Editor's note: This profile is the first of 10 stories we will share this week on Kansas City's greatest people who have left us. These heroes built the community we love.
Amazing what’s happened to the legacy of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman. Two decades after their deaths, their influence on Kansas City has grown.
A photograph taken Nov. 3 over Union Station proves it. That blue ocean of humanity rejoicing in the Royals’ World Series triumph wouldn’t have been there if not for Mr. and Mrs. K.
Nor would the architectural stunner near the top of the photo — the 4-year-old Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
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Their gifts have kept giving, said Frank Lenk, director of research services at the Mid-America Regional Council: “All of it an act of love, actually.”
Ewing had figured this out.
He reasoned that if, after he died, his treasured Royals were sold only to someone contractually bound to keep the club in town, the glory seasons would return.
Lots of folks would then make money, and the community at large would benefit.
This idea of dedicated individuals helping the whole was a business strategy that shaped Ewing Kauffman’s life. Proud to be a Westport High School graduate, Class of 1934, he saw himself as a common man who enjoyed uncommon success through entrepreneurial drive.
Wife Muriel, born into a prestigious Canadian family, was the cultural yin to Ewing’s entrepreneurial yang.
Though serious about the arts, college-educated in finance and honored for her support of local health-care causes, she functioned more on feeling than strategy.
So when Muriel’s daughter Julia and other trustees of the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation sat down with her in 1995 after Ewing’s death for a tedious talk about the fund’s mission statement, its long-term aims and what-not, Muriel ended the discussion with a big idea.
“She waved her arm and said, ‘Build a performing arts center,’ then walked out of the room,” said Julia Irene Kauffman. “She died two or three weeks later…
“In the end I’m kind of glad she kept it so simple.”
The Kauffman way of bettering a city wasn’t really simple, of course.
Ewing was a Missouri farm boy whose formal education went no further than junior-college courses. (He learned a lot when he was 11, though, after being diagnosed with a heart condition. A doctor urged him to spend a year in bed, and his mother furnished Ewing with books. He read four dozen a month.)
As an adult he came to believe that social and economic progress had to be fertilized at the roots.
Thus, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has provided college tuition for those who can’t get there otherwise, so long as they commit to finishing high school.
“Choose wise,” he urged an auditorium of underprivileged students who took up his Project Choice tuition gift.
In recent years his foundation has focused on building entrepreneurism, an unusual mission for grant-giving entities. Yet it’s given the city a national reputation as a hub for techies trying to realize their upstart dreams.
All part of this strategy of building community.
Younger Royals fans who in 2015 helped Kauffman Stadium set an attendance record probably didn’t know what their parents knew about the Kauffmans.
They weren’t seen as the high-minded elite. No, they were our billionaires, common enough to welcome trick-or-treaters to their Mission Hills mansion every Halloween.
Their extended family was the baseball squad.
Ewing liked eating frog legs at the stadium. He often wore loud sport jackets to the games, which he rarely missed when the Royals were at home.
He wouldn’t have been there had Muriel not urged him in the late 1960s to create the team.
In 1968, when Charles Finley shuttled his Kansas City Athletics to Oakland, Calif., Kansas Citians worried about forever losing their major-league status.
Ewing’s fortune had just multiplied after his pharmaceutical company, Marion Laboratories, went public on the New York Stock Exchange.
He had launched the firm by himself in 1950, filling pill bottles in the basement of his Kansas City home. He titled the enterprise after his middle name to keep customers from recognizing that Marion Laboratories was just one person.
By 1968, when Kansas City lost the Athletics, Kauffman’s company employed thousands — largely because Ewing poured his life into it.
“His doctor said he needed a hobby,” said daughter Julia in a recent interview. “Muriel talked him into joining a country club and taking up golf.
“Then she said, ‘Why don’t you start up this baseball team?’ ”
He named the team after the American Royal, a hometown institution. Ewing believed that successful entities could feed off each other.
The 42-year-old stadium bearing his name — he grudgingly allowed it to change from Royals Stadium a month before he died — is holding up dandy. The sole baseball-only facility built in the major leagues between 1962 and 1991, today The K is the only American League stadium named after a person.
Late in life and terminally ill, he sold off Marion Laboratories partly to provide a base of funding for the money-losing Royals. Many of Marion Lab’s longtime employees had already become millionaires, having been entitled to profit-sharing since the company’s early years.
The merged Marion Merrell Dow would splinter and is no longer a major Kansas City employer.
But the Kauffmans’ charitable foundations have swelled. And Julia Irene Kauffman sees how her parents’ strategy made sense — preserving a major-league city while improving avenues to higher education, entrepreneurism and the musical arts.
She said, “I think it’s been a beautiful marriage.”