Is history important in Kansas City?

One of the fun things about this job is the unexpected pleasure of discovery. I am not kidding when I say, I never know what new little historical goodies I’ll come across when I open up a box or an envelope or, some days, even the door to my office.

Why just this week, I was given two copy-paper boxes filled with photographs. There were some “old-fashioned” negatives, some prints and some CDs. But the prize of what I have looked through so far were some black-and-white contact sheets, which are basically proof sheets of all the pictures on a roll of film (or a disc in this day and age.)

These particular photos were aerials of Hospital Hill. Not sure the exact date, but it was

contact sheet
This contact sheet shows aerial photos of Hospital Hill with Children’s Mercy and General Hospital. The negative with the “X” in white grease pencil (third from the left, third row from the top) is the one marked for printing. 

sometime after 1970 and before the mid-1980s. I know this because of what’s missing from the photos (certain Children’s Mercy buildings) and what’s still there (old General Hospital.)

My first thought was, “Darn, I wish I would have found these a year ago when I was working on ‘For All Children Everywhere.’ ” These would have been great to use in the book to show how Children’s Mercy was hemmed in by the old buildings to the north, and UMKC Dental School and Truman Medical Center to the south and east. But alas, I didn’t have the pictures then and, well, truth be told, the book turned out just fine without them.

The second thought was, “Boy, there’s no end to what we might find as we continue to look for photos and artifacts related to our history.” This is an exciting odyssey. (I want to get more into that thought another time.)

But while I’m on the subject of old General Hospital (and for that matter, old
Wheatley Provident Hospital), it’s time to bring up something else I ran across while working on the book but wasn’t able to include. I think it’s relevant now that Wheatley is in danger of being torn down, and old General Hospital already has been replaced.

In the 1980s-’90s battle over the future of the General Hospital buildings that opened in 1908, a lot of people voiced very strong opinions. Many of them are included in the book. But one I didn’t include was an editorial from The Kansas City Star. It ran on a Sunday, the highest circulation day for the paper, which suggests the folks at The Star wanted as many people as possible to see its opinion on the matter. I’ll let it speak for itself. From Nov. 26, 1989:

It’s not important in Kansas City.

Kansas City doesn’t seem to have the will — or people with power who have the will — to keep history. The Union Station continues to deteriorate with nothing in sight to save it. Now it seems that the old General Hospital is on the way to destruction.

There are always good reasons to tear down an old building. Always an excuse. Children’s Mercy Hospital and the University of Missouri – Kansas City need the General Hospital property for what is called eventual expansion and for present parking. Harry C. McCray Jr., chairman of the Children’s Mercy board, says he is not unsympathetic to the cause of the preservationists, but that it comes down to the city making some choices: “The hospital is more important.”

Something is always more important.

Probably at various times, something was more important than the Roman Colosseum. But it’s still there after nearly 2,000 years. …

But you don’t necessarily think of building preservation in terms of architecture. You think in terms of history. You certainly don’t think in terms of this century or even the next. You think in terms of 300 years from now, 500 years from now, even a thousand years from, now.

Kansas City is a young city, even by New World standards. Its bare beginnings were only a century and a half ago. Almost nothing from those earliest days is left. Nobody thought those old buildings were important. So they’re gone. But in such a youthful city, we hope there will be a 500-years-from-now.

Those who always have good reasons for tearing down an old building will offer the stopper: “Nobody’s doing anything with it.” “It’s just rotting away.” “Who’s going to pay for it?”

Those are good questions, but some places in the world have found answers. Ways are found to do things with old property that aren’t immediately profitable or expedient. If private interests and philanthropy won’t do it, government does.

But not in Kansas City.

We know what happened to General Hospital. And we know what happened to Union Station. The future of Wheatley-Provident is still being written. There are many possibilities.

Maybe a public health museum and education center. Maybe, with its proximity to Crossroads, a children’s art gallery.

Or perhaps, a pile or rubble and a forgotten past.

“Something is always more important.”



