R. Crosby Kemper Jr., a towering personality, banker, philanthropist and self-described “maverick” Kansas City civic and arts booster, died Thursday in Indian Wells, Calif. He was 86.
For 30 years, Kemper led UMB Financial Corp. Succeeding his father, he grew the family bank into a regional power with billions in loans and assets. Since 2004, UMB has been in the hands of his son, the sixth Kemper to lead the bank.
“Kansas City has lost one of its true giants,” Jim Heeter, president and chief executive of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said Friday.
UMB served as the platform from which Kemper became a major supporter and contributor to agriculture, the arts and enterprise in Kansas City and, briefly, a dabbler in politics.
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In a clubby town that presumed its corporate power brokers would quietly reach consensus and support one another’s civic projects, Kemper’s impulse was to go it alone. He called himself “a maverick from the herd” during a 1975 interview, and the label stuck.
“He showed us that a dose of independence and willpower can often move people and institutions forward more quickly than running with the flock,” Mayor Sly James said.
Civic and business leader Irvine O. Hockaday Jr. said Kemper held definite opinions and advocated for them forcefully. And he cared deeply about Kansas City, its history and future, Hockaday said, offering the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Kemper Arena as examples of that commitment.
“Too few these days seem to have the courage of their convictions and a genuine understanding of the importance of giving back,” Hockaday said. “Crosby had both.”
The arena was built in the city’s former stockyards and has hosted the 1976 Republican presidential convention, Kansas’ 1988 NCAA basketball championship and countless American Royal events. It was named for Kemper’s father, R. Crosby Kemper Sr., who died in October 1972. Kemper arranged a pledge that eventually grew to $3.2 million.
In 1990, he gave $6 million to build the Kemper Museum near the Country Club Plaza.
He stepped forward in 1982 when the Kansas City Philharmonic seized up in mid-season. An emergency effort to raise funds had flopped. Kansas City’s power elite was unsure that the Philharmonic should continue.
Just as the season was being canceled, Kemper suddenly told the Philharmonic to resume playing. He’d pay its losses.
“I’ll go it alone,” Kemper said at the time.
“Crosby Kemper was tough as nails, unwavering in his support of our community, and a passionate philanthropist,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II. “From the American Royal to the arts and far beyond, he will be missed by many, many people for many, many years to come.”
Kemper’s actions followed his convictions about what was best for the city and the region, said retired Kansas City Southern executive Landon Rowland, who had worked for and with Kemper in several venues.
Rowland said Kemper’s stand for agriculture helped provide a foundation for the region’s emergence as a center for animal health science, and his support for the arts helped make Kansas City an attractive community for business.
“He was kind of an instinctive futurist in seeing that these things all had an abiding value,” Rowland said. “You wonder whether anyone can follow in his footsteps.”
Arts and civic contributions
Kemper’s love of fine music was reflected in his rescue of the orchestra, reborn as the Kansas City Symphony. It honored him Friday in a Facebook tribute as its founder.
“I have met few people who had so deep a passion for symphonic music as I saw in Crosby,” executive director Frank Byrne said. “He took enormous pride in what we have accomplished, and it gave him great joy to see his dream of a great orchestra for Kansas City become a reality.”
Kemper appreciated nearly all the arts. As a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he bought two portraits by George Caleb Bingham.
His bank’s art collection included works by Andrew and James Wyeth, Thomas Hart Benton, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder.
He donated liberally to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“Crosby’s passion for American art resulted in stellar contributions, including John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Cecil and Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives by Frederic Edwin Church,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, chief executive and director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Recently, Kemper was instrumental in funding the museum’s Shuttlecarts that ferry visitors through its Bloch building.
Kemper’s personal art collection drew national attention when he bought two dozen watercolors from a Santa Fe, N. M., art dealer who donated others to the Kemper Museum for a grand display in 1994. The works, purportedly by Georgia O’Keefe, subsequently were unmasked as fakes, and Kemper managed to get a $5 million refund.
“There’s been nothing quite like it in art history,” Kemper said in 2001.
The public didn’t always accept what Kemper offered.
In late 1961, only a couple of years after becoming president of his father’s bank, the charismatic, 6-foot-7-inch banker decided to run for the U.S. Senate in the 1962 elections. The family had long dabbled in politics, but always as Democrats. Conservative Crosby Kemper Jr. ran as a Republican.
“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,” Kemper often was quoted as saying when asked to explain the party switch.
The candidate was classic Kemper — a free swinging, independent thinker who was eager to employ his noteworthy speaking skills. He called the incumbent, Edward V. Long, a socialist who was “probably the greatest turncoat in Missouri history.”
Kemper lost, garnering 45 percent of the vote.
