A youth spent amid the conflagration of war-torn Europe leads to a dream, and the dream changes the face of Kansas City.
In 1992, President George Bush nominated local industrialist and philanthropist Don Alexander to be U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. Not until The New York Times reported on Alexander’s background on the eve of that confirmation did anyone know how harrowing was his early life and how incredible was his journey.
Unfortunately, The Times’ motive in telling that story was to kill Alexander’s nomination. This, the newspaper attempted to do by visiting the sins of the father on his innocent son. Not only was this bad ethics, but it was also bad journalism. The Times missed one hell of a saga.
There are few living Americans who were born in as unsettled a time and place as Alexander was. The place was Amsterdam. The time was July 1938. Four months before Alexander was born, Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria. Two months after he was born, the British and French capitulated to Hitler at Munich.
The Dutch responded to the growing power and belligerence of their German neighbors in a variety of ways. Alexander’s mother, for instance, saved sugar. His father joined the NSB, the Dutch Nazi party. Shortly after Alexander’s first birthday, the Germans invaded Poland, and the war was on.
“Looking back,” says Alexander, “I think my father pulled his sense of self from the power of the Germans.” A struggling small-time entrepreneur, Titus Herman Buitenhuis could never quite get a business off the ground. Alexander’s older sister designated her father “Lord Almost.”
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, Lord Almost finally came into his own. The Nazis appointed him the mayor of a small city in the northern part of the country called Schagen. The four-year-old Alexander moved there in 1942 with his mother, brother and sister. His oldest brother had already joined the SS.
As 1942 yielded to 1943 and 1943 to 1944, Alexander could see for himself that the balance of power across Europe was shifting. The Allied planes were coming to dominate the skies, and his Schagen neighbors were scrambling to find food enough to survive.
In April 1944, his father was named mayor of Naarden,
a walled city about 15 miles southeast of Amsterdam. Naarden was closer to the center of action. Allied bombers flew over almost daily.
Two months later, the Allied forces landed in Normandy. Rumors of an Allied advance into the Netherlands spread throughout the country, and Alexander fled with his mother, brother and sister, the Allies strafing their train from above as it headed into Germany.
In the last year of war in Germany, as in much of Europe, being hungry was just being part of being alive. Now six years old, Alexander and his family scrounged for food and coal like everyone else.
Horrified by the Russian advance from the east, Alexander’s mother rounded up her kids and headed back west into the chaos of a collapsing Netherlands. The very day the Netherlands was liberated, Alex-
ander’s father was arrested and imprisoned. His brother was imprisoned soon after.
A Realization, and a Goal
The iconic image of an American family—father, mother, boy, girl and their dog—became young Don Alexander’s idea of The American Dream. He quickly made it his own goal in life.
For the next several years, while they remained in prison, Alexander lived like a pariah in his own country, needing an armed guard just to get to school and back. By this time, he was old enough to understand that his father and brother deserved to be treated the way they were.
Around about the age of nine, Alexander had something of an epiphany. He saw an image in a stray copy of The Saturday Evening Post. The image was of an American family—a father, a mother, a boy, a girl and their faithful collie. They were standing in front of a perfect suburban house, dressed as if for church, with a shiny new Buick waiting in the driveway.
That, for Alexander, was the Amer-ican Dream. “From the time I first saw this picture,” said Alexander, “I was determined to make this dream come true in the one and only place where that was possible.”
In an impressive display of will, Alexander focused his academic ener-
gies on achieving his goal. In 1961, he secured a scholarship to study at Washburn University. “Even today I get emotional when I think about the power of that vision laid out before me,” says Alexander of the day his ship arrived in New York harbor, “the sheer magnificent spectacle of it, made all the more special because I had dreamed of this moment since I was a little boy.”
In 1963, Donald Alexander Buiten-huis came back to America, this time to stay. In Wichita, he met the son of a Dutch immigrant by the name of Fred Koch. They hit it off, and Alexander never looked back. He officially dropped the Buitenhuis—“No one could pronounce it any way”—and became the All-American “Don Alexander.”
Within a few years, The Saturday Evening Post cover—boy, girl, pretty wife, Buick, collie—was his life. “Now it was left for me to make something of it,” says Alexander.
That he did, rising through the ranks of Commerce Trust in Kansas City before turning entrepreneur, acquiring new companies, fixing them up, turning them around. In time, he turned his sales skills to raising money for good causes—Truman Medical Cen-ter, Avila, Marillac Center for Children. “I can never do enough to pay America back for what it has given me,” says Alexander.
Still haunted by the injustices done to Jews, even by his own family members, Alexander involved himself in Jewish causes. It heartened him greatly that his Jewish friends came to his support when The Times exposed his family’s Nazi past in 1992.
The goal of the newspaper was likely to reinforce the spurious link between Republicans and Nazis. The hit job worked. Knees grew weak, and Alexander was denied the ambassadorship.
Still, Alexander remembers that time of his life fondly. It was during that same period that his beloved wife Christine agreed to marry him. The relationship would transform his life.
“In the years to come,” says Alex-ander, “I hope to be able pay back society for all the blessings the Lord has sent my way.”