How to know if a building is worth saving

Writing about the uncertain future of Wheatley Provident hospital the other day got me thinking about other historical buildings in Kansas City. And I wondered how we determine if something – in this case buildings – is worth saving or not.

I’m not talking about houses here. I know in the neighborhoods of northeast Johnson County where I live, there are many homes are being ripped down only to be replaced with something new to serve the same purpose. But that’s a whole different discussion.

A couple of decades ago — and it’s amazing I still remember this, so it must have made a pretty deep impression — there was an article in the New Yorker about the battle over historic preservation in Atlanta. Seems that it’s pretty hard to find old buildings in this southern city that was founded as a railroad terminus in 1837. Some folks in this state capital blame it on the Civil War.

The article was “Who Burned Atlanta,” published in July 1996 in the run up to the

wheatley 1
The old Wheatley Provident Hospital at 18th and Forest near the hip Crossroads in Kansas City is facing the wrecking ball.

Olympics. It mentioned that many in the city blame General William Tecumseh Sherman’s torching of Atlanta in 1864 on the lack of old building. But in fact, the article pointed out, Sherman is not to blame for the demolition of all the old buildings in Atlanta. It continued long past the Civil War.

The article put it this way:

Fire is a recurrent theme in the history of Atlanta, and the Sherman fire occupies a large place in the city’s collective imagination. But is this perception accurate? Actually, more historic homes and buildings in Atlanta were torn down post-Civil War by urban planning than were destroyed by Sherman’s fire, according to Tommy Jones, a leading historic preservationist.

“Urban planning” they call it. Scorched-earth development might be another way to put it.

I bring this up now because it reminds me of the battle Children’s Mercy had in the 1980s and early 1990s over another hospital building, old General Hospital. In this case, Children’s Mercy need to tear it down to make room for expansion. There were many forces on the other side.

When Children’s Mercy moved to Hospital Hill in 1970, its sole building was south of the old nurses residence for General Hospital. Over time, Children’s Mercy acquired that residence for outpatient clinics and offices. It’s still being used today, which goes to show that Children’s Mercy knows how to preserve old buildings.

But when further expansion was needed, Children’s Mercy found itself landlocked. It built a connecting structure, known at least to us old timers as the Sombart Building, between the hospital and the nurses residence. With nowhere else to go — at least in the vicinity — we moved to tear down old General Hospital to the north (which was sitting mostly empty, having been replaced by Truman Medical Center across Holmes Road.) In a rare moment in Children’s Mercy history, there was plenty of opposition to the plan.

You see, at the time, there was a lot of interest in saving old General. In fact, it was the only time I found in Children’s Mercy history when a large contingent of Kansas Citians were fighting against Children’s Mercy. It’s impossible to know how large the opposition was, but it was vocal and it had the support or at least the ear, of some of the City Council. It also had at least tacit support of The Kansas City Star.

For years — and I do mean years — it was debated whether or not to allow Children’s Mercy tear down old General. (If you think it’s tiresome how long it’s taken the city to figure out what to do with the out-dated Kansas City International Airport, this is nothing new. Sorta business as usual for KCMO, it seems.)

Here’s how I explained some of the controversy in “For All Children Everywhere:”

General Hospital, which opened in 1908, was in poor shape. Both Children’s Mercy and Truman officials asked the city to raze the buildings. Already, Truman had torn down the old German Hospital (also known as the old Research Hospital) to make room for its new building, so demolition of the aging structures on Hospital Hill was not unprecedented.

But historical preservationists, including some from outside the city, had other ideas. 

A special General Hospital Task Force appointed by the City Council in 1985 came to the

general two
General Hospital on Hospital Hill

conclusion that much of General Hospital should be saved and repurposed. One proposal called for it to be used for low-income housing. … The task force was chaired by the past president of the Historical Kansas City Foundation, Linda Gill Taylor. She insisted the recommendation was based on economic, planning and architectural criteria, not merely “preservationist” interests.

