Editor’s note: This profile of James B. Nutter, who died Friday at age 89, was published in 2012.
The bratwurst-tasting station at the Costco on Linwood Boulevard, back by the meat counter, has just weathered a big rush and is temporarily out of samples.
An older man, projecting an aura of size and height despite sitting in a wheelchair, is waiting patiently for the next batch of sausage rounds to cook up on the griddle when a young African-American woman a few feet away stops chattering to a friend midsentence, turns toward the man and asks, “Are you Mr. Nutter?”
The man’s clear hazel eyes smile first. Then the sides of his mouth curl up slightly. “Yes, I am.”
Stepping around her cart, the woman extends her right hand and says, “I never met you before, but I’ve seen your picture. You helped put up the money for our community center.”
The woman gripping the large paw of the snowy-haired man is Estella Tucker, a resident of the Ivanhoe neighborhood, where a former fire station has been rehabbed and turned into a gathering place. Tucker’s children attend summer programs there.
James B. Nutter Sr. purchased the dilapidated building, paid for its overhaul and installed a park next door. He did this after reading a newspaper story about the area’s struggle to drive out drug houses and make the streets safe again.
In his deep, slowpoke voice — think Jimmy Stewart — and with characteristic emphasis on key words, Nutter responds, “I am very glad to meet you.”
It turns out the woman using the griddle also lives in Ivanhoe, and she adds more bubbling praise.
The sausages are done and toothpicked. Nutter pops one into his mouth and steers his wheelchair toward the cheese sampling table.
Kansas City knows James B. Nutter & Co. is a mortgage banking company.
But how many people would know that it is one of the oldest such firms in the United States, in the top 10 largest of the nation’s privately owned mortgage firms, and that it makes home loans in all 50 states? It currently services $7 billion in mortgages.
In the 1950s and 1960s, James B. Nutter & Co. became the first mortgage company in Kansas City to make home loans in black neighborhoods and to single women on a large scale. And, in 1989, the first in the country to write a reverse mortgage.
Only business-channel junkies might realize that during the subprime meltdown in 2006 and 2007, the financial media held the company up as a poster child of fiscal responsibility for refusing to get into junk loans.
“We lost market share because we didn’t make those horrible loans, because it was wrong!” Nutter says.
The 84-year-old founder is one of the community’s most influential postwar pillars, “the most dominant political figure who was not on the ballot,” says Dave Helling, a political writer for The Star.
Nutter has shaped the city physically and altered our lives in ways that are not easily recognized and too easily forgotten. He spent energy and money to repeal blue laws so Kansas Citians could buy groceries on Sunday. He fought so they wouldn’t have to buy a $7 sticker to put on their car and scrape it off a year later to make room for a new one. He worked tirelessly to improve streetlights so residents would feel safe after dark.
That Costco where he met Tucker? Nutter put his shoulder behind City Councilman Jim Glover’s plan for redevelopment at 31st and Main streets. Urbanites no longer have to haul out to the burbs to buy those giant containers of food. Same with lumber and such at the Home Depot next door.
But Nutter’s proudest accomplishments, he will tell you, are three neighborhood revitalization projects, including the Ivanhoe firehouse, into which he poured his heart, soul and cash.
One of them is Nutterville, but on this trolley track of a tale that will be several stops down.
Speaking of trolleys, Nutter doesn’t like the one that has been proposed for downtown. Thinks it’s a waste of money.
In politics, it usually boils down to being for or against someone or something. Not so long ago, Nutter irritated streetcar supporters who believed he was stacking his chips on the other side of the table.
Generally, it’s not hard to guess what camp will be flying the Nutter banner. A staunch Democrat, he’s unterrified of the L-word.
“You can’t get any more liberal than me. It’s impossible.”
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II says, “Jim Nutter has been a transformative figure in this town for decades, all the way back to Public Accommodations in 1964.”
That was when Nutter canvassed his own Ward 8 to pass the ordinance that made it illegal for shops, hotels and restaurants to refuse service to black patrons.
