Editor's note: This profile is one of a series of 10 stories about Kansas City's greatest people who have left us. These heroes built the community we love.
A 1955 profile in Time Magazine described 300-pound mayor and Boy Scout leader H. Roe Bartle as the “most imposing feature on the Kansas City landscape….outsized only by his own voice.”
That voice boomed, promoted and amused, earning Bartle hefty fees as a public speaker. But never did he use it more effectively than when pitching his city to a visiting football executive named Lamar Hunt.
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Bartle acquired his nickname “the Chief” through his many years as a Boy Scout executive. When Hunt moved his Dallas Texans team to Kansas City in 1963, “Chiefs” popped up time and again in a name-the-team contest.
Hunt’s general manager Jack Steadman said years later: “I finally told Lamar, ‘There’s just no other name we can select.’ ”
Luring professional football to town is among many achievements that make Bartle’s shadow over Kansas City longer even than his given name, Harold Roe Bennett Sturdevant Bartle.
Born in Virginia to a Presbyterian clergyman and a Scottish-immigrant mother, Bartle overcame childhood shyness to become a master debater on the University of Chattanooga forensics squad.
He acquired a law degree but left a Kentucky practice to devote most of his time to public service, most notably with the Boy Scouts of America.
During a two-year stint in Wyoming he oversaw the expansion of the state’s Scouts from four troops to 50.
In the mid-1920s Bartle and his wife, Margaret, arrived in the Kansas City area to do similar work. Bartle’s family was nearby, as his father had accepted a church call in St. Joseph.
First in St. Joseph and later in Kansas City, Bartle created the Scouts’ Tribe of Mic-O-Say honor society. It would grow by thousands, instilling life lessons in youngsters who later became some of the region’s most successful business leaders.
For the next half-century Roe Bartle wore a ton of hats.
He farmed. He practiced some law. He had a stake in South American rental properties. He rarely declined to serve on a charitable board of directors.
Speaking hundreds of times a year, he reportedly earned $500 or more for an appearance. Often he wouldn’t charge, especially if the occasion was to promote the benefits of Scouting.
“What America needs is more lovers of children and fewer lovers of things,” Bartle declared in a voice that needed no microphone.
In the late 1940s he was interim president of Missouri Valley College in Marshall, where he refused to be paid. Through three decades of leadership with the area Boy Scouts, he donated his salary back to the organization.
“There are three Bartles,” he once said. “The Bartle who makes money, the Bartle who gives it away and the Bartle who works for free.”
The late Roy Roberts, longtime editor of The Star, put it differently:
“Call him demagogue, opportunist, tycoon or dedicated saint — and you will be correct, but you will speak only half-truths.
“Nobody knows Bartle. He is too complex.”
Though never much of a politician, Bartle ran for mayor as an independent, winning in 1955.
And it was in that role that his enigmatic mystique paid off huge.
Bartle learned on a business trip that Hunt was thinking about relocating his American Football League franchise. Not yet ready to sever his football ties in Texas, Hunt originally declined the mayor’s invitation to check out Kansas City.
So Bartle promised total secrecy, which included mailing papers to Hunt from a location outside City Hall.
When Hunt visited, Bartle introduced him as “Mr. Lamar” and referred to Steadman as “Jack X.”
“Bartle relished the deception,” Star sports columnist Joe McGuff wrote more than a decade later.
“Bartle did a remarkable selling job on Lamar Hunt,” he added, “and had it not been for his persuasiveness Hunt unquestionably would have taken his team elsewhere.”
Promotion was Bartle’s passion, not politics. After two terms as mayor he never sought elective office again.
He lived to be 72, despite a 25-cigars-a-day habit and that ever-widening girth (which he owed to his love for waffles “swimming in butter and syrup.”) Upon his death in 1974 Bartle’s commitment to guiding youth dominated the eulogy.
Thousands of saluting Scouts lined the lanes of Forest Hill Cemetery for his burial.
The Scout reservation in Osceola, Mo., would be named in his honor, as was Kansas City’s downtown convention center.
Bartle Hall opened in 1976. The building mushroomed in size in the 1990s, reaching across Interstate 670, shading the motorists.
Its enormity befits the man called the Chief.