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Richard Berkley, Kansas City's longest-serving mayor who moved 'swiftly' in tragedy, dies at 92

This picture of Richard Berkley with his wife Sandy was taken the morning after he won his first election as Kansas City mayor in 1979.
Richard Berkley
This picture of Berkley with his wife Sandy was taken the morning after he won his first election as mayor in 1979.

Richard Berkley served a record three terms as Kansas City's mayor, from 1979 to 1991, and was the first Jewish mayor in city history. His tenure was defined in large part by his quick response to the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse, a disaster that killed 114 people and injured hundreds more.

Richard L. Berkley, who served an unprecedented 12 years as the 50th mayor of Kansas City, died Wednesday. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his cousin, Tension Corporation president Bill Berkley.

Bill says he was the second person to work on Berkley's first mayoral campaign. "And he was the kind of mayor that was never too busy to take a call or help someone who needed help," Bill said.

Kansas City leaders offered their condolences and praise for Berkley's leadership.

"Mayor Berkley leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of service to our community," Mayor Quinton Lucas wrote in a statement. "I was one among many who were honored to receive his thoughtful advice, a few of his photographs, and fortunate to have had the chance to know him."

“Today, I’ve lost a dear friend and Kansas City has lost an iconic leader," former Kansas City mayor and current U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver wrote. "Dick Berkley offered the calm, collected, and utterly effective leadership that helped transform Kansas City into the major metropolitan area it is today."

Berkley was mayor of Kansas City from 1979 to 1991, the only mayor in the city’s history to serve three terms. Known as a “nice guy” even by his detractors, Berkley's tenure was largely scandal free, no small achievement in a city that remains indelibly associated with the corrupt Pendergast machine of the 1920s and 1930s.

“Dick Berkley was as ethical and honest a human being as I’ve ever known in my life,” said Jerry Riffel, who was elected to replace Berkley on the council’s 4th District seat in 1979, the year Berkley was first elected mayor. “He was a perfect image setter and a consummate leader with respect to neighborhood issues who constantly stayed in touch with all aspects of city government.”

Willing, indeed eager, to attend countless ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Berkley presided over a period of steady growth in the city — although during his tenure, downtown Kansas City remained a wasteland of crumbling infrastructure and massage parlors whose declining fortunes awaited reversal by his successors.

In the last three years of his tenure, taxpayers approved $1.3 billion in capital improvements for expansion of Bartle Hall and the Kansas City Zoo, Brush Creek flood control and beautification, the Jazz Hall of Fame, the American Royal Arena, and a third runway and garage at Kansas City International Airport. Major developments on Quality Hill and in the River Market area began to sprout on the edges of downtown.

"Dick was the biggest proponent and champion and cheerleader for Kansas City," Bill Berkley said. "He absolutely loved this community."

Courtesy Photo
Dick Berkley
Richard Berkley and New York Mayor Ed Koch enjoy some ribs from Gates BBQ. "He just wasn’t educated in rib eating," Berkley commented on Koch’s use of a fork.

Although sometimes criticized for elevating style over substance and not exerting enough control over the Kansas City Council, Berkley achieved a level of popularity among voters rarely reached by politicians, let alone one whose combined public service totaled 22 years.

Berkley wore his love of the city on his sleeve, and even his critics acknowledged that he worked extraordinarily hard. Few questioned his probity, even if he was sometimes taken to task for his unwillingness to take forceful positions on some of the issues of the day.

He was a consensus builder more inclined to conciliate than fight. Berkley often frustrated reporters with his unwillingness to go on the record. And even when he did, he had a penchant for wanting to revise his statements afterward lest he offend or be seen as saying something controversial.

“As a retail politician, Berkley was indefatigable,” Jim Fitzpatrick, who covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star during parts of Berkley’s tenure, told KCUR before his death earlier this year. “He went to hundreds of neighborhood meetings and slowly but surely developed the name identity and public familiarity that carried him to victory in ’79 and got him re-elected in ’83 and ’87. He found political success the tried-and-true way, being ubiquitous and likable.”

'Very oriented toward consensus'

Berkley said that he liked meeting people, and he met many of them — whether other politicians, entertainment celebrities, sports stars, or average Joes. He was an inveterate shutterbug before the age of the selfie, snapping pictures of people he met and then sending them the photos with a personal note penned on the back.

"To this day, I run into people all over the community who tell me that they still have the photos that Dick took of them or whatever event was going on," Bill Berkley said.

During his first term, Berkley contended with a couple of firefighter strikes, the collapse of the roof of Kemper Arena after a snowstorm and one of the greatest disasters in the city’s history: The collapse of the skywalks of theHyatt Regency Hotel in Crown Center on July 17, 1981,leaving 114 people dead.

Berkley and his wife Sandy were throwing a party at their home when they got word of an “accident” at the hotel. They raced to the scene, where the carnage they witnessed would haunt them for years to come. The Kansas City Star described Berkley as weeping the next day at an emergency session of the city council.