“Imagine walking around in an all-white neighborhood along Ward Parkway and knocking on doors and telling people, ‘It is wrong to not let African-Americans live where they want and eat where they choose,’ ” says Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor.
“A lot of us will remember to the grave that the area where Jim Nutter lived voted ‘yes’ because this man put himself out. It was unbelievable for that moment in history.”
Nutter enrolled for his Ph.D. in precinct politics at age 12 when he delivered political tracts for nickels and dimes for Democratic and Republican ward bosses.
“I was in it for the money, “ he says, chuckling. But he got to see how things got done and by whom.
The power broker who gives his nod to judge nominees has second-guessed a few. An opponent of the death penalty, Nutter speaks passionately about getting men off Missouri’s death row in the 1990s. He gets involved in cases only after reading all the evidence and becoming convinced of an inmate’s innocence.
In one case, a mentally disabled man had been convicted of a rape and murder in a small town. At Nutter’s urging, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan stayed the execution and appointed a panel to review the case. The conviction was ultimately overturned, and the man was freed.
Although he’s a behind-the-scenes diesel for the Democrats, Nutter’s professional integrity means he is respected by politicians and civic leaders of all makes and models. He can try to beat your brains out at the ballot box one day, then sit down at breakfast the next to find ways to work together on the next issue.
“In business his reputation is totally untarnished. It just shines, “ says politico and confidant Anita Gorman, who met Nutter when they co-chaired Richard Berkley’s 1979 mayoral campaign. Berkley was a Republican.
“And that’s very attractive no matter what side of the fence you’re on. If he says something is true, you don’t have to worry about it.”
Underestimating Nutter has never been a good idea.
“Jim does not just allow things to happen. He orchestrates things. He does his homework, “ says barbecue baron and good friend Ollie Gates, who managed the doomed campaign for Bruce Watkins against Berkley.
Dutch Newman, founder of the Westport Landing Democratic Club, worked with Nutter in 1997 to upgrade 40,000 streetlights and install 30,000 more.
“Jim is so smart, yet so charming and so kind, “ she says. “If he ever acts like a bully, he must do it when he’s alone because I’ve known him since the ’50s, and I’ve never seen him act that way.”
But don’t let that courteous conversation fool you. He’s not loath to pick up the tab for tough attack ads.
Not so long ago, he pleaded with a Democratic candidate for statewide office to spend money Nutter was offering for such ads, just in case.
“When they come at you with filth, you have got to be ready with filth, “ he says. The candidate declined and is not in office today.
Nutter declines to estimate how much he has poured into political causes. But records indicate that since 2004, the Nutter family and company have given nearly $1 million to federal and state candidates or political committees. That number, which would surely be dwarfed by previous decades of contributing, does not count the city races and issues in which he has dabbled.
Getting behind the 1979 bond issue to replace an aging jail atop the Jackson County Courthouse, Nutter took Bishop John Sullivan of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese to see the brutal conditions. Inmates were hosed down to relieve their suffering in the summer heat.
“Hotter than the hinges of Hades, “ he recalls of the Tom Pendergast-built lock-up.
The bishop had such respect for Nutter, who is not Catholic, that he agreed to read whatever Nutter wrote for a TV commercial. The spot ended with Sullivan saying, “For God’s sake, for your sake, vote for these bonds.”
Getting a “for God’s sake” out of the bishop! Political players were stunned.
The jail bond issue needed a two-thirds majority.
“We got 67.2 percent. That was my greatest campaign.”
Nutter’s passion for business and politics, and his idea of fairness, were forged early in the warmth of a loving family and in the cold realities of the Great Depression.
One of the country’s biggest mortgage lenders lost his childhood home to foreclosure when he was 12.
His father, Frank C. Nutter, was a proud Roosevelt man and union supporter, a World War I veteran who loved history. At one point, Frank Nutter was a copy editor for The Kansas City Star, but by 1940 was out of work. After the family lost their home near Loose Park, they moved into a rental house a few miles away. Jim Nutter’s father later found work in advertising and often wrote speeches for union leaders.
