finishing high school, Ms. Odum worked at a title company, making $10 a week, before spending several years at banks.

``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.

Her hard work continued to pay off after she moved to Washington. From the secretarial pool at the Senate office building, she moved to a small office at the White House that she shared with Bess Truman.

She and Bess Truman also worked one day a week at the USO, peeling carrots and entertaining soldiers. Sometimes, they rented bicycles and rode around the Tidal Basin.

Ms. Odum also watched the first daughter grow up and sometimes would baby-sit. She accompanied Margaret Truman on her concert tour and later went with her on a six-week trip to Europe. Ms. Odum fell in love with St. Peter's Square in Rome and stayed out until 2 a.m. in Paris.

After Truman left the presidency in 1953, Ms. Odum had what she called ``a checkered career." She worked as a secretary for three years in Senator W. Stuart Symington's office, 15 years for a coal institute, and in the late 1970s at the Truman Scholarship Foundation with Snyder, Treasury secretary under Truman.

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

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