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Remembering R. Crosby Kemper Jr., Icon Of Kansas City

The Kemper family

R. Crosby KemperJr., banker, philanthropist, and giant of Kansas City civic life, died last week at his friend's home in Indian Wells, Calif. He was 86.

Kemper was born in 1927 in Kansas City, the only son of R. Crosby Kemper Sr. and Enid Jackson Kemper.

Throughout his active life, many of his preoccupations reflected his family's legacy  — a long line of Kansas City aristocrats and leaders involved in banking, agriculture and politics. 

A banker's life

His grandfather was a successful grain trader, twice a Democratic candidate for mayor, and bank president. His father also became a bank president, and worked for the family grain business. R. Crosby Kemper Jr. would follow in the tradition of hard work and civic engagement.

His son, R. Crosby Kemper III , speaking on KCUR’s Up To Date said his father looked at the world as a place  in which to do the right thing.

"And he saw that as something related to his business career as well as to his philanthropic career,” Kemper III told host Steve Kraske.

After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, Mass., serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII, and attending University of Missouri, Kemper Jr. became the a fourth generation banker. He went to  work for his father at City National Bank and Trust. He started on the graveyard shift where he met trains and sorted checks, according to a family website. He became the president at the age of 36.

Kemper was a self-identified maverick, a trait perhaps first made public when he left his father’s bank to establish his own competing institution.

He successfully opened the Grand Avenue Bank at 18th and Grand, despite his father’s attempt to stop him.

Crosby Kemper III says his father was determined and ambitious his whole life.

“He was the kind of person … and I’ve known a few of them in my life but none more than he …every minute of his life he lived to the fullest. He wanted to suck the marrow out of life, and he really did,” Kemper III said.

Growing a national company

As the banking industry changed over the next two decades, the company expanded to form UMB Bank of St. Louis, to merge with banks in Kansas, and purchase banks in Colorado to become that state's largest state-chartered bank.

In 1994, the multi-bank holding company became known as UMB Financial Corporation.

Over the years the corporation expanded to offer a variety of financial instruments, including an e-commerce network, financial advisory services and its own family of mutual funds.

Civic leader, philanthropist

Kansas City will remember R. Crosby Kemper Jr. not only as the architect of a nationally recognized hometown bank, but as among the city’s most generous philanthropists.

Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony says that in 1982 some in the city were prepared to let the bankrupt Kansas City Philharmonic die, when Kemper stepped in with leadership and funds.

“Crosby was resolute. He had this passionate belief deep in his soul that this must happen, and he got together with a core group which included Don Hall , Sr., Henry Bloch, Paul Henson and others," said Byrne. "It was largely due to his force of personality that (the new Kansas City Symphony) became a reality.”

Kemper’s hand print is on the community’s visual arts community as well.

A generous contributor to the Nelson Atkins, he’s most associated with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum began with 300 pieces from the personal collection of Kemper and his wife, Bebe. Continuing support has allowed the museum to grow, now housing a collection of more than 1,200 works.

Barbara O'Brien, executive director of the Kemper Museum, says millions of people have been exposed to visual art through the generosity of Kemper Jr.

Credit The Kemper Family / rcrosbykemperjr.com
R. Crosby Kemper Jr. was a strong supporter of the arts in Kansas City.

“Mr. Kemper challenged all of us to love art, value its relationship to the civic life of a community, to know more about art and to appreciate it for its beauty and meaning in our lives,” O'Brien said.

Kemper Jr. also believed in preserving and promoting the regions animal agriculture heritage.

The family donated millions of dollars to the American Royal to build the Kemper Arena, in memory of Kemper Sr.

When the Future Farmers of America -which brought thousands of farm kids to Kansas City for an annual convention - moved to Louisville, Ky., Kemper established Agriculture Future of America. It was a broader organization aimed at encouraging young people to go into agriculture related businesses.

Mark Stewart with the AFA says Kemper saw the Midwest as the heart of American agriculture and agribusiness.

“Mr. Kemper believed strongly in agriculture as an industry and before you planted a seed in the ground and cultivated it," said Stewart. "People wouldn’t have the ability to make money and obviously work with their bank. And he believed in supporting students in agriculture academically.”

R. Crosby KemperJr. prided himself on being an independent thinker, a doer, and an altruist. Some might remember him for his strong opinions and uncompromising nature. Former Kansas City Mayor Richard L Berkley, who worked closely with him and considered him a friend, sees it differently.

"He should go down as one of the top citizens of this era. While some didn’t agree with him, and I didn’t at times, I think he had the best interests of the community at heart," said Berkley. "He was willing to go into some areas (where) others didn’t have an inclination to (go).”

In Kemper’s memory, the family requests contributions to the Agriculture Future of America, American Royal, Phillips Academy, Kansas City Symphony and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

A public memorial service is planned for 11:00 a.m., Thursday, Jan. 9, at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral , 415 West 13th Street in Kansas City, Mo.

The family has produced a website about the history of the Kemper family.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions. Email me at lauraz@kcur.org and follow me on Twitter @laurazig.
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