By 13, Nutter was working at Southwest Library, putting books away and cleaning up — 30 hours a week for $30 a month.
“My check was 29 dollars and 70 cents. They took out 1 percent for Social Security, “ he remembers.
Nutter sometimes spent 15 cents for a ticket and candy at the movies like other kids. On the other hand, he opened a savings account with $50 after his second paycheck.
Nutter’s childhood best friend was Frank Sebree, who lived in the Sunset Hill area on the edge of Loose Park. The two went through Bryant Elementary School and Southwest High School together.
Sebree recalled his friend as the one everybody wanted on their team for any recess game.
“Jim wanted to win, and he was shrewd, and he had ideas how we could win. But he wanted it to be fair, he didn’t want to cheat to win,” Sebree says.
Sebree and Nutter were doubles partners in tennis as teenagers.
“Frank was better than me at singles, but I always knew I was going to beat somebody if I could win one of the first two sets. I won every third set I ever played. I wore them down,” Nutter says.
Now is a good time to mention one of his favorite expressions: “Grunt, grunt, grunt.” It’s often punctuated by tapping or pounding the nearest surface.
It describes his life philosophy of persistence. In his mind, he’s Aesop’s tortoise.
At the University of Missouri, the two friends pledged to the same fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, and were campus champions at table tennis.
Nutter paid his own tuition and house fees. “I had money in the bank, as usual.”
One more thing about Sebree and Nutter: The best friends married within a two-year span and were best man at each other’s weddings.
And another: They have a great story about President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
On a whim, they decided to fly to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony and balls. Although the men had tuxes, Nutter convinced Sebree they needed to rent tails.
At the Mayflower Hotel they so looked the part that they were ushered in a rear door — which Nutter had scouted — along with the presidential entourage. They grabbed a box adjacent to JFK and Jackie’s, got to brush lips to her hand, and enjoyed the party.
Before getting his business degree in 1949, Nutter served 11/2 years in the Army at Camp Stoneman near San Francisco. But once out of school, he could not find a job in his beloved Kansas City.
Sebree’s father — an attorney at Sebree, Sebree and Shook, now the Shook, Hardy & Bacon law firm from which Sebree retired — landed him a position as mortgage loan processor with Charles F. Curry Co. Just a year later, Nutter started his own City Wide Mortgage Co. with a partner. A year after that, in 1951, he went solo, founding James B. Nutter & Co. and working out of his apartment.
Nutter attributes his eventual success to a sharp eye for opportunities that others miss.
He was one of the first to get into government-backed Veterans Administration home loans, which became his bread and butter.
“Other companies were afraid of them because there was no money down. Even though the government backed them, people were afraid there would be a lot of collection work. And the loans were smaller and you could only charge the vet a 1 percent closing cost,” he says.
“But there were millions of them.”
Grunt, grunt, grunt.
Nutter’s first investor was Charles E. Curry, president of Home Savings Co. — the son of the man who gave him his first job. In 1953, Curry put up $200,000 to make those VA loans.
“I made $10,000 in three weeks.”
The next year he moved his operation into a rented building on Main Street in midtown.
In 1958, trying to get money to grow his company, he picked out 2,000 savings and loans around the country, had 2,000 letters printed on the finest stationery, and paid a typist to personalize each with a salutation in the recipient’s name.
Grunt, grunt, grunt.
From the hundreds of replies, he landed business from a Des Moines firm and another in New Jersey.
“If it hadn’t been them, it would have been other companies six months later. I was going to keep plugging away at it until something happened. There was never any question in my mind,” he says.
Nutter pursued big banks in New York, too, but none would give him any business because he didn’t already have some business with the others. Catch-22. On one trip there, he called on 40 savings banks and commercial real estate banks.
“Nobody ever forgot me. I was tall — 6-foot-4 1/2 — and fairly thin and had red hair, and I always brought fresh flowers for the secretary. Finally one company said, ‘I’ve got $1 million for you.’ ”
Loan servicing, which many mortgage brokers didn’t bother with, was another niche to be seized.
