They can’t all be called the greatest. But the 10 named here were great in a variety of ways and rank among the most admirable citizens in Kansas City history.
These also-rans in The Star’s tally of local heroes start with one who never saw greatness coming.
“I am again a loser,” a 30-year-old Robert Van Horn wrote to his parents in 1855, when he left his failed newspaper in Ohio. He planned to launch a new publication out west “to retrieve my fortunes and kick up dust generally among the natives.”
The place Van Horn chose held little if any promise.
In the dank, dangerous Town of Kansas, he and other boosters invested in the Western Journal of Commerce. Van Horn penned editorials that praised this gully town nearly destroyed by border warfare as “one of the best business centers upon the continent!”
After commanding a Union battalion in Kansas City during the Civil War, Van Horn was elected to Congress. There he pushed through federal authorization of the so-called Hannibal Bridge — the first permanent railroad span over the Missouri River.
That single coup forever made Kansas City a metropolis.
Van Horn died a local legend in 1916. The high school bearing his name rose from the Independence acreage where he owned a mansion.
A school, street or fountain named in their honor — it’s how Kansas City today remembers many of the greats gone by (when they’re remembered at all).
August Meyer has both a fountain and a boulevard to his name in the tony neighborhoods south of the Plaza.
The tributes befit the businessman who in the late 19th century envisioned a city strung together with green spaces and broad, scenic streets that became Kansas City’s world-famous “parks and boulevards system.”
Having made a fortune off lead mining, Meyer turned his sights to beautification and in 1892 became the first president of the city’s park board. He surveyed the undulating suburban hills on horseback.
Working with landscape architect George Kessler and newspaper editor William Rockhill Nelson, both soldiers in the movement, Meyer did as much as anyone to realize a vision that set Kansas City apart as “the Paris of the Plains.”
Volker Fountain near Brush Creek is dedicated to the memory of William Volker. So are a boulevard along the south bank and the nearby Volker campus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
A self-effacing German immigrant made rich by warehousing window shades and picture frames, Volker became known as “Mr. Anonymous” for all his quiet generosity to education and medical research.
He donated UMKC’s original 40-acre tract (developed at the time as the University of Kansas City) and built its first library.
He funded what then was known as German Hospital — now Research Medical Center — and founded Kansas City’s first public welfare board. He directed a fortune to creating a public teachers’ retirement fund and scholarships for college students.
From “Mr. Anonymous” to “Mr. American Royal,” Harry Darby in the mid-20th century became the face and pitchman of Kansas City’s annual livestock show, then at the zenith of its global fame.
An industrialist who briefly filled a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, Darby had clout and credibility largely because of his steel company’s successes during World War II. Amid doubts that Midwesterners could build state-of-the-art sea vessels, the Darby Corp. produced more than 1,000 landing craft.
Some plied the riverways to the Gulf of Mexico and on to the beaches of Normandy.
In October 1949, when WDAF broadcast live from the Royal, Darby was among the stars of the station’s first day of regular TV programming.
Even after livestock operations waned in the wake of the 1951 floods, he made sure the fall event endured.
The Call newspaper, established in 1919 by Chester Franklin, gained national prestige in establishing Kansas City’s black community as an economic, political and societal force.
Franklin and his wife, Ada, were consistent voices in calling for equal opportunity and social justice. But just as important was the couple’s emphasis on building community pride through stories about family, schooling, public service and neighborhood values.
Ada Franklin took over the newspaper operations following her husband’s death in 1955. Together with the venerable journalist Lucile Bluford, the widow Franklin steered the ship for another quarter-century.
The Call still sails today.
As does another institution serving a minority population — the Guadalupe Center on the city’s West Side.
The “godmother of Guadalupe” was Dorothy Gallagher, born in 1894 into a wealthy Kansas City family. She donated the land and her full-time labor into serving the city’s swelling Hispanic population through most of the 20th century.
Gallagher’s family expanded the center’s health care mission to include English and adult education classes, boys’ and girls’ clubs, home economics training, job placement and legal advice.
For a new facility that opened in 1936, Gallagher drew the plans, hired an architect and paid for construction. She died in 1982.
Another champion of equal opportunity, Esther Brown of Merriam, died mostly unheralded in 1970.
Some say public school desegregation in the Kansas City area began with Brown, a white teacher who in 1948 pressed for black and white children to attend classes together at a new school in Johnson County’s South Park district.
Having successfully sued to integrate South Park, she took her activism to other parts of Kansas, including Topeka.
She is not the Brown of the U.S. Supreme Court’s epic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling in 1954. But at no small cost to her finances and community standing, Esther Brown was there at ground zero.
We close with a pair of contenders for the great Top 10 who show how varied greatness can be.
Fastball king and off-field sage Leroy “Satchel” Paige, born in Alabama on a date he’d never confirm, lived in Kansas City from the late 1930s to his death in 1982.
He said a goat ate the family Bible that contained his birthdate — just one of the life lessons and witticisms that made Paige a legend in his own, wildly extended time.
After pitching for many teams in the Negro leagues, he earned his fame with the Kansas City Monarchs. No matter when he was born — a July 7, 1906, birth certificate would eventually surface — Paige in 1948 became the undisputed oldest rookie in major-league history when he signed with the Cleveland Indians after baseball integrated.
And he was far from done. Paige was 59 or so when, hurling for the local A’s in 1965, he pitched three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox at Municipal Stadium.
Perhaps rivaling Paige only in tenacity, the most recent entrant to The Star’s late, great ranks is philanthropist James E. Stowers, Jr., who died at age 90 in 2014.
A Kansas City native, Stowers in 1958 founded the predecessor to American Century Investments with only two mutual funds and $107,000 in assets.
Three decades later he and wife Virginia, both cancer survivors, poured their fortune into creating the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.
In the face of skepticism that Kansas City could become a center of scientific discovery, the institute ultimately boasted a $2 billion endowment and drew hundreds of researchers and associates, many world-renowned.
As fierce advocates of stem-cell research to fight life-ending diseases, Jim and Virginia Stowers gave criticial financial support to a 2006 Missouri campaign to amend the state constitution. The vote enabled the continuation of federally allowed research using embryomic stem cells.
Is there a more profound legacy than finding cures for generations to come?
“When I look ahead, I feel enormous optimism and hope,” Jim Stowers said in 2008, speaking on behalf of the financial minds at American Century and the medical pioneers at the Stowers Institute.
“Never have I been so confident that, truly, the best is yet to be.”