20/20 Visionaries

Ingram's Archive Series

Kansas City today still reflects the dreams of those who—correctly—saw the potential and the promise at a place where two rivers met near the prominence of a high hill.

We are all beholden to those who came before us—in some cases, long before us.

Think about it: If you drive into Downtown to work from Olathe or Liberty on I-35, or from Independence on I-70, or Smithville on U.S. 169, it’s because somebody else made decisions, decades ago, that compel us to take those routes in the 21st century. But the people who built those same roads, in many cases, were following pathways carved out of a prairie by the generations who preceded them.

Examples abound in which the long-ago vision has endured the challenges of time, and proven to be the right call. In others, there’s a gigantic, community-wide wish for a do-over—think placement of Kemper Arena. Or Truman Sports Complex. Or the costs to recreate a light-rail line ripped out of the city’s heart more than half a century ago.

But who made the decisive first moves that put Kansas City here, as opposed to miles further up or down the Missouri River? Who determined that the biggest growth would be to the south and west, instead of the north and east? And can someone please identify the person responsible for placing that cursed state line smack in the middle of things?

The answers to some of those questions, but not all, follow. A review of Kansas City’s rich history turns up the names of those who pioneered the region, pushed our borders in new directions, set the stage for growth of companies and sectors that dominate our business landscape today, and helped give this place we call home some of the unique characteristics that make it… well, home.

Virtually all of the people on this list have departed this world, many of them more than a century ago. So only through the efforts of other visionaries, who chronicled Kansas City’s leading lights long ago, do we know details of the contributions these luminaries made. That goes especially for Carrie Westlake Whitley, who penned many of their biographies with Kansas City and Its People: 1808–1908, and a more contemporary figure, the Jackson County Historical Society’s Steve Noll, who helped us refine the roster of visionaries we cite below.

It is, alas, a list that reflects the culture of early Kansas City as it was, not as we wish it would have been. It was a time when women and minorities were relegated to roles that didn’t lend themselves to extensive entries in history books. For reasons like that, and others, no list like this will ever be complete in everyone’s mind. There’s always room for argument about who belongs and whose contributions are being inflated. But here’s a starting point for a roster of people whose vision helped write the Kansas City story we know today.

And it starts, as lots of stories do, with a beginning . . .

Yes, Lewis & Clark were here first, but that was more of a campout than a community vision. So we tee this off with Francois Chouteau (1797–1838). You probably know him as the namesake for a local trafficway and a pair of bridges spanning the Missouri River at various times. But the man dubbed “Father of Kansas City”—why is it there’s never a “Mother of Kansas City” citation?—was part of a fur-trapping family that moved into what is now Clay County, back in 1819. And if you ever wondered where the Kansas City-St. Louis rift really started, perhaps it was with this guy: He was the original St. Louis transplant, having been born there.

Octave Chanute (1832–1910) didn’t live here long, and indeed, he might be more revered in the town named after him down in southeast Kansas. But his greater municipal impact came here. Not only did this native Frenchman build the original Kansas City stockyards; he was the bridge designer who gave a fledgling city the Hannibal bridge in 1869. By beating out Leavenworth for that vital crossing on the Missouri River, this burg witnessed explosive growth that made it the trailhead for expansion into the American West.

Somewhere, a trademark-infringement lawsuit must have been involved, for John Calvin McCoy (1811–1889) also found his way into historical citations as the “Father of Kansas City.” An Indiana native, he came to Kansas City and started farming further to the south, away from the floodplain. His community, originally dubbed Westport, long ago became part of the city; we know it as a thriving commercial and entertainment hub, with a brewpub that bears his name occupying the land he once tilled.

Jim Bridger (1804–1881) brought Kansas City some notoriety, but not by virtue of what he did here. After making a name for himself as a mountain man and explorer of the American West, he bought a home close to McCoy’s in the Westport area and lived out his last 15 years farming in that area.

John B. Wornall (1822–1892) had sophisticated tastes in housing—his spread at 61st Terrace and, conveniently enough, Wornall Road, is a history museum today—but as a slaveholder, he was caught up in the issues that fueled the original Border War of the 1850s. A native of Kentucky, he became a notable early banker here, a key figure in the early development of William Jewell College in Liberty, and served a term in the Missouri Senate.