“We collect them and get a small fee and that small fee is very good when you have a lot of them — $5 or $20 per month times thousands. And if I’m servicing the loan, I have a five times greater chance of refinancing it than my competitors do,” he says, because that deepens customer loyalty. “We have lots of cases where we have made mortgage loans to three generations of a family.”
Here’s another way to build loyalty.
In 1964, foreclosure rates were rising. Nutter’s company created a forbearance program to help borrowers behind on their house payments.
“If somebody owed three or four months, we put it aside just like it wasn’t there, and after about six months the homeowner would start digging into that little pile that he hadn’t paid,” Nutter says.
President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Federal Housing Administration officials to Nutter’s office to study the success of his system.
“We kept a lot of people in their homes. If you give people a chance, they want to prove they are good for it,” Nutter says.
Nutter estimates his company currently holds 20,000 mortgages in Kansas City alone and has made 60,000 over the years.
You’d think the old tortoise might be ready to slow down, but Nutter keeps growing his company’s worth. What drives him? Simple, he says.
“That’s how you keep score.”
Has any one white man done more for the black man in this town?
Sebree remembers his friend as always having a keen sense of right and wrong and never exhibiting the pervasive racial prejudice of the ’40 and ’50s.
Hearing white people use the worst slur against African-Americans angered Nutter. “My father wasn’t like that. He never used that word. He was a real stand-up person.”
Nutter’s longtime banker, Charles Kopke, retired senior vice president of Commerce Trust, says Nutter’s desire to give folks a chance extended to minority neighborhoods and to Wyandotte County where others were hesitant to offer loans.
“The Nutter company has always been very open, and they have welcomed business from whatever source,” Kopke says.
As civic projects take up more and more of Nutter’s time, his son Jim (no one calls him Junior) has run the 315-employee company as president since 2002.
“I’m very proud that during ’50s and ’60s we were one of very first that would give loans to minorities. That doesn’t sound like a lot now, but at that time that took a lot of guts.”
Robert Newsome has known Nutter for 45 years. The African-American Realtor got his start as an appraiser. Nutter sent him everywhere, including Mission Hills and Leawood, Newsome remembers.
“Back then, some companies would only let me do appraisals in African-American neighborhoods, but Jim said, ‘We’re not having that.’ ”
Nutter also dissolved color barriers in the 1970s with his company-owned apartments, including the Village Green at 47th Street and the Paseo.
“He bought them and said, ‘These apartments are open. Anyone who can pay their rent can live here,’ ” Cleaver says. “It was a radical thing to do.”
It’s not that he’s knee-jerk about it.
Nutter did not line up with Barack Obama in the primaries. Although he knows the Clintons, he doesn’t describe himself as a FOB or FOH. As a supporter of women’s issues and health care, he favored Hillary, but once she was out, he put his muscle behind Obama.
Nor did he go for Bruce Watkins, the first black candidate for Kansas City mayor. Gates noted that after Berkley won, however, a prestigious assignment to the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners went to Watkins. Then after he died, the post went to Gates. Observers saw Nutter’s fingerprints all over the appointments.
Asked about the current inhabitant of City Hall’s 29th floor, Sly James, he says, “I think he’s doing a good job so far.” He didn’t back James, either, in the primary or general. That surprised no one, considering the light government experience of James and Nutter’s many ties to the opponents.
It was a different story for Cleaver in 1991, when the black minister and councilman, having decided to run for mayor, was urged by friends to go see Nutter.
“I thought, ‘He’s not going to support me,’ ” Cleaver recalls. “But I went in, and we talked, and he said, ‘How much money do you have?’
“And I said, ‘A dollar ninety-eight.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll support you, and I’ll take control of the money. We’re gonna work together, and we’ll do this thing.’ ”
Political blessing given, the white banker was soon showing up in black churches. One tactic harkened to the old days — the personal letter. Nutter pushed Cleaver to write one to residents in black neighborhoods explaining how important it was for them to vote.
