Del Dunmire, a larger-than-life millionaire, dies at the age of 82

Del Dunmire at one time owned much of downtown Harrisonville.
Del Dunmire at one time owned much of downtown Harrisonville. THE STAR

Word of Del Dunmire’s death spread quickly in Harrisonville, whose residents were at some times reverent, at other times skeptical of his larger-than-life presence.

Dunmire had a dream of fashioning the Harrisonville square into a thriving arts and entertainment outlet for area shoppers. He spent more than $10 million to purchase 80 percent of the properties along the brick-laid square and refurbish its historic buildings, according to his son Mark Dunmire.

His dream was never totally fulfilled, as reflected in the many buildings that now stand empty on the square.

“The good Lord didn’t give him enough time on this Earth,” Mark Dunmire said of his father’s square project.

Del Dunmire, 82, died of complications from pneumonia Tuesday at St. Luke’s Hospital. He was surrounded by family.

A visitation will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Mount Moriah funeral home, 10507 Holmes Road in Kansas City. He was survived by four children. One son preceded him in death.

The bank robber turned millionaire was widely known throughout the Kansas City area for his criminal exploit and subsequent retribution. After being sentenced to prison for robbing a bank in Abilene, Kan., Del Dunmire was released after two years for good behavior.

Once free, he founded Growth Industries Inc. from the garage of his Grandview home. The company, a worldwide seller of aviation parts, became the source of Dunmire’s fortune.

“He was the embodiment of the American dream,” Mark Dunmire said of his father.

Lavish party host

He also knew how to throw a party.

“He might have made $200 million in his lifetime, and he probably spent $205 million,” Mark Dunmire said.

More than a million dollars of his fortune was spent on a single wild night in 1986 when he married his second wife, Debbie Dunmire. The couple divorced in 2006 or 2007, his son said, but the split wasn’t for a lack of an opulent wedding.

Dunmire invited the entire city to a hotel on Barney Allis Plaza in downtown Kansas City. He rented rooms for the thousands of guests, paid all their room service bills and entreated daredevil Evel Knievel, a groomsman, to hop on a small motorcycle and jump over one of his friends.

This was after Knievel was sprung from jail after he was charged with soliciting a prostitute, according to Mark Dunmire.

For his 35-year high school reunion, Dunmire bought tickets and airfare for a cruise to the Bahamas for his entire graduating class from Punxsutawney, Pa., where he grew up. People magazine wrote a story about the party.

“Del, being eccentric, he was tickled to death to do something for people who meant something to him,” said longtime friend and business partner Pat Thomas.

Dunmire funded a prairie dog exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo, one that Mark Dunmire described as a tunneling setup allowing patrons to walk beneath the prairie dogs’ home, look up through a glass ceiling and watch the animals burrowing.

Dunmire added his own wild prairie dogs captured from western Kansas to the exhibit. The wild animals wound up fighting with the tame ones supplied by the zoo.

“I’m really sad they took it (the exhibit) out,” said Mark Dunmire.

He also noted that his father’s love of prairie dogs led to an exhibit at his Grandview manufacturing plant. Schools took field trips to visit the exhibit at the factory, but one winter the prairie dogs were all found dead.

“A prairie dog war,” Mark Dunmire called it. “We spoke to veterinarians. It’s entirely possible, in a close-knit society, where they can’t spread out, if one got a temper it would run through them all. So we lost our prairie dogs at the local plant.”

Remembered in Harrisonville

Bill Grigsby, a former announcer for the Kansas City Chiefs, took Dunmire to Harrisonville to speak at an event around 1990. His son said it was then that his father fell in love with the town. Before his death, Dunmire lived in a second-floor apartment on the square.

“He was a big fish in a small pond,” Mark Dunmire said. “Being as entrepreneurial and visionary as he was, like an artist, it gave him a blank palette to work with.”

John Foster, who began a career as a developer in Harrisonville in 1953, met Dunmire while working on a farm near Drexel, Mo.

When Dunmire began purchasing his Harrisonville properties in the early ’90s, Foster sold him a vacant lot on the square.

“I sold him that lot on the square on a handshake,” Foster said. “Never did sign any papers. I think probably in my half century of experiences, that’s the only (deal) like that that I had.

“He was a type A personality, hyperactive. … He just kind of told you how it was.”

Thomas, a former Drexel mayor, met Dunmire while in office. Thomas said Dunmire often donated to civic projects in the small city southwest of Harrisonville.

Thomas later worked on the square project and commended Dunmire for his industriousness and freewheeling innovation.

“He liked to totally gut a building so he wouldn’t be restricted by someone else’s view,” Thomas said.

While renovating the Harrisonville square, Thomas said, Dunmire hired a seven-man masonry crew for five years to refurbish the brickwork on his properties.

“And that was just the masons,” Thomas said. “The work we did to them will help preserve the square for another 100 years.”

Not everyone in town was thrilled by Dunmire’s work, though. He faced resistance from the city government, according to Mark Dunmire.

“It’s a very provincial town. I don’t mean to cast disparagements. My father was a Yankee and always felt he was being viewed as a carpetbagger,” Mark Dunmire said.

Three years ago, Mark Dunmire told The Star his father was worried about his legacy in Harrisonville. His father had recently listed all 52 of his properties for sale.

“He loves the town,” siad Mark Dunmire, in an interview with The Star on Thursday. “He would love to see that project completed by someone who could come in now and bring it to fruition.”

A capitalist and philanthropist

Mark Dunmire said his father lived like a shooting star.

“He had one hell of a ride. He was both a ferocious capitalist and generous philanthropist,” Mark Dunmire said. “When the good Lord made my dad, he broke the mold. There will never be another one like him.”

Mark Dunmire said his father, who was born Delbert Leroy Dunmire to a poor family in the midst of the Great Depression, dedicated his later years to philanthropy. He spread donations widely, putting $25,000 up when funds were needed to complete the city’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fountain.

He also donated to Children’s Mercy Hospital, the Salvation Army and the Dream Factory, among other organizations, and he helped found the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, which provide funds for a tips hotline service and other programs.

Dunmire’s philanthropy and business acumen stand in stark contrast to the crime he committed that many know him for. When he couldn’t pay a poker debt he’d accumulated in the Air Force, his debtor threatened to expose him to his commanding officer.

He drove to the Abilene, Kan., bank in a rented Chevrolet and later would say his survival that day was a sign that led to a turning point in his life.

In the bank, he slipped a note to a teller, asking for the money. He was unarmed, opting to leave his gun in the car. He was handed $1,200 in loot and fled the bank. He led police on a lengthy chase before he was captured.