Even though he didn’t arrive here until he was 31, Robert Thompson Van Horn (1824–1916) literally bore witness to Kansas City’s birth and emergence as a city. He quickly became known in the area after buying The Kansas City Enterprise (later, The Journal). Through his newspapers, he became a voice for growth, business expansion and, eventually, support for the Union in the Civil War. He was witness to the Battle of Westport as a colonel in the Union Army, and later became mayor, state senator and U.S. representative.

Joseph Guinotte (1815–1867) was a Belgian civil engineer who came to Kansas City quite by chance—King Leopold I had commissioned him to help build a railroad in Mexico to serve Belgian interests there. But lured by his association with Francois Chouteau’s family, he came here, acquired an impressive 1,200 acres in what is now the East Bottoms, and began recruiting his former countrymen to this region. Side note: His four children all became prominent in Kansas City life; Lydia Avenue is named after one of his daughters.

George Edward Muehlebach (1833–1905) did not earn fame as a hotelier—his son opened the Hotel Muehlebach a decade after the elder’s death. But George Sr. gave Kansas City more and better beer as co-founder of George Muehlebach Brewing Co. in 1869. So he gets in as a visionary for that line of work alone, and we’re confident the contemporary beer barons in this region’s burgeoning microbrewery scene would second that with raised glasses.

Nehemiah Holmes (1826–1873) is praised as father of the city’s original streetcar system. Just like its modern variant, it started as an abbreviated line; unlike later versions, the horsepower wasn’t electric—it came from the real deal. That was in 1869, before “expansion” to a four-wheeled cart, drawn by two horses. It ran from what’s now Downtown to Westport, with 15-cent fares for one-way, and a quarter for the round trip—better than $6 in today’s lucre. If he made a profit at those rates, he was indeed a visionary. And yes, that’s his name gracing Holmes Road.

William Vliet (1827–1893) was an engineer in Kansas City well before it became an engineering center of excellence for the nation. He came from an engineering family (Vliet Street in Milwaukee is named after his father, who surveyed that city) and was himself a bridge builder and contractor. His work allowed Union Pacific to expand its reach across the American West.

Thomas Swope (1827–1909), was a Kentucky native and Yale University graduate who came to Kansas City in 1857, and brought with him enough money to start buying large tracts of land. Before he was done, he would become the largest landholder in the city, and we reap the benefits of his realty acumen and philanthropy yet today—the 1,334 acres he donated to the city in 1896, when that tract was still four miles from the city limits, is now known as Swope Park.

Clinton Burns (1871–1924) and Robert McDonnell (1872–1960) earn dual recognition, their names still linked 116 years after they founded a small engineering firm in Kansas City. The two Stanford graduates came here in 1898 because their analysis of America’s water-system infrastructure needs indicated there would be more opportunities in this region than any other nationwide. Today, Burns & McDonnell, still growing, is among the nation’s largest engineering firms.

In the What-Are-The-Odds? Department, two more early 20th century engineers and college classmates. But Ernest Black (1882–1949 and Nathan Veatch (1886–1975), set up their engineering firm in 1915 not simply because of opportunities they’d calculated, but because it was home: Both were graduates of the University of Kansas. Black & Veatch, the firm they started with 10 employees, today has a thousand times that work force, in engineering, design and construction settings worldwide.

Thomas Unthank (1866–1932), was able to experience early 20th-century race relations from the perspective of the aggrieved: he was a black physician who came here after graduating from Howard University School of Medicine in 1898. Five years later, when the city was slammed by flooding, patients were packed into a makeshift hospital at the Convention Hall—and separated by color. He treated the minority victims, then began a crusade to build a hospital for minorities here. And he got it: General Hospital No. 2, a forerunner of today’s Truman Medical Center.

Alice Graham (1850–1913) and Katherine Richardson (1858–1933) were the Kentucky-born daughters of Stephen and Harriet Berry, and they were drawn to medicine after losing their mother when Katherine was just three. Alice became a dentist, and Katherine a surgeon with few opportunities to treat the sick—women weren’t allowed on the surgical staffs of Kansas City’s hospitals in that era. In 1897, their compassion for the plight of a 5-year-old with crippling injuries prompted them to rent a bed for her at a maternity hospital, planting the seed for what today is one of the nation’s premier pediatric health-care leaders, Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics.