“I went to grocery stores, and people came up to me and said, ‘Reverend, I got your letter, and I appreciate your sending it to me,’ ” Cleaver says.
“I would never have been mayor if it weren’t for Jim. People say Bill Clinton is perhaps the greatest politician of all time, and he’s a good friend of mine, but I think Jim Nutter would give him a run for his money.”
It’s a hot morning, and Jim and Annabel Nutter are having breakfast. A large bouquet of flowers is in the middle of the table, an anniversary gift from Jim to his wife of 58 years.
Annabel, in a pink robe, pink slippers and neatly coiffed honey-colored hair, leans over and gives her husband a kiss on the lips.
Celebration plans? Jim Nutter replies, “Well, 58 is not 8. But we’ll step out Saturday night.”
He met Annabel Fisher, who lived in a big house off Ward Parkway, on a blind date and married her within a year. Nutter says his mother knew he was serious about Annabel when he invited her to dinner after about six months, which was not his custom with dates.
“The deal always was, the girl was supposed to have eaten before I picked her up,” he says. He says he decided to marry her when the 5-foot-2-inch pixie polished off the house’s largest steak.
“I wasn’t a bad catch, but I wasn’t great, either. I was an average catch,” Nutter says.
“He was a very good catch, “ Annabel counters. “I knew right away he was the one, and my parents adored him.”
The Nutters’ first child, Nancy, was born in 1955. In 1956 they bought a house in south Kansas City, and in 1959 their son was born.
In 1962, Nutter spotted a 2,500-square-foot, ranch-style house on Ward Parkway that he liked. In his patient fashion he negotiated with the owner, a lawyer, for three months before settling on a price.
They still live there. Never redid the bathrooms or the kitchen, either, although no expense is spared on exterior paint and roofing. The yellow plastic phone in the kitchen looks straight out of “That ’70s Show.” The last car Nutter bought was a 1996 Buick Park Avenue.
“I just stick to things,” he says, as he lifts a forkful of sausage.
Two dogs lurk around the table. Lucy, a Lab-golden mix, was adopted from Wayside Waifs, one of Nutter’s favorite charities. Benny, a Lhasa Apso, belongs to Maria Gonzalez, who prepares breakfast and dinner for the Nutters during the week.
Sipping coffee in the doorway just behind the table is Angel Salceda, Nutter’s around-the-clock caregiver, who he often introduces as, “My friend, Angel.”
Nutter is driven to the office where he still works every day. Salceda also helps Nutter into and out of the wheelchair. Eighteen months ago, Nutter’s right leg was amputated below the knee, a complication from diabetes.
That is just the most recent in a wave of health problems he weathered in the last 10 years: heart bypass surgery, colon cancer and bladder cancer.
“You just push through and keep going,” he says.
Grunt, grunt, grunt.
The dogs perk up when 19-year-old Russ Moore strides into the room, looking sleepy-headed but cheerful.
Moore is the Nutters’ grandson, but they have raised him since their daughter died of breast cancer in 2003. The two say Russ feels more like a son to them than a grandson.
“It’s a little like having Nancy around. He and she are an awful lot alike,” Annabel says.
Home for summer from the University of Vermont, Russ grins and fishes for a round of faithful laughter. “I keep them young. I keep their adrenaline going.”
Russ is painting houses in Nutterville for his grandfather, who proudly reports, “He shows up on time and works all day.”
“That’s one of ours. And that one. And that one.”
As Salceda’s black Cadillac cruises slowly south on the Paseo between 45th Street and Linwood Boulevard, Nutter jabs his finger at neatly painted two-story homes.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nutter’s company bought 46 houses, most decaying, many burned out, and had them demolished.
Nutter then lined up home builders with inner-city experience who met his standards and gave them the cleared lots and $2,000 in start-up money.
At the time the city offered a “soft second” mortgage, letting home buyers borrow $10,000 for closing costs for the new houses.
