Don Slawson, one of the patriarchs of the Wichita business community and the community at large, has died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I would think that there would be very few people in the last 40 years who have done more for the community and the state,” said Russ Meyer, Cessna Aircraft chairman emeritus, who called Slawson a “close personal friend.”
Mr. Slawson, 80, was the founder of Slawson Cos., which has divisions for oil and gas production and real estate development among other business interests. The company employs more than 950 people in five states.
Todd Slawson, the Denver-based president of his family’s oil company and the youngest of Mr. Slawson’s three sons, said his father died early Monday morning.
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“He had such a love for his community. It showed through a lot of things that he did,” Todd Slawson said. “He had a very strong passion for business.”
After graduating from the University of Kansas with a political science degree and a minor in geology, Mr. Slawson worked briefly for a drilling company before starting his own oil and gas business in 1957.
“His love … initially was oil and gas,” Todd Slawson said. “He was one of the most active drillers in the state of Kansas for many years.”
Then, in the 1970s, Mr. Slawson began buying land in Wichita.
“As he would tell it, he saw … that he wanted to diversify his business,” said Jerry Jones, a commercial broker at Slawson Cos. “He was very much an entrepreneur.”
Todd Slawson said his father invested in real estate only in Wichita and that it became his passion. One of Mr. Slawson’s first real estate deals was to partner with the Ritchie family to develop Tallgrass Centre and the Shops at Tallgrass on the east side of Wichita. He later purchased the developments from the Ritchies.
He went on to create developments such as NewMarket Square at 21st and Maize and Oak Creek at 21st and Greenwich, which competing developer George Laham calls “significant developments” for the city.
“He made a mark on the Wichita landscape with all these developments,” Laham said.
Jones said with Mr. Slawson “it wasn’t just about the bottom line economically” when it came to his real estate developments.
“We still have a lot of work to do to develop those in a way that he would want,” Jones said. “In a way that would further the community – better the community.”
City Council member Jeff Longwell said he was on the Maize school board when he met Mr. Slawson and learned his character. He said Mr. Slawson never asked for tax abatements for NewMarket Square.
“What his development did for the Maize tax levy was unbelievable,” Longwell said. “It totally changed the Maize school district.”
Once, when Longwell said Mr. Slawson realized NewMarket needed a new traffic light but that it would take too long to get, he paid for it.
“He just cut through all the bureaucracy,” Longwell said.
“When you build the kind of foundation that he has built, his legacy will be around for a long time.”
Fred Berry of the Berry Cos. said his friend was a very intense and ambitious man. When their families would go on ski trips, Berry said Mr. Slawson didn’t generally ski.
“He’d have his felt-tip pen and his legal pad out and be scratching away about something he was thinking about doing, and he got it done, of course,” Berry said. “He carried through on his ideas.”
Berry said for such an active mind to slip into Alzheimer’s was “beyond comprehension.”
Charlie Chandler, chairman and CEO of Intrust Bank, said, “When I was a young banker, I mean Don from day one treated me with great respect and asked me very inquisitive and sometimes challenging questions.
“He was extremely inquisitive and anything that he became involved with he wanted to know everything he could learn about it.”
Chandler said Mr. Slawson had great presence and described him as “handsome, tall, slender” with a great smile and sense of humor.
He often used to be spotted having lunch at Larkspur, with a customary glass of milk – “not the drink you’d expect for a tough-negotiating, hard-charging businessman,” said Deanna Harms, executive vice president at Greteman Group, an agency that worked with Slawson Cos. through the years. Mr. Slawson would walk a mini-parade of tables on his way in or out to say hello to other diners, most of whom he seemed to know.
Meyer said Mr. Slawson was always “erect, looked like he was right out of the military.” He called him “wonderfully courteous, a great listener.”
“I think Don was one of the brightest and most well-read people that I’ve ever known,” Meyer said. “He would periodically send me a little article that he had a little note on.”
It could be from the London Times “or the 44th page of the Wall Street Journal or whatever.” Meyer said the notes were always something that Mr. Slawson thought would be of interest to him.
“That was very intimidating to me,” Meyer said.
Mr. Slawson served on a number of boards through the years, including at companies such as Cessna and Intrust Bank and public entities such as the Wichita Airport Advisory Board and the Kansas Board of Regents, where he also was chairman. Todd Slawson said education was hugely important to his father.
The family also says that of all the things Mr. Slawson and his wife, Judy, supported, the Slawson Family Tiger Trek at the Sedgwick County Zoo was their favorite. The family gave $2 million toward the exhibit in 2009.
“When I say community, he was involved,” Todd Slawson said.
Mr. Slawson is survived by his wife and sons Craig and Steve in addition to Todd Slawson. A memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, 1958 N. Webb.
“He was just one of those guys who left major footsteps,” Meyer said, adding that it’s a “sad day for me, sad day for the community.”