William Rockhill Nelson (1841–1915) earned fame as founder of The Kansas City Star (in 1880), but this Indiana native also had a knack for real estate and animal health. Pity that his will ordered the eventual demolition of Oak Hall, his mansion near Brush Creek, but it must have been a doozy: The remains of his estate were sufficient to fund construction of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a gift he left behind for the city that made him wealthy. He also owned a 2,400-acre farm in eastern Jackson County where livestock-breeding techniques were researched—in some ways, a forerunner to the animal-health corridor so vital to the regional economy a century later.

German-born George Kessler (1862–1923) was raised in America from age 3, but went back to Europe to study civic design. Good thing for us, too: After making his way here in the 1880s, he helped turn the Hyde Park area from a geographic depression into a fashionable neighborhood. And as the city’s first landscape architect, he helped design a system of boulevards and parks, later replicated in cities around the nation, that gives Kansas City its roomy, wide-open feel yet today.

R.A. Long (1850–1934) made his fortune in lumber—twice—providing raw materials that built Kansas City and, later, Seattle. But he also was a developer, newspaper owner, and philanthropist. His lumber interests at one time spanned a quarter-million acres in parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, and he was a partner in the world’s largest lumber company. His gifts to this area included the 2,000-acre Longview Farm, in Lee’s Summit, and his residence while in town, Corinthian Hall in northeast Kansas City, is now the Kansas City Museum.

In Kansas City banking circles, Kempers have been as numerous as snowflakes in a blizzard, but they all trace their lineage to William T. Kemper (1866–1938), the patriarch of the family that has given us our two largest locally owned banks, Commerce and UMB. He also was a grain merchant, railroad investor (they found oil on his rights-of-way, for goodness sake), and astute assessor of prospective employees—a young fellow name of Harry Truman landed a job at Kemper’s bank in 1903.

Adjusted for inflation, William Volker (1859–1947) amassed a fortune of more than $240 million in today’s dollars—and set out to give the bulk of it back to Kansas City. Picture frames and window blinds must have been very big business back then, for that’s how Volker made it big. His philanthropic legacy includes donation of 40 acres that would incubate a new university, just south of Nelson’s art gallery site—today’s University of Missouri–Kansas City.

Speaking of that campus, there’s another father figure to recognize: Ernest Newcomb (1886–1979), hailed as the Father of UMKC. An educator who arrived here in 1925, he hoped to start a Methodist College—envisioned as Lincoln & Lee University, a title meant to help assuage ill feelings lingering from the Civil War era—but later settled on a non-sectarian university. Kansas City University opened in 1933, and Newcomb was its managing executive until 1938.

William Deramus Jr. (1888–1965), never made it to high school, but he learned all there was to know about railroading from the tracks up. After starting as a telegraph operator for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, he made his way to Kansas City Southern in 1909 and worked his way up to president by 1941. He’s credited with helping KCS navigate the financial perils of the Depression and with encouraging industry to build along its lines to the south, positioning the railroad for success with eventual expansion in to Mexico.

He’s been gone nearly a third of a century, but the lasting impact of Joyce C. Hall (1891–1982) on this region endures. A Nebraska native whose life epitomized Kansas City entrepreneurship, he rose from poverty to build a multi-billion-dollar company. And he did it with only a vision and a pair of shoeboxes, stuffed with greeting cards, that he brought with him on the bus trip here. Among the lasting gifts he left to Kansas City—beyond an understanding that excellence begets wealth, not vice versa—is the Hall Family Foundation, an $819 million heavyweight that dispenses more than $35 million in annual gifts.

Another signature story of entrepreneurial vision here was authored by Henry and Richard Bloch with their founding of H&R Block in 1955. Henry is still with us, but Richard (1926–2004) died a decade ago—a full 26 years after the doctors who diagnosed his lung cancer had given him just three months to live. Building a billion-dollar business is impressive on its own merits, but consider this: Richard entered the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania when he was just 16. And Henry has bequeathed many a crown jewel across Kansas City, including the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins and the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at UMKC.

