Country club with lively past faces uncertain future

A hilly, winding road comes to a point in south Kansas City where drivers can turn into Green Lawn Cemetery to mourn a loss and remember the good times.

Or they could turn the other way into Hillcrest Country Club and do much the same thing.

Founded in 1916 and for nearly a century the home for Kansas Citians who felt out of place at the ritzier country clubs, the old Hillcrest is dead, done in by hard times, hurt feelings, a bitter feud and a bagful of lawsuits.

A trial, set for this month but now postponed until January, pits two one-time partners, once seen as saviors of the club at 8200 Hillcrest Road.

When they showed up in 2006 as the economy weakened and Hillcrest struggled, members were elated. One of the men had golf course know-how, supposedly. The other had money, definitely.

What could go wrong? Everything, as it turned out.

It didn’t take long for David Francis, from a prominent Kansas City family, and the golf guy, Terry Clark, to offend longtime members, most of whom quickly bailed.

“Within 24 months, 90 percent of the membership was gone,” said Kevin Clune, president of the board at the time of the sale.

Francis and Clark then turned on each other in an ownership dispute.

In May, Francis attempted to fire Clark and sued to remove him from the Hillcrest clubhouse. Clark refused to leave, hunkered down and sued back, filing for a protection order and claiming he owned half of Hillcrest.

Things got so bad that only a last-minute development in November saved Hillcrest from being auctioned on the courthouse steps.

Now, a month before trial in Jackson County Circuit Court, the case file stands a foot high, three fat folders crammed with nastiness — all set against a backdrop of a tranquil old clubhouse and a renowned golf course surrounded by woods, Swope Park to the north and the Blue River Glade to the west.

Golfers will once again play Hillcrest — the course is too good. Closed for winter now, some think it could continue next spring as a public course, as what it became when all the members left.

But it’s clear that the grand old Hillcrest Country Club, as longtime members knew it, is history. It takes with it tales that include the bereaved widow of founder Arthur Stilwell throwing herself out a 12th story New York window in 1928, and club manager Wolf Rimann murdered in a Sonny Corleone-like gangland ambush in broad daylight on a Kansas City street in 1949.

Recent members, though, simply remember old friends and beautiful days.

“I think about what happened and I still can’t believe it,” a longtime former member said. Leery of more legal action, he asked his name not be used.

“What those two did to that place, I just scratch my head. After all those years, how could it end like that?”

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David Francis, Terry Clark and their attorneys could not be reached for comment for this article. Details came mostly from court documents.

Former members were reluctant to speak out. But Clune, the former board president, agreed to discuss what led up to the trouble.

But first, the club’s history:

Just before the last century, Arthur Stilwell, founder of Kansas City Southern Railway, built Fairmount Park, a large amusement center between Kansas City and Independence, to boost ridership on one of his trolley lines. It had a six-hole golf course, the second in the area. The first was the Kansas City Country Club on what is now Loose Park. Stilwell had dropped his membership there and promoted his own club, which became the Evanston Club in 1901.

As the sport caught on, the club grew so fast that in 1905 it moved near Swope Park. But the expanding city soon uprooted it again, this time south to the 137-acre mostly rural tract on what is now Hillcrest Road. Early members included Daniel Boone, great-grandson of the pioneer; parks and boulevard designer George Kessler; jeweler Walter Jaccard; and Col. Tom Swope.

Quite a foursome.

Donald Ross, a transplanted Scot and premier golf course architect, designed the course that would open May 27, 1916. Later he would design dozens of more famous courses, including Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina and Seminole Golf Club in Florida. Hillcrest would later be host for the Kansas City Open in the 1930s and 1940s.

Because of its remote location, it become known as a place to let loose, free of the propriety of the more tony country clubs to the north. Away from the bright lights of city, Hillcrest men gambled and women smoked. They drank and danced the risque dances of the time.

When Stilwell died in 1928, his wife, Jennie, promptly penned a letter saying she had no desire to live and threw herself out her apartment window to the New York street below.

In the 1940s, Wolf C. Rimann arrived at Hillcrest as manager. He was a golf pro, businessman and, by virtue of being a friend of Jackson County Sheriff J.A. Purdome, a “special deputy.” The designation allowed him to carry a gun, which came in handy because Rimann was really a strong-armed jukebox/pinball operator and liquor dealer who horned in on territory controlled by the Kansas City mob.

He ignored warnings to back off.

Then in broad daylight on the afternoon of March 24, 1949, just after Rimann had gotten into his car at 14th Street and Chestnut Avenue, a black Ford sedan slid around the corner. Shots rang out. Rimann was hit. One of the two gunmen got out of car and ran over to Rimann and shot him several more times, once with the pistol muzzle against his head.

A story in The Kansas City Times described the gunman as a “swarthy, neatly dressed man” who after the killing coolly eyed witnesses on the street and in upstairs windows. No arrests were ever made.

To this day, a room in the Hillcrest clubhouse has a wall covered with plug-in outlets for gaming equipment, a Rimann legacy.

Yet what Clune thinks is most notable about Hillcrest was its populism.

“We had very few members who grew up in country clubs,” Clune said. “And Hillcrest was extremely inclusive, probably had more minorities than any club in town.”

But diversity didn’t shield the course from the current recession.

“We had cash flow issues,” Clune said. Membership dropped. The club owed a bank note of over $3 million.

But things looked up when out of nowhere came an unsolicited offer from David Francis to pay off the debt and buy the place.

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Francis is the grandson of Parker B. Francis, founder of the Puritan-Bennett Co. His late father, John, ran the business for years.

David Francis and his siblings sit on the board of the Francis Family Foundation, which has been heavily involved in education, arts and culture around Kansas City.

Francis’ Heartland Golf Development II LLC took over Hillcrest in 2006 by assuming the $3 million loan by North American Savings Bank. According to court documents, the plan was for Francis to provide the capital. Clark would bring the “time, labor and management” to actually run the club.

The two stirred things up from the start, changing longtime traditions and getting rid of some longtime employees, moves that bothered members, who also say service declined and rudeness increased.

Members began to leave; Heartland sued several. A Missouri courts website shows more than 30 lawsuits between Heartland and former Hillcrest members.

Then, Francis tried to remove Clark from his apartment in the Hillcrest clubhouse, cutting off his business phone and insurance benefits and confiscating a company car. Heartland sued Clark on May 26, a case that has been dismissed.

Then Clark filed a breach of contract claim against Francis, which is set for trial Jan. 3. Clark’s attorneys will argue that at the time of the purchase, Francis made Clark an equal partner, which Francis denies.

Key testimony could be a response Francis gave in a Feb. 2, 2010, deposition for one of the other cases. When asked if Clark had any ownership in Hillcrest, Francis answered: “Yes, he does. He owns 50 percent.”

The action did not include the company’s other golf course, Prairie Highlands in Olathe, where Clark also worked.

In early November, lenders foreclosed on Hillcrest. Tim West, an attorney for Francis, said at the time that the club was unable to generate revenue sufficient to pay the note.

But a day before the scheduled sale on the courthouse steps, Heartland Golf Development filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

“I miss it,” Clune said recently. “This place was such a storied part of Kansas City history. I miss it a lot. What happened… happened so fast.”