Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and England’s Prince Charles were among the overnight guests at the Country Club Plaza area home of Charles H. Price II, who died late Thursday at age 80.
Price — for decades a local banking fixture and, under Reagan, a U.S. ambassador in Europe — attained a measure of societal royalty in Kansas City. But his friends and family remember him as one who could just as easily rub shoulders with the everyman, whether that was the cleaning person in his office or working-class customers of a London pub.
Longtime friend William P. Kline said that for all of Price’s achievements in global diplomacy and business, his greatest talent may have been an ability to connect with people of all kinds.
“We’re talking everybody,” Kline said. “He could really communicate with people, and everybody reciprocated and loved Charlie for it.”
Price was stricken suddenly by cardiac arrest at his home in Indian Wells, Calif., said Caroline McCallister, a daughter in Kansas City. He will be buried in Kansas City, and the family has planned a memorial service for 4 p.m. Friday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
In 1981, President Reagan tapped Price to be U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Reagan two years later appointed him ambassador to the United Kingdom at the Court of St. James’s.
Irv Hockaday, the former executive of Hallmark Cards Inc., explained in an interview Friday “one reason Charlie was regarded so fondly as a part of our region:
“With all his access to presidents and fellow ambassadors, he never lost his fondness for his hometown. He often told me this was his favorite place.”
Born in Kansas City to the family that owned Price Candy Co., Price attended Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., and Pembroke-Country Day School. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri and served two years in the U.S. Air Force.
After his military discharge, he returned home to begin a career in banking, serving as chairman and president of American Bancorporation Inc., CEO of the American Bank and Trust Co. and the head of Linwood Securities Co.
He also oversaw his family’s candy operations until 1981, when Price Candy Co. was sold to a company controlled by Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohland.
Price in 1969 married an heiress to a frozen food fortune, Carol Ann Swanson, who later became known on both sides of the Atlantic for her decorating style and entertaining. Known for their lavish parties, she was asked to plan inaugural dinners for the Reagans. The Prices raised three children.
During the Republican National Convention in 1976, the couple hosted media superstars and political dignitaries in their Walnuts condominium penthouse near the Country Club Plaza. Time magazine called it the social highlight of the convention.
Booming in laughter and dubbed “The Bear” by friends (Charles Price was known to wrap his large arms around guests at social events), he established himself as one of the most visible and admired U.S. diplomats of his time.
In a cable sent from Brussels in 1982, he objected to economic sanctions proposed by Reagan against European allies who were helping build a pipeline from the Soviet Union. The ambassador’s message, widely read in the White House and State Department, helped convince the president to drop the sanctions.
Having visited Price in Belgium, Hockaday said he was struck by the degree to which the ambassador was “beloved” by the Belgian population and the embassy staff.
“He was an extremely well-read and knowledgeable individual … but he also had the wisdom of humility,” Hockaday said. “Charlie was humble enough to call on others to augment his knowledge.”
As ambassador to the United Kingdom, Price squeezed into a crammed diplomatic schedule a few visits to “the working men’s pubs” to meet with the British labor class. He made several trips to strife-ridden Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was instrumental in handling the aftermath of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Accompanying Prime Minister Thatcher to the airliner wreckage, Price informed the press that terrorists apparently had targeted the large number of Americans on board.
He also became one of the top U.S. experts on Thatcher, whom Price characterized in a 1989 interview as “very simply one of the best-informed leaders in the western world…if notthe best
Returning to his Kansas City home in the late 1980s, Price shrugged off the suggestion of civic leaders that he run for mayor. As a director of British Airways, he made frequent trips back to London.
Former Kansas City Mayor Richard L. Berkley knew Price for many years and was impressed by his diplomatic skills even in the local arena.
“Sandy and I had a chance to visit with him both in Brussels and in London,” Berkley said, referring to his wife. “He was certainly well-regarded and well-respected in both communities. I thought he served the country very well.”
Across the United States in the 1990s, he served on the boards of the New York Times Co., Texaco, U.S. Industries and Sprint. He was named CEO of Ameribanc Inc. and guided its merger with Mercantile Bancorporation. He retired in 1996 from his chairmanship at Mercantile Bank of Kansas City and Mercantile Bank of Kansas.
Price and his wife also took up philanthropic causes. The Salvation Army awarded them its highest honor for humanitarian service, the William Booth Award, at the army’s 100th anniversary in Kansas City.
In London, the Prices’ legacies include a statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Inspired by the couple and erected in a park near Eisenhower’s World War II headquarters in Grosvenor Square, the statue was made possible by benefactors headed by Hallmark Cards chairman Donald J. Hall.
After Reagan’s death in 2004, Charles and Carol Price spoke to The Kansas City Star about their friendship with the 40th president.
“What clicked the most between my husband and Ronald Reagan was their sense of humor,” Carol Price said.
Charles Price partnered with Reagan at annual golf outings on the private course of publishing magnate Walter Annenberg. Reagan typically played golf just once a year. Price often found himself a few dollars up on Reagan leading into the final holes. Flubbing shots near the end of the round became a tradition.
“I was not interested,” he recalled wryly, “in extracting money from the president.”
He is survived by Carol, their son Charles H. Price III in London, daughters McCallister and Melissa Carlson, of Washington D.C., two children from a previous marriage — Pickette Price and Charles Blair Price — and several grandchildren.
Never, never give up…,
began a note he wrote not long ago to lift the spirits of one of his grandsons:
You will always succeed if you accept that you will not succeed every time. But never accept losing as anything other than a learning experience to drive you to be a champion in all walks of life.