The builders made between $8,000 and $10,000 profit per house, Nutter says.
James B. Nutter & Co.? It was out more than $300,000.
“I wanted to make Paseo beautiful again,” the old man says.
Since 2000, his company has made $10.8 million in charitable contributions. He personally has given away $2.5 million. And that’s only the large donations.
On a corner of his desk, the pile of printouts lists gifts of $100-$1,000 for the same period, 10 or 12 to a page. The stack is 3 inches thick.
The biggest beneficiaries of his largesse have been the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Truman Library, Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Mayo Clinic. The two closest to his heart are the Salvation Army and Little Sisters of the Poor.
Nutter serves and has served on the boards of dozens of public and private institutions. He sponsors whole tables at fundraising galas, but rarely attends them.
He prefers hanging out at lunch counters and bakeries on the city’s East Side or holding court over a $1.50 hot dog at Costco, where area residents know they can find him around 12:30 p.m. most Saturdays.
A park at Children’s Mercy Hospital that Nutter paid for entirely doesn’t bear his name. It features one of those giant keyboards you play with your feet. Yes, he was tickled when Tom Hanks played “Chopsticks” in the movie “Big.”
More important, Nutter set up an endowment to maintain the park — one of those unsexy donations that are hardest to come by in the fundraising world.
Gorman recalls Carnahan asking her in the 1990s to nominate Nutter to the Academy of Missouri Squires, a group that honors “true greatness” in the community.
Gorman was shocked that he wasn’t already a squire.
“He kind of operates by himself. As a result, he should have been in ages ago, but wasn’t,” she says. “I fixed that.”
Neither, she adds, has Nutter been named Kansas Citian of the Year. “And it’s crazy. I need to work on that.”
When the Caddy pulls up outside the Ivanhoe Community Center at 37th Street and Woodland Avenue, several women rush out the front door onto the broiling sidewalk to greet Nutter.
Inside, he grabs the hand of a young black woman and says, “This is the young lady who was in the paper! I can still recognize you.”
The young lady is Alana Young, who is employed in Fort Worth by Teach for America. But she’s home from Texas to help staff summer programs at the center.
Fifteen years ago, Nutter saw a picture in The Star of 10-year-old Alana walking hand in hand with her father during a residents’ show of solidarity against drug dealers.
After Nutter worked his magic on the old firehouse and the center opened in 2006, crime dropped and the number of drug houses also has fallen sharply. Now communities around town are trying to copy the formula.
“My father always taught me that if you do things the right way eventually good things will happen,” says Nutter’s son. “He’s always said that when he goes to bed at night he sleeps really well. I think it’s because he’s just trying to do his best every day.”
Last stop, Nutterville!
If you’ve ever driven past the historic Nathan Scarritt house at 4038 Baltimore Ave. in Westport and noticed the modest, brightly colored Victorians that stretch for a couple of blocks around it, then you’ve been to Nutterville.
The houses, with their manicured lawns and elaborate flower beds, look like single-family homes, but they’ve been converted to offices for small outfits: accountants, designers, hair stylists.
When Nutter bought his current office building on Broadway, the houses behind it to the east were owned by single women, mostly widows. Over the years, Nutter acquired them. One by one.
“I took care of the little old ladies before they died, sometimes for a year or two, sometimes for 15 or 20 years. I swept their sidewalks, I fixed their roofs, I patched their siding.”
No contracts, not even a handshake. He just told the women that if they or their heirs ever wanted to sell the houses, they’d get a fair price.
Adam Krugh, managing broker of Vista Commercial Real Estate in Prairie Village, has handled the leasing of the Nutterville properties for 15 years.
“There are not many real estate owners that would spend 40 years acquiring run-down buildings, dolling them up with bright colors and lots of landscaping and turning them into functional office spaces, “ Krugh says. “He sees long-term value, not quick turnaround.”
Speaking of long term, there was just one house left in the Nutterville area that had not fallen into Nutter’s hands during the last 49 years. Then, plop, he got it this year.
Grunt, grunt, grunt.