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John R. Steelman

John Roy Steelman
Steelman (left) during Truman's vacation in 1950
1st White House Chief of Staff
In office
December 12, 1946 – January 20, 1953
President Harry S. Truman
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Sherman Adams
Personal details
Born (1900-06-23)June 23, 1900
Died July 14, 1999(1999-07-14) (aged 99)
Naples, Florida
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia
Political party Republican

John Roy Steelman (June 23, 1900 – July 14, 1999) was first person to serve as "The Assistant to the President of the United States", in the administration of President Harry S. Truman from 1946 to 1953. The office later became the White House Chief of Staff.

He was the only White House Chief of Staff to serve the full term of a president. He also holds the record for the longest term as Chief of Staff at six years.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Career 2
  • Personal 3
  • References 4

Early life and education

John Roy Steelman was born on a farm in Thornton, Arkansas to Pleasant C. Steelman and his wife, Martha Ann Steelman, née Richardson. After graduating from high school, he served in World War I. To save money for college tuition, he held jobs that included bookkeeping, logging and agriculture. He rode the railways to Wichita, Kansas, to work in the wheat fields and proudly recalled his time as a blanket stiff, the label used among hobos for a migrant laborer who carried his blanket with him.[1]

Steelman was a descendent of Olof Persson Stille, an immigrant to New Sweden and chief justice of one of its courts, some of whose descendents Anglicized their surname from Stille to Steelman.[2]

Steelman attended Henderson Brown College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas and graduated in 1922. He later went to Vanderbilt University, where he earned his MA in 1924. He received his Ph.D. in 1928 from University of North Carolina in economics and sociology. He was Professor of Sociology and Economics in Alabama College in Montevallo, Alabama from 1928–1934.[3]


After completing his Ph.D., Steelman embarked on a career in academia. He served as an instructor at Harvard University before becoming a professor of sociology at Alabama College. Frances Perkins, then Secretary of Labor, delivered the commencement address there in 1934. She met Steelman and admired his recent settlement of a labor dispute in Mobile, Alabama. Ken Hechler describes how impressed Perkins was with "the huge, open-faced, smiling man who taught economics but talked like a down-to-earth fellow...he seemed to know what he was talking about on all the labor issues that interested Secretary Perkins."[4] She convinced him to join the federal government as a member of the United States Conciliation Service, which assisted in settling labor disputes, and later became the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (United States). After three years he became Commissioner of Conciliation.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term, Steelman worked for a short time in New York City as a public relations consultant. But when Roosevelt died in 1945 and Vice President Harry Truman became President, Steelman returned to the federal government as an adviser to the Secretary of Labor. Later he became a special assistant to the President, serving as Director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion. In 1946, he became "The Assistant to the President." In 1948, he turned down the post of Secretary of Labor, preferring to stay at the White House, where he was particularly focused on establishing policies on science and higher education.

Before joining the White House, Steelman served as:

  • Commissioner of Conciliation, U.S. Conciliation Service, Department of Labor 1934–36
  • Special Assistant to the Secretary of Labor 1936–1937
  • Director, U.S. Conciliation Service, Department of Labor 1937–1944
  • Special Assistant to the President, 1945–1946
  • Director, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1946
  • Chairman, President's Scientific Research Board, 1946–1947
  • Assistant to the President, 1946–1953
  • Acting Chairman, National Security Resources Board, 1948–1950
  • Acting Director, Office of Defense Mobilization, 1952

After leaving the White House, Steelman became an Industrial Relations Consultant in Washington, D.C. from 1953–1968. From 1955 to 1969 he served in a variety of corporate roles:

  • President of the Montgomery Publishing Company
  • Chairman of the Board of the Record Publishing Company
  • Publisher of newspapers in Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville, Maryland


Steelman's first marriage to Ruth Emma Zimmerman and second marriage to Jean Mitchell ended in divorce. When he died of natural cause in July 1999, in Naples, Florida, at the age of 99, he was survived by his wife of 38 years, Ellen Brown Steelman.[5]

Political offices
Preceded by
New office
White House Chief of Staff
Served under: Harry S. Truman

Succeeded by
Sherman Adams


  1. ^ John Steelman, 99; From Riding the Rails to Top Truman Aide The New York Times, 22 July 1999
  2. ^ Olof Persson Stille and his Family by Dr. Peter Stebbins Craig. Swedish Colonial News, Volume 1, Number 16. Fall 1997
  3. ^ John Steelman, 99; From Riding the Rails to Top Truman Aide The New York Times, 22 July 1999
  4. ^ Ken Hechler, 'Working with Truman: A Personal Memoir of the White House Years,' University of Missouri Press, p. 45
  5. ^ Leading Truman Aide John R Steelman Dies at 99 from the Washington Post, accessed 4 May 2015
  • John R Steelman Papers
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