Business and the bank
Upon returning from the campaign trail, Kemper famously battled his father for control of the family’s bank. The two clashed several times and eventually blew up at each other in December 1963. The son quit.
“I’ve got to do battle with the old man,” the younger Kemper said, according to an official UMB history. “I’ve got something to prove to him and to me.”
He borrowed money to buy the little Grand Avenue Bank at 18th and Grand in the same building that had once housed his father’s bank.
Three years later, an intermediary got father and son back together, and the two discovered that time had tempered their tempers, according to a bank-commissioned book.
Kemper Sr., then 74, turned over the reins to the “prodigal son” and stayed on as chairman for a year, retiring in August 1966.
The son remained the bank’s chief executive for 30 years, leading the UMB half of Kansas City’s foremost banking family. He engaged cousin James M. Kemper Jr., now retired from Commerce Bancshares Inc., in a friendly rivalry between the city’s two largest local banking institutions. Each bank is now led by their sons.
Crosby Kemper’s UMB at times touched others’ lives and the city around them.
“I came to Kansas City with nothing, and he gave me an incredible opportunity as his partner for 12 years,” said Kansas City banker Malcolm M. Aslin, who rose to UMB’s top ranks during a 22-year career there.
In 1981, an effort to build the Vista International Hotel, now the Kansas City Marriott Downtown, as a cornerstone for downtown’s revival began to collapse for lack of money.
Kemper wrote some blunt notes to corporate chiefs across the area, telling them it was time to stop “hand wringing’’ and pony up big money.
The Kemper foundation pledged $3 million and UMB another $3 million. By the end of the week, Kemper had raised $22 million, and $35 million by the end of his surprising one-man fund-raising drive.
Kemper explained that the hotel was an important element in the revival of the then-moribund downtown. “When I saw that this thing was kind of dead, I stepped in. It’s a particular talent of mine to raise money,” he said.
The civic-minded maverick surfaced again in 1996.
Kemper founded the Agriculture Future of America after the Future Farmers of America, born in Kansas City in 1928, said it was moving its massive convention to Louisville, Ky.
Bob Petersen, president and chief executive of the American Royal, credited Kemper with restoring the historic livestock show’s solvency and keeping it in the region’s eye.
“He always impressed on the board about the need for careful financial stewardship and strong financial management. He ensured the American Royal’s future for years to come,” Petersen said.
Agriculture, Kemper believed, was the base of Kansas City’s economy and should be recognized and celebrated. Kemper had a ranch and enjoyed farming, raising cattle and riding horses.
In his own business, Kemper adhered to the family credo of “rowing close to shore” and doing “what’s right, not what’s popular.” UMB and Commerce, the two Kemper family banks, frequently received designations as among the nation’s strongest banks.
He earned the respect of his peers as well.
Mark Jorgenson, Kansas City regional president for U.S. Bank, recalled approaching Kemper at a theater.
“I said ‘Mr. Kemper’ — I felt like I needed to address him that way — ‘I’ve been an admirer from afar, and I appreciate what you’ve done in the banking community in Kansas City,’” Jorgenson said.
To customers such as restaurateur Carl DiCapo, Kemper was a loyal backer.
“He would ask me ‘What are you doing now?’ and then he would back me,” said DiCapo, whose Italian Gardens was a downtown landmark. “I just loved him, just loved him. He was a great friend.”
To critics, Kemper’s UMB did not grow fast enough, and he did not lend liberally enough. His standard response was to name fast-growing banks and liberal lenders, and then say, “Of course, they all went broke, and I didn’t.”
Like his father, Crosby Kemper was slow to release his grip on the bank. In 1999, he had yielded the last of the bank’s most senior executive titles to his adopted son Alexander “Sandy” Kemper, who was succeeded in 2000 by R. Crosby Kemper III. But the father remained a dominant force as chairman.
R. Crosby Kemper III succeeded to the top bank posts in 2000, also working closely with his father.
He finally surrendered the reins in October 2004, yielding to his youngest son, Mariner Kemper.
“His tremendous impact on the growth of UMB, the Kansas City community and indeed the entire Midwest will be recognized for generations to come,” Mariner Kemper said on UMB’s online tribute to his father. “We will diligently work to continue his legacy of supporting the businesses, residents and communities in which we work and live.”
In a farewell address to employees, Crosby Kemper vowed to attend no more 8 a.m. meetings.
“I’m going to drink my coffee and read the paper and do as I damn well please,” Kemper said.
Kemper had seven children through his marriages to Cynthia Warrick Kemper and Mary “Bebe” Stripp Kemper. He also is survived by 22 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Instead of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Agriculture Future of America, American Royal, Phillips Academy, Kansas City Symphony and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.