Archivist wraps up career of saving KC’s past from dustbin (literally) of history

07/08/2014 3:36 PM

07/09/2014 3:17 PM

The Thomas J. Pendergast Jr. Memorial Shredder has been saved from the dumpster.

For that, thank David Boutros.

For almost 35 years, Boutros has been collecting Kansas City’s heirlooms, sometimes from the trash, but that ends this week. Boutros, 65, is retiring as assistant director of the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City.

Among the almost 14,000 cubic feet of correspondence, photographs, internal memorandums and family home movies he has helped preserve, process or unseal are:

Home movies of Kansas City machine boss Tom Pendergast.

Architectural plans for Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the site of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.

A 1901 letter written by then Kansas City mayor James A. Reed to his counterpart in 2001, opened and read in public by former Kansas City mayor Kay Barnes, which began, “Dear Sir …”

That shredder.

“When we began, no one else was doing this kind of collecting,” Boutros said this week at Newcomb Hall at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, cluttered with cardboard boxes stacked in almost every available space.

His years of collecting, colleagues say, have increased collaboration among area archives professionals, encouraged consistent preservation practices and saved one-of-a-kind documents for posterity.

“I’ve spent my professional career teaching Missouri history, and I don’t know of anyone who knows more about Kansas City history, or who cares about it more, than David,” said Gary R. Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In 1980, Boutros signed on as a manuscript specialist at the UMKC office of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, where he had access to the university’s records center in the Hunt Midwest underground storage facilities.

Other Kansas City organizations didn’t have such almost unlimited space, Boutros said.

That helped when Kansas City officials, at about this time, decided to unload architectural drawings submitted over several decades by contractors seeking building permits.

The boxes, which included plans and blueprints for just about every significant structure built in Kansas City from 1910 through 1970, came to Western Historical Manuscripts.

“Our reputation spread,” said Boutros.

Today the collection houses the papers of what Boutros considers the city’s three most important national architectural firms: Hoit, Price and Barnes; Wight and Wight; and Keene & Simpson.

That’s how the Dealey Plaza plans arrived.

They represented just a few folders amid the 220 cubic feet of material from Hare & Hare, a Kansas City architectural landscape firm, whose papers Boutros acquired in 1995.

Other papers collected by Boutros also originated in City Hall: the papers of Kansas City mayors. That began with the papers of Charles B. Wheeler, who served from 1971 through 1979, and also included Ilus Davis, who served from 1963 to 1971. While Davis had promised his papers, Boutros didn’t receive them until after Davis’ 1996 death.

“He simply couldn’t quite bring himself to give them to us before then,” Boutros said.

Some archival materials, he said, have been forever lost following sudden death. One example, Boutros said, are the papers of Alfred Edward Barnes of Hoit, Price and Barnes, who died in 1960.

Barnes’ widow, Clara, had agreed to donate her husband’s materials, Boutros said.

“So we went in and pulled all the architectural materials, but there were boxes of correspondence that she wanted to review, so we left those,” he said.

“Then she died suddenly and we didn’t know about it until the obituary appeared in the newspaper. In the meantime, her family had come to town and only had a certain number of days to clean out the house.

“So they had been pitching stuff. When we finally caught on, there were only a few cubic feet left of the correspondence.”

That’s why, Boutros said, his job has included attending the occasional funeral.

“I dislike funerals intensely,” he said.

“They have to be funerals of people I knew. But I have gone to funerals and, in passing, given somebody my card. I try to make contact well before that, and I try to make that phone call at the right time and not when somebody is in the middle of a crisis.”

Such experiences taught Boutros the value of being proactive. That paid off when it came time to open the copper time capsule closed by Kansas City officials in 1901.

Among its contents was the letter from Reed, then Kansas City’s mayor. While the letter to his unknown future contemporary was read to great effect by Barnes during a Union Station ceremony, Boutros knew its text in advance, as it had been published back in 1901.

But Boutros, who would share the stage with the mayor during that ceremony, was concerned about what else would be in that box.

“If there had been old film in there, it would have been nitrate film, which would have been hazardous or noxious,” he said. “We could have had a gelatinous mess at the bottom. There were just a lot of potential issues we didn’t know about.

“So we opened the time capsule in a secure area beforehand to make sure there were no nasty surprises.”

Boutros long had worked with old film. That included the 18 reels that came with the collection donated in 1994 by Beverly Pendergast, widow of Thomas J. Pendergast Jr., son of the machine boss, who had died four years before.

Amid the many images recorded on the film was a brief interlude that featured the machine boss and his son posing as part of a graduation party.

In one scene, the two Pendergasts respond to off-camera instructions and scoot closer together.

Then a gust of wind blows Tom Sr.’s tie into his face — just as in a lot of family home movies.

The Pendergast collection also came with a paper shredder, manufactured well before the era of contemporary home shredders. The younger Pendergast was famously protective of his father’s legacy, and that perhaps that explains its presence.

“It’s dirty and clunky,” Boutros said of the shredder.

But it’s no artifact, he added.

“We use it,” he said. “There are some things that we receive, such as canceled checks or old tax files, that need to be shredded for privacy reasons.

“Not every item we collect is deserving of being saved.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

Farewell

A reception for David Boutros begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Room 101 at Katz Hall, 5005 Rockhill Road, on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.

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