An unidentified man walks through the scattered wreckage in the lobby of Kansas City's Hyatt Regency Hotel on Sunday, July 19, 1981. Two catwalks spanning the lobby crashed onto a crowded dance floor on a Friday night.
Associated Press
An unidentified man walks through the scattered wreckage in the lobby of Kansas City's Hyatt Regency Hotel on Sunday, July 19, 1981. Two catwalks spanning the lobby crashed onto a crowded dance floor on Friday night.

Virtually alone on the city council, he demanded a federal investigation and denounced the removal of evidence from the scene.

“Dick had the reputation, which is accurate, of being very oriented toward consensus and maybe taking a step back to take a closer look at a complex issue,” said Kay Barnes, who was then on the city council and later served as mayor from 1999 to 2007.

“And in contrast, I really saw a different Dick Berkley, or a different side of him, when the Hyatt tragedy occurred, because he swiftly moved into action. He was quick to assign different responsibilities to staff people, council members and so on. And he was very attentive to the families of the victims and was very present on the human side of the event.”

It was a display of forceful leadership that helped rally the city during one of the lowest moments in its history. And while it cost him the support of some high-powered businessmen behind the hotel’s redevelopment corporation, it helped secure his legacy as someone who cared deeply about his hometown.

“As a member of Kansas City’s business elite, Berkley could have demurred on that, which no doubt would have pleased the Hall family,” Fitzpatrick recalled, referring to the owners of Hallmark Cards, which was instrumental in the redevelopment of Crown Center. “But he rightly chose to call for the disaster to be placed under the arc lights of a federal investigation.”

Courtesy Photo
Dick Berkley
Richard Berkley in the Cabinet room of the White House, where President Ronald Reagan presided over a meeting.

Berkley was the city’s first Jewish mayor — although he rarely discussed his Jewish background — and its first Republican mayor since the 1920s. (The city’s mayoral election is non-partisan, but Berkley identified as a Republican.)

"In this moment of bitter polarization, I’ll always remember his refusal to look at life through a partisan lens," Cleaver wrote in his statement. "Although he was a Republican, and I a Democrat, I cannot recall a single moment when Mayor Berkley was anything less than helpful, supportive, and committed to the progress and unity of our communities—because that was all that mattered in his eyes. I believe that is something to be treasured, and something that will be sorely missed."

Before defeating fellow city councilman Bruce R. Watkins, who was vying to become Kansas City’s first African American mayor, Berkley served on the city council for 10 years and was mayor pro tem from 1971 to 1979, when Charles Wheeler was mayor.

“Berkley and I were working well together, he as the Republican mayor pro tem and me as the mayor, a Democrat, but not in a partisan system of government,” said Wheeler, Berkley’s immediate predecessor as mayor, in a July 2019 interview with KCUR.

“I liked Berkley as a Republican and let him handle the legislature and I handled the administration and signed the bills to make them laws," Wheeler said.

Personal life

Courtesy Photo
Dick Berkley
Richard Berkley poses with his wife, Sandy, burlesque star Tempest Storm and Walter Cronkite at the reopening of the Folly Theatre. After warning the photographer that the gathering was off the record, Cronkite asked the photographer to hand over his film.

Richard L. Berkley was born Richard L. Berkowitz on June 29, 1931, to a well-to-do family. The Berkleys owned Tension Envelope Corp., which was founded in 1886 by Berkley’s grandfather, William Berkowitz, and Berkley variously served as the company’s treasurer and on its board of directors.

In a retrospective on his career shortly before he stepped down as mayor, The Kansas City Star noted that his childhood was less than idyllic. “In one year, when he was 8, his 17-year-old brother died of a fever, his father suffered a heart attack and his parents divorced,” The Star wrote.

Berkley got his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1953 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1957.

His first wife, Janice Doppler, contracted multiple sclerosis and became bedridden within two years of her diagnosis, unable to speak or move. Hoping for some kind of recovery, Berkley waited seven years and then, with the permission of her parents and mutual friends, filed for divorce, according to a 1979 profile in The Star. He continued to visit her after she was institutionalized.

In 1975, he married Sandy Eicholtz and adopted her son, Jon. Berkley also had a daughter, Elizabeth, by his marriage to Janice.

Berkley is survived by his wife, two kids and three grandchildren.

Wheeler said he was surprised that Berkley did not pursue a lifelong career in politics after his three terms as mayor.

“Dick was a very talented Republican,” Wheeler said, “and I thought he'd move on to high office, but he chose to retire from running for office.”

Updated: November 29, 2023 at 7:23 PM CST
This story has been updated to correct Bill Berkley's relationship to Dick Berkley. It was also updated to clarify that Jim Fitzpatrick's interview with KCUR happened before Fitzpatrick's death in February 2023.
Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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