But Children’s Mercy balked. Hospital consultants concluded that it would be too expensive to renovate the building and that its design was simply outdated …

“Restoration of a deteriorated building, however otherwise desirable, is not seen as part of our mission,” said the hospital’s first Chief Executive Office, Larry McAndrews, in a memo to employees dated Sept. 18, 1986. “To raise future funds for this purpose would divert money from meeting the needs of sick children.”

A stalemate over General Hospital ensued. The City Council voted to tear down the building in the summer of 1986 and three months later decided to save it. Vocal citizens kept the issue alive with election-petition drives, vitriolic comments at public hearings, accusations in letters to the editor, and suggestions of racism aimed at Children’s Mercy and Hallmark leaders.

Quietly, the hospital, the university and the city continued to work on a compromise. The hospital Board of Trustees even forwarded the city $350,000 to pay three-fifths of the cost of demolition. But the buildings remained as the city wrestled with balancing the interests of many constituents. The money was returned, albeit temporarily. …

While waiting on a decision about General Hospital, Children’s Mercy considered other expansion options. Both Research Medical Center and St. Luke’s made overtures about partnerships or mergers at their properties. … Children’s Mercy also considered building in a different part of the city, including along Interstate 435 in the growing southern part of the metropolitan area. …

By the early 1990s, tempers were flaring and the fight was very much public.

A Kansas City Business Journal article, Nov. 1991, put it this way:

“To the preservationists, the debate is over who runs the city and whether a private institution, however worthy, should be able to run roughshod over an agreement (from the Council-appointed pro—preservationist Task Force) … To the hospital, the issue boils down to nothing less than a choice between preserving an old decaying building and preserving Children’s Mercy’s vaunted reputation as one of the foremost pediatric hospitals in the region. …”


general hospital
Children’s Mercy paid to save this facade of old General Hospital, which today stands as a monument outside Truman Medical Center at 24th and Holmes.

But just as tempers boiled over, calmer minds were working on a compromise. The day after the Business Journal story, an agreement was announced. … Children’s Mercy agreed to preserve the iconic facade of General Hospital [some of which stands today at a monument near 22nd and Holmes.]

Mary Jane Barnes, chair of the Children’s Mercy Central Governing Board at the time, was glad at least this battle was over.

“We know Kansas Citians want us to get on with the care of our children and our expanded hospital will enable us to do that. We feel all participants are happy. Of course, the children are the real winners.”

The lesson of this story?

I suppose it’s that sometimes old buildings are saved and sometimes they’re not. But it would be a shame to let simple neglect and forgetfulness let us decide the fate of the Wheatley-Provident building and what it stands for in Kansas City history.

Shouldn’t there at least be some public debate? I wonder where the preservationists who were so interested in General Hospital are today?


Bit of our history facing the wrecking ball

One of the proudest moments in the history of Children’s Mercy was when a special pediatric ward opened in the 1920s at Wheatley-Provident Hospital, the city’s only hospital owned by and serving African-Americans.

It, like much of our history, was truly a team effort.

Local businessmen, most prominently Frank C. Niles (who made his fortune in cigars), chipped in both money and moral support. Niles, in one letter to Children’s Mercy co-founder Katharine Berry Richardson, assured her he would cover whatever costs she needed, as long as the care for children at Wheatley-Provident was provided without charge and was every bit the work at Children’s Mercy. Niles and William Volker donated $65,000 for the three-story addition to expand the hospital in 1923.

Before that, Dr. Richardson worked with friend and fellow doctor, James E. Perry, to establish a

3G3b. Pediatric Training Clinic
Training of doctors and nurses at Wheatley-Provident mean demonstrations by the Children’s Mercy staff, in this case, Dr. Robert Schlauffler, an orthopedic surgeon with a young patient.

training program for African-American doctors and nurses to provide care for the children at Wheatley. This was ground-breaking stuff. No where in the country – a widely segregated country — did such a program exist.