She was a visionary, all right, but Atchison’s Amelia Earhart (1897–1937) paid for it with her life as a woman pioneering the aviation field. The first of her gender to match Charles Lindbergh’s feat of flying solo across the Atlantic, she inspired generations of girls to believe they could do most anything a man could.

The truth is, Walt Disney (1901–1966) failed at business in Kansas City with his Laugh-O-Gram studio before he figured out that whole animation thing in Hollywood. But with the help of other Kansas Citians he recruited to the coast, including his brother, Roy, he helped bring innovation to the cartooning business, made some of the greatest classics in animation.

Almost no surprise: We have another father figure to cite. This time, it’s Henry Perry (1875–1940), generally regarded as the Father of Kansas City-Style Barbecue. The Memphis native moved here when he was 32, and made his living by selling smoked meats to workers in the garment district. He taught those smoking skills to Charlie Bryant, brother of barbecue legend Arthur, and Arthur Pinkard, who worked for George Gates in the early years of Gates and Sons B-B-Q. A visionary indeed.

J.C. Nichols (1880–1950) left legacies that we live in, dine in and shop in today—homes in residential neighborhoods built to last, and The Country Club Plaza, a one-of-a-kind setting that changed the way developers looked at aggregations of restaurants, retail outlets and nightspots. Neighborhoods he created nearly a century ago are still some of the most prestigious residential addresses in the city. And we can’t overlook the contributions of his son, Miller Nichols (1911–2000); he oversaw his father’s legacy, and many other developments, for more than 40 years.

John Ernst Dunn founded a small, family-run residential construction company in 1924. That was the seed; today, the company bears his name, but it’s nothing like a small home-builder: J.E. Dunn Construction Group is one of the largest general building contractors in the nation, with revenues that routinely exceed $2 billion, 20 locations coast-to-coast, and more than 1,100 employees in this area alone.

As a visionary, Lamar Hunt (1932–2006) could see well beyond most men’s horizons. He saw the potential for a competitor to a slow-to-expand National Football League in 1959, giving us the American Football League and helping football challenge baseball as America’s pastime. He moved his Dallas franchise here, giving us the Chiefs (and our Super Bowl shining moment in 1970), he saw the potential of soccer, leading to the forerunner of today’s Sporting Kansas City. And he helped establish Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun.

Stan Durwood (1921–1999), was a pioneer on multiple levels: As founder and chief executive of the AMC theater chain, as the man who conceived the notion for multi-screen theaters, and as a powerful voice for remaking Downtown Kansas City to restore the luster lost after the postwar dash to the suburbs. He died before the urban village he envisioned—the Power & Light District—came to fruition, but his civic nudge helped steer us to that project’s 2007 opening.

No accounting of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial visionaries would be complete without noting the lasting contributions of Ewing Kauffman (1916–1993). The success of Marion Labs, his pharmaceutical giant, is an inspirational tale in itself. But that success made him wealthy enough to buy a professional baseball team and bring the sport back to Kansas City with the Royals in 1969. His foundation has developed a world-class reputation for promotion of entrepreneurship.

Jack Lockton (1942–2004) had a vision that started in his home, with a small agency selling insurance and surety bonds. Over the next four decades, he and his successor as chairman, brother David, built it into the world’s largest private insurance brokerage.

Min Kao and Gary Burrell changed the way the world gets around by founding Garmin International in 1989. The Olathe company has become a global leader in GPS technologies, not just for the automotive, but for aviation, marine use, and even wearable devices.

James Stowers created wealth for untold thousands of clients with American Century Investments. Stowers, who died this year, and his wife, Virginia, created something that may be far more beneficial to the financial future of Kansas City as a whole, by forcibly expanding a nascent life-sciences sector through donations of roughly $2 billion, the bulk of the fortune amassed during Stowers’ lifetime.

We conclude with a trio of visionaries: the founders of Cerner Corp. There’s a good chance the company is now the largest private employer in the Kansas City region, having recently passed 15,000 employees worldwide. And the company expects to have more 31,000 by 2025. The health-care IT company founded by Neal Patterson, Cliff Illig and Paul Gorup in 1979 has also spawned a number of spin-offs from employees who answered the songs of their own entrepreneurial sirens, and the growing status of Kansas City as an center of excellence for IT and innovation is testament to that impact.