Tribute | Frances Dillingham beautified a century of changes


Frances Thompson Dillingham, 102, of Kansas City.

When she died:

Nov. 5 at home.

A remarkable life:

Frances Dillingham was witness to an incredible century in American history. She was also part of two prominent families, the Thompsons and the Dillinghams, who nourished Kansas City’s agricultural roots while shaping much of the city’s growth and development.

She was born July 17, 1909, in a farmhouse her grandparents built in 1876. Maple Grove Stock Farm was located where U.S. 169 and Cookingham Drive are today. Her ancestors were Clay and Platte County pioneers. Her grandfather represented Clay County in the Missouri legislature and her father, Allen Thompson, was chief of staff to Gov. Guy Brasfield Park in the 1930s. He also was president in 1905 of the American Royal Livestock and Horse Show.

The farm had a large Galloway cattle herd. Frances and her younger sister, Louise, had a happy childhood, surrounded by loving parents, extended family and farm animals.

Everyone played an instrument and enjoyed get-togethers. Frances played piano and violin.

“Music played a big part in their lives,” said her son, John Dillingham. “Without radio, TV or cars, what do you do?”

She rode about a half mile every day to Nashua Elementary School on a wagon pulled by her pony, Silver Mane.

She attended Smithville High School and was said to have been the first girl elected senior class president.

She graduated in 1929 from Christian College, now Columbia College, in Missouri. She was later a trustee. She created several scholarships and has a conference room named for her. She was proud to be named an Eighty Year Alumnus in 2009.

Married 71 years:

Jay Dillingham’s grandmother was a housemother at Christian College and introduced Jay to Frances. They married in 1935 and moved to Maple Grove in the early 1940s.

In 1937, Jay was hired at the Kansas City Stockyards, where he was president from 1948 to 1975. He helped build the American Royal into a major institution, and Frances was his devoted partner in that for more than 50 years. She held parties and entertained guests, including such VIPs as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Alfred Hitchcock.

Longtime family friend Anita Gorman said she was at the governor’s mansion with Jay Dillingham one time in the late 1990s and noticed him staring at its big stairway. She asked his thoughts.

“He said, ‘I’m just remembering how beautiful Frances looked when she walked down the steps as a bridesmaid in Governor Park’s daughter’s wedding.’”

Keeping the trees alive:

Frances was involved with local extension clubs and the Missouri Cowbells, helping promote the cattle industry. She was also a Kansas City Museum tour guide.

An avid gardener, she loved flowers and grew roses.

Before John Dillingham went off to Korea with the Army in the 1950s, he planted 40 hard maple trees on the farm.

While he was away, Frances, a tiny woman, made sure the trees didn’t die during a brutally hot summer.

“Frances watered those trees by hand with buckets,” Gorman recalled. “She said, ‘My son is off fighting for our country. I’m going to keep his trees alive.’”

Family all around:

In 1969, Frances and Jay moved to a home near North Oak and Vivion Road, where they lived together until Jay died in 2007, at age 97. In the last five years of her life, Frances was physically frail but mentally sharp as ever.

She was blessed to have her son and grandsons living nearby and took great pleasure in visits from her five great-grandchildren.

“She was with them all the time, birthdays and special occasions,” grandson Allen Dillingham said. “She loved it. It was very loud in her bedroom.”

T he last word:

As John Dillingham noted, Frances lived through a century of changes.

“She experienced going from horses to cars and from newspapers to Twitter.”