Banker and civic leader William C. Nelson dies at his Mission Hills home at age 77

08/08/2014 6:36 PM

08/09/2014 10:48 AM

William C. Nelson, banker, civic leader and community advocate, died Thursday in his Mission Hills home. He was 77.

Nelson was a transplant who brought his family to Kansas City in 1989 so he could work for Boatmen’s Bank. Through a series of mergers, he came to lead Bank of America’s Midwest and Kansas City operations.

Meanwhile, the Nelsons fell in love with their new home.

“Why is the moving van even stopping here? The headquarters is in St. Louis,” was the question Barbara Nelson recalls raising with her husband when they hit Kansas City. “Ten years later, when they asked us to move to St. Louis, we said no. We turned it down.”

Nelson adroitly combined his skills as a business leader with a strong commitment to personal involvement.

“I witnessed it again and again,” said Bob West, the former chief executive of Butler Manufacturing in Kansas City, who didn’t do business with Nelson’s bank but knew him from his first days here. “He had a tremendous community compassion and identity that was really almost unique at the time.”

As a banker, Nelson had made his mark on Kansas City by the time Kevin Barth started calling on business prospects here for Commerce Bank.

“I quickly developed an appreciation and respect for Bill because he had developed such a loyal following of customers,” Barth said.

Though they competed, Barth said they became friends. He counts among his own career highlights the day he learned Nelson had retired.

Barth said it not only made winning business easier but also allowed Nelson to become a mentor.

“He’s given me a lot of good advice over the years,” Barth said.

After his 40-year banking career, Nelson joined George K. Baum Holdings in Kansas City and served as chairman of George K. Baum Asset Management.

Nelson’s resume was filled with civic and corporate board memberships.

On the business side, he helped direct DST Systems, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, Great Plains Energy, Midwest Research Institute and the Auto Club of Missouri.

He had been chairman of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City and the Kansas City Area Development Council, among others, and vice chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

The Heart of America United Way, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund and many others benefited from his time and effort.

Nelson also persevered when he saw a goal worth pursuing, including one that belonged to the Rev. John Modest Miles, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church.

Miles said he met Nelson about 25 years ago and told him of his dream to transform the area around his church near 27th Street and Prospect Avenue. Nelson joined the effort with gusto and persistence, convinced that Kansas City banks should do more to invest in neighborhoods east of Troost.

Miles said Nelson helped raise money to acquire and demolish about 40 decrepit and vacant properties to make room for a new youth and family life center. The project took years longer than either man had expected, but Miles said together they raised about $4 million.

The groundbreaking for the new center is scheduled for Sept. 14, and Miles lamented that Nelson would not be there to see the culmination of his crusade.

“He was an angel on earth, and now he’s an angel in heaven,” Miles said.

Nelson was fond of horseback riding and suffered serious injuries in a fall years ago. He fully recovered and continued to ride, having been riding a week ago, his wife said.

Nelson, a native of Cincinnati, became a Pittsburgh Pirates fan during his years working in that city for Mellon Bank. That led him to Barbara, also a Pirates fan, in 1971 when both were working in London and the Pirates won the World Series.

She was working for BusinessWeek at the time and called up the only other Pirates fan she knew in town. They agreed to celebrate together.

Each gave the other a personal description for a rendezvous, as they’d talked on the phone but never met.

“We arranged our own blind date,” she said.

They married the next year and raised three sons, Christopher and twins Graham and David.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

To reach Mark Davis, call 816-234-4372 or send email to mdavis@kcstar.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at mdkcstar.

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