Larry Larkin

Had one been approaching Claremore’s business section on a pleasant February morning in 1920, he or she might have notice a rather large man taking a stroll.

After all, at this time Third Street (now Will Rogers Blvd.) west of the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad wasn’t all that busy. Only a few houses and even fewer businesses doted the street that led to the top of the hill where Oklahoma Military Academy was located.

Dressed in an overcoat and top hat, the 300-pound plus gentleman had arrived in Claremore on the train. His destination was the military school where he was to meet with long-time friend Colonel Stephen M. Barrett, now OMA president.

The same situation today would be impossible. There is no way a former President of the United States would be allowed to walk unaccompanied for over a mile anywhere.

The Claremore stroller that day was William H. Taft, the 27th president and future 10th Chief Justice of the United States. He remains the only person to hold both positions.

During his visit at OMA Taft addressed the students and faculty. He stressed the importance of military education. It is also said the former president helped Col. Barrett draft the first cadet rules and regulations.

Before being elected president Taft served as Secretary of War under his friend Teddy Roosevelt.

Learning of the former president’s Claremore visit was the result of a note in the winter issue of “Guidon”, a newsletter for OMA alumni.

Must admit personal knowledge of Taft was limited to two items: He was our heaviest president and once got stuck in the White House bath tub and he was the first president to toss out the “first pitch” at a Major League Baseball game.

Turns out the first item is false. He was certainly the largest. Due to his size Taft did have trouble getting out of the tub. To correct this he had workmen to build a larger tub that could comfortable hold four bathers. He was never actually pinned in the original tub, but it did take six men to help him get out once.

Standing 5 foot, 11 inches, during his term as president (1909-13) his weight ranged reached 335-340 pounds. Apparently due to his size Taft began a fitness regime. By the time he was appointed to the high bench eight years later (1921-30) he was walking three miles each day between his home and the Capitol. So the mile hike from the Claremore depot and OMA was a breeze.

Taft did enjoy the game of baseball. He was the first president to throw out the first ball to start the baseball season. That tradition continues today. This came in a 1910 game between the hometown Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics. The Senators won 3-0 behind the pitching of a fellow named Walter Johnson.

It is said Taft was tone deaf and had to be nudged whenever the national anthem was played.

Regardless of his preference to walking he was the first president to own a car. He had the White House stables converted into a garage.

At the same time he was the last president to keep a cow at the White House. Taft wanted fresh milk each morning and that’s where

“Pauline” came through. He remains the last president with facial hair.

History buffs rate William Henry Taft’s years as president in the middle. His term wasn’t outstanding nor was it bad. He enjoyed his time as Chief Justice much more than President. He considered the White House “…the lonely place in the world.”

Maybe timing was a problem. Picked by Roosevelt to follow him as president, Taft was stuck in the shadow of the far more flamboyant former “Rough Rider.”

Even a close friend remarked, “William is boring-honest, likable, but boring.” This was despite being one of the most interesting, intellectual, and versatile presidents of the ages.

When Taft died in 1930 he became the first president to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. President John F. Kenney is the only other president to also be buried there.

As far as I can find, William Henry Taft remains the only past, present, or future U.S. President to spend some time in Claremore. Harry Truman stopped for a campaign speech in 1948, but did so off the back of a train passenger car. Lyndon Johnson spoke in the 1960s at the opening of the Pryor industrial park and Richard Nixon was present for the Port of Catoosa dedication in 1971.

For close to 50 years it was a common sight to see OMA Cadets walking to and from downtown Claremore and the school. I wonder if any of them realized at the time they were walking in the steps of an U.S. President.

As the old saying goes, it is kind of cool when you think about it.

Larry Larkin is a columnist for the Claremore Progress.