A Kansas City sculptor secures his legacy with Harry Truman statue at the U.S. Capitol

Published September 30, 2022 at 3:00 AM CDT
Michael McDonald/Truman Library Institute Artist. Tom Corbin stands in his Kansas City, Kansas, studios next to the sculpted head of President Harry S. Truman. The finished work was unveiled Thursday in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

Artist Tom Corbin was chosen for the job by a committee that included members of the Truman family. His statue of the 33rd president, who was from Independence, Missouri, was dedicated this week.

The unveiling of a statue of Harry S. Truman in the U.S. Capitol rotunda brought together family and friends of the former president — and a bipartisan delegation of elected officials.

Despite knowing his grandfather as a modest man who was embarrassed by statues, Clifton Truman Daniel told the crowd gathered at the dedication, “were he here today, he would be honored and humbled.”

For Tom Corbin, the Kansas City artist who sculpted the 7-foot-6-inch bronze statue, the unveiling marks a culmination in his career.

“When you think about the millions of people that will eventually see the installation of Harry … that can be a lot to consider,” Corbin told KCUR’s Up To Date host Kraske in 2021. “We put that out of our minds and went after it as far as doing our research … to come up with the likeness that we finally decided upon.”

It’s just the 10th statue of an American president in the sandstone chamber, and it joins representations of former presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Lucretia Mott.

Missouri lawmakers have talked about placing a statue of Truman in the Capitol since the early 2000s. Despite approval by state and federal lawmakers, those efforts stalled. In 2013, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, of Kansas City, took up the cause.

Truman Library Institute Executive Director Alex Burden told KCUR in 2019 that Cleaver approached the Institute, a nonprofit partner of the Truman Library and Museum, and asked them to take the lead in raising funds and selecting the artist. Board members approved the idea as a priority project in September 2014.

Members of the board and donors across the country eventually raised more than $400,000, according to a press release.

Truman Library Institute. Sculptor Tom Corbin with a clay statue of President Harry S. Truman before going to the foundry to be bronzed.

A selection committee made up of Truman family members and current and former Institute board members reviewed proposals by six artists, and presentations by four and ultimately chose Corbin.

“So it’s just awe-inspiring to be thinking where I was 30 years ago, getting to the point where I’m putting a piece in the Capitol rotunda,” Corbin told KCUR at the time. “It’s pretty humbling.”

The bronze likeness of Truman replaces a marble statue of Alexander Hamilton that had been in the rotunda since 1900. Completed in 1868, Hamilton’s figure has been moved to the Capitol’s Hall of Columns.

Corbin told KCUR’s Up To Date that he and his team were given free reign in their design, including Truman’s stance and expression.

“He was always a man in motion, he loved walking and he loved meeting people. The problem was, how do we communicate that on a small literal footprint?” Corbin said. “What we came up with was him descending a series of stairs as if to greet somebody coming into the White House or the Capitol or his hometown in Independence.”

That approach makes Truman’s likeness unusual in the rotunda.

“We realized that a lot of the sculptures in Statuary Hall are very stoic, rather (unapproachable), and what we wanted to communicate with President Truman was just the opposite,” Corbin said.

Truman’s life and presidency, in brief

Truman Library Institute. Harry Truman on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. His family moved several times during Truman’s youth, according to the Truman Library Museum’s website; first to Grandview, then Independence, and finally, in 1902, to Kansas City.

Truman served in World War I in France, and joined the Army reserves after the war, rising eventually to the rank of colonel.

“I have my doubts about my bravery when heavy-explosive shells and gas attacks begin,” Truman wrote to Bess Wallace during the war. “My greatest satisfaction is that my legs didn’t succeed in carrying me away, although they were very anxious to do it.”

In 1919, Truman married Wallace, whom he had known since childhood. From 1919 to 1922 he ran a men’s clothing store in Kansas City. Truman was elected in 1922 to be a Jackson County Court judge, and became presiding judge four years later. In 1934, Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate.

At the outbreak of World War II, he sought to return to active duty but his offer was declined.

In July 1944, Truman was nominated to run for vice president with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was sworn in Jan. 20, 1945. After Roosevelt’s death 82 days later, Truman became president.

His administration was marked by foreign policy initiatives like the Marshall Plan, the founding of the United Nations and NATO, and the recognition of Israel in 1948. Truman also waged undeclared war when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950.

Domestically, Truman attempted to transition the country from a war to a peace economy while avoiding recession. He also looked to extend New Deal social programs to include more government protection and services, and to reach more people. In 1948, he signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the U.S. armed forces.

Truman left the presidency and retired to Independence in 1953. History professor Alonzo Hamby wrote that, when Truman left office, he was one of the most unpopular politicians in the country, yet he is consistently ranked by scholars and historians as one of the best American presidents.

“Every measurement upon which presidents are scrutinized, Truman is plausibly one of our nation’s greatest leaders,” Cleaver said at the statue’s dedication Thursday. “I can think of no greater person to represent the state of Missouri in the citadel of democracy.”

Office Of The Speaker Of The House. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi gives a speech at the unveiling and dedication of the statue of Harry S. Truman on Thursday. Pelosi was joined by other congressional leaders and current and former members of the Missouri delegation.

For two decades after leaving office, Truman delighted in being “Mr. Citizen,” as he called himself in a book of memoirs. He died in 1972.

“He did a lot of amazing things — he was somewhat controversial,” sculptor Corbin told KCUR’s Up To Date last year. “But he was really a man of the people, and that was something we were trying to communicate with his sculpture.”

Where to see Corbin’s work

Corbin has work on public view at the United Nations in New York City, Florida State University, and the University of Oregon, according to the artist’s website.

He also has sculptures throughout the Kansas City area, including one of a kangaroo on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus, the Firefighter’s Memorial sculpture at 31st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and at the Country Club Plaza and the Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden.

His work is included in the private collections of Nicole Kidman, Jack Nicholson, Sofia Vergara and Frank Sinatra.

Corbin was born in Ohio, and studied painting and drawing at Miami University. In 1986, Corbin left a job in advertising to pursue his art full-time.

Tom Corbin Bronze. Kansas City artist Tom Corbin was selected in 2019 to create a statue of Harry S. Truman for the U.S. Capitol.

With a sculpture now placed in one of the country’s most vaunted collections, Corbin said his legacy as an artist feels secure.

“If I don’t have it done by now I just don’t think it’s going to happen, so hopefully the pieces will remain at their current locations,” he said. “It’s really nice where my family, and my daughter’s eventual family and their families, can take advantage of seeing my work.”