The high price of ignorance 

Harry Truman was a media hero, for a few weeks anyway.

No, not that Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, a straight-talking, whiskey-drinking Democrat who dropped a pair of atomic bombs on Japan, defeated Tom Dewey in a stunning upset in 1948 and loved history, America and his wife Bess.

I’m talking about Harry R. Truman, who died a horrific death when Mount St. Helens exploded on May 18, 1980. Like the other Harry, he loved a stiff drink and swore freely in front of reporters. But unlike the president, Harry R. Truman was a fool.

Still, he was a media sensation, known nationally, often interviewed and admired by many. Well, until he died in just the fashion that scientists and experts predicted for weeks.

America has long had a fascination with folk heroes who dismiss scientific facts, who ignore experts and scientists, who deny carefully researched data. It seems more prevalent today, with a president who ignores experts and stares at eclipses, rejects reports of climate change as icebergs collapse into the ocean, and refuses to accept environmental reports.

Men in large pickups, both over-amped, slam their foot onto the gas pedal to pour more black smoke into the skies. Senators hold up snowballs to dismiss concerns about global warming.

Ignorance is cheered and scholars mocked. Reality TV stars are celebrated and high-achievers are dismissed.

Harry R. Trumans are all around us.

The real Harry R. Truman owned the Mount St. Helens Lodge at the base of the volcanic mountain in Washington state. His wife Edna had died and he hadn’t maintained the lodge, which was overrun by his 16 pet cats and the raccoons that he had befriended. Harry, at 83, was winding down his life with regular glasses of Schenley whiskey and Coca-Cola, renting out cabins and boats in the summer, drinking heavily and talking with his pets.

Then, Mount St. Helens roared back to life. A massive earthquake announced that the volcano was once again active. The state of Washington, relying on the guidance of seismologists and geologists, advised locals to evacuate. Most did — but Harry stayed out.

He scoffed at the experts. Harry said he knew the mountain better than they did. Plus, there were thousands of trees and Spirit Lake between him and the volcano. He’d be fine, he told reporters.

“Oh, I’d stay right here and watch it,” Harry said in an interview you can hear on YouTube. “No, it’s too far away from me. Couldn’t hurt me.”

He found out differently at 8:32.17 a.m. Sunday, May 18, 1980, when the entire north side of the mountain gave way and the volcano caused the largest landslide ever recorded. Harry was dead in a flash — literally. Some scientists believe it was a painless death, since he may well have evaporated in the heat flash.

He was one of an estimated 57 people to die in the explosion, including a local journalist assigned to covering the impending disaster, and a photographer who snapped pictures as the eruption occurred. He covered his camera with his body as the ash cloud rushed toward him, and it was found, the film recovered and developed. Newspapers and magazines published the shots.

I was at St. Helens in 1990. My sister Mary visited me when I lived in nearby Portland, and she and I drove up to Mount St. Helens. It was eerie to see the mountain grow larger as we approached. We stopped for lunch at a diner with a picture window that perfectly framed the volcano, and were surprised to learn none of the locals chatting, sipping beer and watching TV had visited the famous mountain.

We found it amazing and otherworldly. It reminded us of photos and video from the moon, with huge expanses of lava-encrusted land and wild outcropping. We saw no evidence of Harry or his lodge. He had vanished.

Fame is fleeting, and as Harry learned the hard way, facts do matter. I hope we all don’t end up with a similar fiery fate.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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