James M. Kemper Jr., longtime civic leader and banker, constant reader and avid horseman, died Thursday. He was 95.
Kemper, a Kansas City native, retired in 1991 as chairman of Commerce Bancshares Inc., having followed his father into the job and handing it over to his son David W. Kemper in turn.
He was one of the more private members of the prominent Kansas City and St. Louis banking family but still held a prominent role in local business and civic affairs.
“We have already heard wonderful stories and sentiments from many friends and associates whose lives and careers he personally touched,” his son Jonathan Kemper said in a statement Friday. “These remembrances are all greatly appreciated, and will continue to inspire us all in our work and leadership in our business, families and communities.”
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James Kemper was the first leader of Kansas City’s Downtown Council, was a board member at Kansas City Public Schools, a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and chairman of the Smithsonian National Board.
Foremost, Kemper was a banker who stood out in a family of bankers.
His family noted that, in 1967, Fortune magazine had said Kemper was “the most professional banker that the Kempers have produced — a man who at bank meetings tends to know as much about details as his specialists.”
Kemper also could be considered difficult to deal with and often challenged those around him.
“He can be abrasive in his inquiring to the point of being insulting,” former Kansas City Mayor Ike Davis told The Star in 1975. “He turns an idea all the way around. He just dives in. He doesn’t fit the standard pattern of thinking.”
Others saw his probing as a test, ensuring that a banker had done his or her homework or that a cause was worth supporting.
One day, Kemper asked for a meeting with Jane Knapp, who was then the chief of emergency medical services at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Kemper offered his support, but it wouldn’t come easily.
“There’s a beginning exchange of pleasantries, then he starts in on you,” Knapp recalled Friday. “He was a very challenging man. He’s testing to see if you just want a handout or if you’ve got a little bit of backbone … and defend what you really want to do.”
The two clicked, and Knapp said Kemper had been one of the most influential people in her life, personally and professionally, outside of the hospital.
Often called Jim or “Jamie,” Kemper was a voracious reader with a wide-ranging appetite.
Kevin Barth, who is president of Commerce Bank in Kansas City, recalled seeing Kemper’s broad knowledge in action during a tea at the retired banker’s house about five years ago. Their guests were two men well educated in Islam.
“Coincidentally, Mr. Kemper had just read three books on the topic,” Barth said. “And Mr. Kemper’s going toe-to-toe with this Harvard-educated Muslim scholar on the history of their religion.”
Seemingly any topic sparked his interest.
Kirby Upjohn, his longtime personal assistant and friend, said Kemper would hand her lists of books to order on Amazon. One list this spring included material on the musician Prince, who died in April.
“I’ve often thought whoever is managing the algorithms at Amazon must be baffled by this account,” Upjohn said. “The range of interests has got to be beyond the power of their system to make recommendations.”
Kemper was active in philanthropy, often acting without public attention. Barth said he knows Kemper sometimes gave money under a pseudonym and more than once politely turned down awards that one group or another wanted to bestow on him.
Kemper recently started a foundation to support veterans as they transition back into civilian life. He named it the David Woods Kemper Veterans Foundation after his brother who was killed in Italy near the end of World War II. The new fund is independent of the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation that Kemper set up decades ago.
A graduate of Pembroke Country Day School, James Kemper attended Yale University but interrupted his studies to serve in World War II.
He’d been in the South Pacific as a first lieutenant and saw 18 months in combat as head of a machine gun platoon and commanded an anti-tank unit in the Battle of Manila in the Philippines. He received the Purple Heart, left the U.S. Army in 1945 as a captain and then completed his Yale degree, according to the family.
As a young Kansas City banker, Kemper found time to become a respected polo player. In one 1950 match against a Tulsa, Okla., team, Kemper scored six times in the Kansas City teams’ 8-7 victory.
In a 1991 interview at his retirement from Commerce, Kemper recalled the game humbly.
“That was before Tulsa got real good,” he said. “We couldn’t begin to play with them now.”
Kemper rose to the top of Commerce Bank’s executive ranks in 1955, being named president to succeed his father, James M. Kemper Sr., who remained the bank’s chairman. His appointment marked the fourth generation of Kemper leadership.
And his desk occupied the same corner as that of his grandfather, William T. Kemper.
James Kemper held the reins until handing them to his son David in 1982 , but he remained chairman of Commerce until retiring in 1991.
In his time, James Kemper led the family’s Commerce Bank wing that often was a rival to the UMB Bank wing of the Kemper family led by his cousin R. Crosby Kemper Jr., who died in January 2014.
James Kemper once told The Star that banking in St. Louis particularly had interested him, because “there’s been so much family in the banking business in Kansas City that it’s almost boring.”
He has three children, sons David and Jonathan and daughter Julie Foyer. Laura Kemper Fields predeceased him in death in 2014. He has 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.