It is no stretch to speculate that most English-speaking people say the word “great” every day.
We just don’t know what it means.
Family gatherings are great. Floods and plagues are sometimes called great. That wall in China, great.
Did you find a great deal on cut meats in the past year? Of course, you did.
My mission was to select great people.
To be more specific, great Kansas City-area citizens who have left us. The offerings are huge.
But first I had to figure out what that term meant.
“Great.” Are we talking powerful? Are we talking really nice? Are we talking admirable?
I started with admirable, which narrowed the field.
The Depression-era political boss Tom Pendergast did some great things — putting people to work and getting skyscrapers built — but he didn’t do them admirably. He went to prison for tax evasion, the least of his sins.
Tom didn’t make my list.
I asked local historians. The archivists at the Kansas City Public Library sent a list of great candidates, as did Bill Worley (a great historian) and Bruce Mathews, author of “The Kansas City Spirit: Stories of Service Above Self.”
They agreed on the slam dunks: Harry Truman, the Kauffmans, Katharine Richardson, William Rockhill Nelson and the Hall family of Hallmark Cards fame.
Further down their lists were town-builders, barons of banking, lumber and real estate. Magnates, mostly, who did the right thing in the end by slicing up their fortunes for the common good.
You can’t knock that. But they had the money to do it, making them a little less fascinating to me.
My friend Worley’s favorite was William Volker. A supreme giver who didn’t call attention to himself, Volker donated land and millions of dollars to create the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
A great man was Volker, also known as “Mr. Anonymous.” But as I researched him — wise and caring as he was — I became a bit bored by his story.
He got rich selling window treatments, for heaven’s sake. And Volker didn’t have children. Yeah, give that money away.
This was when I realized that my definition of greatness included having a great story to tell.
Heck, I’m a journalist. I love a great story.
Charlie Parker, Nell Donnelly Reed and Buck O’Neil are great stories. The fat, cigar-chomping Roe Bartle is a great story.
Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway are great stories, too. But they weren’t really Kansas Citians. They passed through.
I wanted to limit this to those who truly called our place home.
So I came up with a list and ran it by Debbie Wilkerson, president and chief executive of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
I stammered explaining my selections. They just felt right. They were people who mostly made us proud to be Kansas Citians.
But why them? I couldn’t figure out the common thread that ran through such a diverse bunch.
I tossed out to Wilkerson: “Maybe through the power of their personalities, they helped build the community we know?”
And she said: “You just nailed it.”
So I’m good with this list.
I confess to leaving out so many great individuals. Hundreds from our past, of course, are worthy of acclaim. But these folks in the pages ahead, you need to know.