Steve Rose

R. Crosby Kemper Jr.: a one-of-a-kind leader

Updated: 2014-01-05T00:28:22Z

By STEVE ROSE

Special to The Star

I once asked R. Crosby Kemper Jr. if his bank were burning down, and he had a choice to save his money — pretending it was uninsured — or his art, which would he choose?

He didn’t hesitate for even a moment.

“Money can be replaced,” he said. “Art cannot.”

I came to know Crosby quite well, through our daughters. Mary, his youngest, is the same age as our middle child, Melissa. The girls were inseparable growing up and continue this close friendship today. Through the girls, we were all like family.

There is much to say about Crosby, who died last week, but so much is private that I dare not delve too deeply for fear of disrupting the years of honesty we shared, while on trips, or horseback or dinners.

I do, however, want to set the record straight on a few things.

It is true that Crosby, in a sense, did inherit the position of president of UMB’s predecessor, City National Bank, at the age of 32. But Crosby Jr., as contrasted with his father Crosby Sr., built the bank almost from the ground up. He got a good head start, to be sure. But the UMB banking empire he did not inherit. He built it himself.

And he was a complete and total maverick.

He listened to the beat of his own drum, and that meant he was estranged from many in the community, including the so-called establishment of Kansas City leadership.

Crosby was, in many ways, a lone wolf. And he was known by many as stubborn. Both I think are true but he was so endearing that once you penetrated the brusque wall, you found a man of true warmth and caring.

He also was sensitive, and it was painful sometimes for him to feel cut out of the group.

Perhaps Crosby’s proudest achievement was to save the Kansas City Philharmonic almost single-handedly, when it was on the verge of total financial collapse.

He was an avid lover of the symphony and so when it fell on hard times, he wrote the big checks and brought his business knowledge to help turn around the organization.

In 1974, he gave $5 million to the performing arts center on the UMKC campus, then the largest single private donation in the history of the university system.

One of his main loves was the American Royal, held in Kemper Arena, which he made possible.

Crosby spent five decades at UMB, what he is best known for.

Sometimes, he was a bit quirky, but his associates loved him.

For example, he refused to allow the bank’s mutual funds to invest in anything having to do with Mexico. That was because his grandfather’s property was nationalized in a revolution, and he never trusted the government. (Today, Mexican companies are part of the portfolios.)

Crosby was a brilliant mind, a dynamic businessman, a scholar, an art and music lover — really, he was a “Renaissance Man,” in the truest definition of the term.

His Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the finest in the region. He was oh-so-proud of it, every piece within it.

Despite our gap in age, in height, and in financial net worth, Crosby was a very dear friend.

He was one of a kind, and I shall miss him.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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