A slightly snarling face on a bronze plaque greets employees of The Star who enter through the main doors of our brick edifice at 18th Street and Grand Boulevard.
The likeness of newspaper founder William Rockhill Nelson is quite literally looking down his nose.
He was never one to mince words, so we won’t, either: Nelson was pompous — not so much by circa-1900 standards but certainly by today’s, a century after his death.
Whatever Nelson liked, he felt all of Kansas City should like, too.
He was “the Colonel,” but his staffers well understood that Nelson had no military record. They called him Colonel “just because he looked coloneliferous,” wrote William Allen White after serving the paper as a young scribe.
Local historian Monroe Dodd calls Nelson “impressively egotistical...What made Nelson stand out in any crowd of wealthy and similarly egotistical people was that much of the time he aimed for what he thought was the general good.”
In death Nelson delivered an art gallery that was nothing short of magnificent, which is how he envisioned everything.
“All of his qualities, faults, or virtues were pitched on a grand scale,” Star editors Henry Haskell and Richard Fowler said in a book commemorating Kansas City’s centennial in 1950.
Nelson envisioned a grand city. Arriving in 1880 from Fort Wayne, Ind., he made clear his stand soon after launching the Evening Star with a temporary partner named Samuel Morss.
Nelson decried muddy Kansas City as “picayunish,” filled with tightwads living in the moment.
“Kansas City needs good streets, good sidewalks, good sewers, decent public buildings, better street lights, more fire protection, a more efficient police force, and many other things,” his Star declared a few weeks into its existence.
“She needs these improvements now. They will cost money and a great deal of it.”
Cocksure words coming from an outsider who, at 39, had little to show when he made Kansas City his life’s project.
Born to wealth in Indiana, Nelson was kicked out of the University of Notre Dame for earning poor marks. He floundered at construction and farming pursuits.
In founding the four-page Star in 1880 and setting its price at 2 cents a copy, about half what other local papers were charging, Nelson succeeded for the first time.
His zeal for Kansas City and its potential was real.
Wooden sidewalks? Come on. The publisher hounded readers to create a city of beauty.
The result was our renowned parks and boulevards.
He locked elbows with civic leader August Meyer and the genius landscaper George Kessler in persuading Kansas Citians to press on with a pricey plan to link broad, paved roads with a network of green spaces.
In so doing Nelson became a very rich real-estate developer.
His own fortunes reflected the larger city’s: In 1887 he built a home for himself, his wife and daughter on scruffy property near Brush Creek, two miles beyond the southern city limit.
His newspaper’s advocacy led to the city running boulevards around his property and miles further south — where Kansas City would be stretching for generations to come.
Houses in Nelson-developed tracts around present-day University of Missouri-Kansas City still stand, enforced with the native yellow limestone that he liked.
City improvement was just one of the harpings of Nelson’s newspaper. Or make that newspapers, as in 1901 he bought a struggling rival, The Kansas City Times, to serve as his morning bully pulpit.
As editor Haskell later recalled in a playful essay about Nelson, The Star and Times “insisted on regulating the minutest details of people’s lives…
“(K)eep your lawn trimmed, and take a lot of baths, and throw out the (political) bosses…and teach your children manners, and what’s the use of lawyers, and cultivate a pleasant speaking voice, and build a civic center…”
Nelson heaped advice on his reporters, as well.
The Star’s stylebook told writers to use short sentences and short first paragraphs, be positive rather than negative. Use vigorous English.
“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” said Ernest Hemingway, who worked here a brief stint as a cub reporter in the 1910s.
Both great writing and reporting could be had when properly executed: “Don’t drink Kaw water!” began one front-page story that found the Kansas River to be hopelessly polluted.
Upon his death in 1915, newspapers across the nation hailed Nelson as a champion reformer. “Lionlike is the word that best describes him,” said the Baltimore Sun.
Nelson willed his estate to public art. His mansion on Brush Creek, known as Oak Hall, would be torn down for a new museum.
Combined with an earlier bequest by schoolteacher Mary Atkins, what came to be known as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opened in 1933.
In the depths of the Great Depression, the world could hardly believe this $12 million treasure unveiled in a Midwestern city that Nelson once called “picayunish.”
In the end, see, the Colonel would have his way. On a grand scale.