Life’s Lessons Along the Trail
My aunt Nancy Sweeney was Miller Nichols’ executive assistant for more than 30 years, and despite a bit of an age gap, Miller was my buddy. Though I might not have realized it at the time, he was also an inspiring coach. In 1985, my good friend Anita Gorman, invited me to meet with Mr. Nichols and Saint Luke’s cardiologist Ben McCallister, co-chairs of the Mill Creek Park Fitness Trail and Beautification Board.
I was a fearless mid-20s father operating a landscape construction and commercial lawn-maintenance business. Anita was the commissioner/president of the Kansas City, Missouri Board of Parks & Recreation. Unknown to me, I was about to become a bit of a pack mule for this very wise and resourceful trio.
In the spring of 1986, we started clearing much of the wooded hillside and thoroughly cleaning up Mill Creek Park. There was a pretty healthy population of homeless folks living on the east side of the park in the shadow of the new American Century twin towers. I helped to remove hundreds of trees and planted hundreds more concurrent with the paving of what became a hugely popular walking and jogging trail with cardiovascular workout stations.
By mid-summer 1986, Mill Creek Park had become a pinnacle example of public-private collaboration. Saint Luke’s neighbored on the west side of what was then J.C. Nichols Parkway, and Miller Nichols and the J.C. Nichols Co. had built and then owned most of the properties throughout the Country Club Plaza. The Nichols family and their organization had massive skin in the game as they endlessly invested in this community.
J.C. Nichols’ son Miller and his wife Jeanette were the largest donors to design, construct and endow the maintenance and capital improvements of the J.C. Nichols Fountain—KC’s most iconic in America’s City of Fountains. Having worked closely with Anita, Ben, Miller and our board, donors and volunteers to rebuild a blighted park into one of the city’s most vibrant, I can’t emphasize enough the absolute inappropriateness of the parks board’s vote in 2020 to remove the J.C. Nichols name from the fountain and parkway.
What I witnessed not only with the redevelopment and landscape construction of this extraordinary park—and the fools with not an ounce of skin in the game who defamed and removed the Nichols family name—is a vivid example of both imperial and pathetic leadership at work.
‘We Have Cities to Build’
Working with Ben, Anita and Miller as a volunteer allowed me to do my part in a project I really believed in. I bid low to receive the mowing contract for Mill Creek Park in the mid-80s, to preserve the park and make it look terrific at all times. One Saturday at 5 a.m., I drove there with commercial mowing equipment, in advance of 50 or more volunteers who were to arrive at 8 a.m.
As I stepped out of the truck, I heard a chainsaw being used on the hill. At the time Miller Nichols was north of 80, but lo and behold, there he was manning the saw. “Miller, you’re cutting down the trees park administrators asked us not to remove.” It was then I learned the lesson that “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Miller would brook no opposition. “You’re either with me and will help, or get out of the way, son,” he said. We laughed, then worked hard to clear much of the hill by the time the volunteers arrived. He likely possessed a ‘Get of of Jail Card’ but I did not. That effort effectively moved a homeless camp and created a safer park.
Perhaps I was slacking at one point that morning when I sipped my coffee. “We have cities to build, Joe.” Considering his civic achievements, he’s one of the few folks who could get away with such a statement. After planting hundreds of trees that required watering, I mentioned our water trailer and truck was parked at my Crestwood home nearby. So Ben, Miller and I walked down the trolley trail. “Which home in Crestwood is yours?” said Nichols. “5515—third from the corner on the shady bend of Crestwood Drive.”
He knew precisely which one that was, and asked if I recalled the J.C. Nichols ad campaign that stated “We’ve sold your home, likely several times.” As a child, he had played on the sand pile in front of our home when the street was being built.
I knew at the time I was working with and being mentored by three remarkable icons. So were Mark McHenry and Steve Lampone, who both went on to serve in leadership roles for the parks department.
Leadership emerges through lessons learned from mentors, and by becoming disciplined to achieve, extending your resources beyond one’s means. I’ll never forget the experience of rebuilding this terrific park with such effective leaders.
I share this story as it is not unlike the many similar leadership stories in this 40 Under Forty edition. Michelle and I launched this recognition program in 1998 with a mission to research, select and profile as well as engage, encourage and help develop the careers of young leaders. In this issue, we name our 24th class, bringing to 960 the number of leaders engaged to build a greater Kansas City.
Congratulations and thank you to all of our honorees and to their colleagues and mentors who have
supported and invested in the 40 Under Forty program over the years.