© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Central Standard

From Banking To Books: The KC Public Library's Crosby Kemper III

Paul Andrews/paulandrewsphotography.com
Crosby Kemper III.

On his 9th birthday, Crosby Kemper III realized that his family was different.

His aunt’s ex-husband had kidnapped his cousin, and the uncle was arrested by the FBI at the New Orleans airport. That incident made the front pages of newspapers all over the country.

“And it turned out that was more important in the family than my 9th birthday,” Kemper told guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR’s Central Standard. “It wasn’t my best birthday, though it was pretty exciting, in a way. Then, I realized there was something a little different anyway.”

Growing up Kemper

Crosby Kemper III shares a name with his father and grandfather, and he followed in their footsteps in running UMB Bank.

Then he stepped away from the family business to become the director of the Kansas City Public Library.

Growing up as a Kemper meant meeting interesting people — politicians, sports stars, artists and more. It also meant dealing with high expectations — and assumptions from others.

“They assume that you’re wealthy … they assume great wealth with vast resources. They assume power; I’m always amused by that in context of Kansas City. They also assume that you have knowledge of insider things that you may or may not have,” he said.

He grew up on Greenway Terrace in Kansas City, where he ran around with a neighborhood group of kids who had their hideout in a mini-wood of thick evergreen trees on their street. His parents were avid readers, and their dinner discussion tended to revolve around books, with trips to the encyclopedia to settle arguments, he said.

His father had a booming deep voice and was larger-than-life. “Literally larger — he was 6’7” and a half.” Kemper Jr. was a taskmaster, but he was also a loving father. His mother, who started the Performing Arts Foundation in KC, was a “pretty phenomenal person to be around in arts and literature,” he said.

“I had a great childhood. My parents were great parents when I was a child; they were very engaged with us and presented a life that was full of possibility,” he said.

He inherited his parents' love of reading.

He was always interested in history, he said, and around age 14, he became interested in political philosophy, and philosophy in general. While he doesn't have a favorite book, he goes back to Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Plato and Shakespeare.

"'Harold the Purple Crayon,' I like to say, was my first love as a book," he added.

He has about 25,000 books in his Crossroads apartment.

"People at my apartment building ... are worried about the collapse of the floors," he joked. The books, he said, are stacked double-deep (and sometimes triple-deep) on shelves.

"Which librarians are horrified by," he said. "They come in my personal library and shudder."

After going to boarding school at Andover and Eton, he went to Yale, where he studied history. Going off to school in the U.K and U.S. opened a larger intellectual world for Kemper. He believes that led to his career at the library.

During that time, his relationship with his family changed.

It was the late ‘60s. His mother had become a feminist. To his father, who was building his company, “that didn’t match,” he said, and they divorced.

Kemper had come back to KC; he worked for the bank and he also ran for the legislature.

“My father was disappointed that I wasn’t totally devoted to the bank. My mother was disappointed that I was still a conservative Republican when she’d become a fairly liberal feminist,” he said.

He pursued other interests as well: he tried to write; he taught English in China. He lived in New York with his first wife, whose father was a writer for the New Yorker. While she went to grad school at Columbia University, he worked in a bookstore and a T-shirt store.

“So, a completely different kind of life and lifestyle and place and another learning experience,” he said.

In the early 2000s, he became the CEO of UMB rather unexpectedly; his brother Sandy, who was slated to be the CEO, started eScout, an internet company within the bank.

Kemper, who had been the president of UMB in St. Louis, came home.

“It was kind of a rocky road for a lot of reasons,” he said. His father, who was technically retired, was in his office every day, and vice versa. 9/11 also had an effect on the bank.

According to Kemper, the new job also didn’t help his relationship with his father. That was the most difficult part, he said, so he left the bank after four years.

However, their relationship got on track the year before his father died.

“We spent a lot of great time together … the best time, actually, as an adult with him,” he said.

Credit Paul Andrews/paulandrewsphotography.com

Books and more

Then, the Kansas City Public Library came calling: they wanted him to solve some of the financial problems that “the library thought it had but it didn’t, really,” he said.

He agreed to be the interim director in 2005. It turned out the library had the opposite of a financial problem. They had some leftover money from a capital campaign, which they used for programming.

“And that turned out to be a great thing, and I turned out to really enjoy the people I was working with and thought I could do something for the community,” he said.

He describes himself as a librarian, and he says that he needs to present all legitimate points of view.

"And we do that; we have a great dialogue. If you look at our August calendar, we're presenting mostly people I wouldn’t always agree with, and we do a lot of that. We have a broad dialogue going on at the library."

He's also been vocal about local issues, such as TIF, the convention center hotel and the streetcar, which has put him at odds with some city leaders.

He contends that the library suffers because the city diverts money from the library, the school district and other groups to go to corporations.

"People in this community of an earlier generation who made a lot of money ... made sure they gave a lot of it back," he said. "And now we've got a lot of people who think that maybe they should take some money from the library and the school district to make even a little bit more money."

Kemper, who is also the co-founder of the Show Me Institute with Rex Sinquefield, says that the library job is pretty much his last job. He's 65, he said, and he wants to keep doing it for some time.

He has a mission for the next five years. He said that the library, the school district, the NAACP, and the teachers' union has sent a letter to the Civic Council, the Chamber and the Downtown Council about KC's tax policies.

"We need to come before you and explain how you are harming the children of this city with your tax policies," he said.

"We need to reverse that. Kansas City is doing things that harm children. Our vision of ourselves is that we're a place that's great for children. OK. Put your money where your mouth is. Stop taking money from the library and the school district," he said.

He doesn't see himself as a civic leader.

"I think of myself as somebody who loves the city," he said. "I think Kansas City is a wonderful place. I grew up here, and it's my home.

"My father was definitely a civic leader. I don't know if I am or not. I don't know if people see me that way, and I think other people have to believe it for it to be true."

He's never been a member of the Civic Council, and has never been asked to join. He's not invited to "a lot of those parties."

"A part of it is the stand I take on some issues in town. I'm seen as sort of the angry curmudgeon ... I think of myself as a realist."

But he's not particularly bothered by his position.

"No, I don't resent it," he said. "Actually, I have more time to read, so I'm happy about that."

Portrait Sessionsare intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.