A Schoolboy Crush, a Teacher’s Kiss, and a Quest for Greatness

They certainly weren’t the first boys in history to develop a crush on their teacher. Who could blame them for their innocent preoccupation over Miss Brown? Matilda “Tillie” Brown was young, pretty, and she had that special gift of teaching and encouragement that caused her students to want to do their best.

Miss Brown taught high school English. Charlie and his best friend were star students in her classes. They listened attentively and tried their best on every assignment. It was Charlie, however, who proved to be the more gifted of the two boys. Miss Brown raved about his writing, giving him top marks on nearly every assignment.

Miss Matilda “Tillie” Brown (center right) and her fellow high school teachers. (Click on image to expand)

If his buddy was jealous about Charlie’s accomplishments, he only expressed it one time. That was on the day of their graduation. Charlie, deservedly, was the valedictorian. When he walked across the platform to receive his diploma, a delighted and proud Miss Brown rushed up on the stage and kissed the astonished young man on the cheek.

Charlie blushed and beamed. His friends cheered and congratulated him. His best friend, although pleased for Charlie, was more than a little jealous. “Can I have a kiss, too?” he asked his teacher. “Not until you have done something worthwhile,” she replied.

It seemed that Miss Brown had successfully identified Charlie as the student who was most likely to succeed. He went from high school to the University of Missouri, where he received a degree in journalism. He returned three years later as the school’s first professor of the newly-formed Missouri School of Journalism.

Charlie’s writing skills — for which he was always quick to credit Miss Brown for developing — earned him a career in journalism. He worked hard in his chosen profession and earned the Pulitzer Prize for his insightful exploration of the Herbert Hoover Administration’s policies regarding the Great Depression. More than just winning the Pulitzer Prize, he went on to work for Joseph Pulitzer, with responsibilities over the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Charlie’s friend didn’t fare quite so well after high school. Although gifted with a keen mind, his family just couldn’t afford the cost of college. He took one year of instruction from a business school, but that was all he could afford.

His career path seemed to be influenced by circumstances, rather than design. He made use of his brief business education to get a job for the railroad as a timekeeper. During this time he slept in hobo camps near the rail lines. He had a series of clerical jobs and worked for a little while as a bank clerk. Like Charlie, he worked at a newspaper, but only as a temporary employee of its mailroom.

He tried farming and worked hard at it, but never excelled. He tried speculating in mining and oil wells, but those efforts all failed, as well. Although he did manage to find some steady employment, finances would continue to be a problem for him for the rest of his life, and he would never achieve anything close to wealth until the day he died.

Throughout all of his attempts at greatness, he never forgot Miss Brown and her challenge to him: “Not until you have done something worthwhile.”

Charlie, meanwhile, was gaining national attention. He moved from the editorial page of the Post-Dispatch and became managing editor of the entire newspaper. This made him one of the most influential newsmen in the nation.

Miss Brown, for her part, kept her eye on her prize pupil. As Charlie kept her informed about his life and sought her advice, she was only too willing to offer whatever encouragement she could. One can only imagine the pride of the teacher — now retired — when her star student rose to international prominence by becoming the White House Press Secretary. It certainly seemed that she had chosen wisely in favoring young Charlie with that graduation day kiss!

Charlie’s buddy, meanwhile, had finally found his footing. As we have already noted, wealth would elude him for the rest of his days, but he did manage to settle in a career that seemed to suit him. He got involved in local politics and managed to get elected to a couple of county-wide offices. He briefly considered trying for something bigger, such as the governorship or the House of Representatives, but he was unable to get the needed support to launch a serious campaign.

Throughout their vastly-different careers, the two school buddies maintained their friendships, and Charlie frequently teased his friend about the kiss from their favorite teacher. “You’ll just have to do something worthwhile,” he reminded his buddy, “if you want to get the same treatment.”

Miss Matilda “Tillie” Brown, circa 1945.

Was it the promise of receiving that long-eluded kiss that inspired Charlie’s friend to keep trying for greatness? Certainly, there were other factors involved, such as a God-given tenacity, intellect, and ethical standard. Even so, we can be certain that at least a wee bit of friendly rivalry existed between the two friends, prompting the one to continually aspire to achieve what the other had gained.

We should mention that Miss Brown did not have eyes solely for Charlie. Once his friend started to find his way in life, his old teacher kept a watchful eye on him as well. With an almost-motherly pride, she saw both of her students take on and overcome all of the challenges and pitfalls life threw at them.

One day, as Charlie and his friend were together, the subject of Miss Brown came up. The two friends — now grown men — had never forgotten their teacher, and Charlie’s friend asked him to try to get her on the phone. He had a question for her.

   The Independence High School class of 1901. Charlie Ross is seated at lower left; Harry is third from the left in the top row. (Harry Truman Library)
The Independence High School class of 1901. Charlie Ross is seated at lower left; Harry Truman is third from the left in the top row. (Click on image to expand)

Miss Brown answered the phone, and Charlie handed the receiver to his buddy. After saying hello to his old English teacher, he asked if she remembered her promise to give him a kiss if he ever did anything worthwhile. She remembered. He asked, “Do I get that kiss?” Miss Brown immediately answered, “Come and get it.”

It wasn’t long after that phone call that Miss Tillie Brown received two very distinguished visitors. The 75-year-old retired English teacher nearly burst with pride as she welcomed her former students. It would have been a big enough deal to welcome White House Press Secretary Charlie Ross, but for a change, he was not the star of the show.

Instead, all eyes turned to Miss Brown as she welcomed Charlie’s buddy — and boss — and placed a kiss on the cheek of her student who had finally done something worthwhile: the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman.

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