Donations to the Wheatley children’s ward poured in from civic organizations, children’s clubs and art clubs. The effort was endorsed by the Council of Social Agencies, which included 60 organizations as members. Near the front of the line to donate was The Mercy-Wheatley Quaker Club. Dr. Richardson wrote: “The Friends (Quakers) have always stood by the Negro people. This last proof of loyalty originated at the pretty church at 30th and Bales” — the Friends Community Church.

Nearly all of Kansas City, it seems, was a part of this good work. It was like one giant embrace of the good work of caring for children. Wheatley-Provident stayed open serving the African-American community until 1972, despite the fact that health care in Kansas City was integrated in the 1950s.

Today, sadly, a piece of this proud story is threatened. KCUR, the public radio station at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, reported on August 7 that the “First Black Hospital in Kansas City is now on Life Support.” Unless something happens to save it, the stones of Wheatley-Provident Hospital could face the wrecking ball soon. As the story reports:

Vacant since 1972, the first black-owned hospital in Kansas City – where black doctors and nurses could practice medicine and receive advanced clinical training – sits decaying under 45 years of neglect.

Once a triumph of community-wide cooperation, the Wheatley-Provident Hospital remains on the city’s dangerous buildings list for an eighth year. Absent a plan for its rehabilitation, it could be demolished by 2019.

This makes me sad. Memories fade. Times change. People move on. But as the old saying goes, if we don’t remember the past, we may be destined to repeat it. And one of the things that reminds us of times are our buildings. They serve as monuments to by-gone days. And now, one of those buildings is in danger of being torn down.

For more than a year, I’ve had my eyes on the Wheatley building at 1826 Forest Avenue (just east of the Crossroads, which was recently voted Kansas City’s favorite neighborhood by Ink.) It’s overgrown with weeds. The windows have no glass. A sign on top of what was once the children’s ward says “Asylum,” recalling the building’s last use as a haunted house. It’s a sad sight.

But I see something better. I see history. I see promise, as nutty as it sounds. There are so many possibilities. A museum. Offices. A medical clinic. And more. None of them would be easy. None of them cheap. And none without complications.

Of course, that didn’t stop Katharine Richardson, James Perry, the civic organizations and the children’s clubs and  in the 1920s. What’s going to stop us now?








Disasters can pull people together

Much attention has been made the past week or so about Hurricane Harvey and particularly the devastation in the city of Houston. Deservedly so. What a mess. What a disaster. I promise never to whine about the trickles of water that have invaded my basement this unusually wet Kansas City summer.

Being and old-timer and all (no something I set out to become … but it beats the alternative, I suppose) I couldn’t help but think about another hurricane, another city and another time. Labor Day weekend 2005. Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans.

It was a mess and a disaster, too. It’s still a mess in part of NOLA, though there’s been a

katrina 2
Tanks were needed to rescue some people stranded in New Orleans in 2005.

lot of recovery too.

What it got me thinking about this week is how Children’s Mercy played a part in the rescue and recovery efforts. That’s right, 850 miles away and yet, Children’s Mercy was right in the middle of the action. Doing the right thing. Kind of like it’s in our DNA.

Personally, I’ll never forget it. And I bet there are a lot of people around here who feel the same way.

For those of you who don’t, or would like a refresher, here are some of the details, as described in “For All Children Everywhere:”

Perhaps the most dramatic [patient] transports happened in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina forced New Orleans Children’s Hospital to shut down and evacuate patients.

Dr. Randall O’Donnell, Children’s Mercy president and CEO, worked quickly with his counterpart in New Orleans, as well as with U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond and Gov. Matt Blunt, who helped secure the help of the Air National Guard based in St. Joseph.

The effort culminated in the largest single pediatric medical transport in history.

April 29 airpower summary: C-130s help sustain operations
Two c-130 transport plans like this one landed at the downtown airport in Kansas City carrying children and their families who had been at New Orleans Children’s Hospital.

Children’s Mercy received 24 patients and their families flown from the disaster zone 800 miles away aboard two c-130 military transport planes. The Children’s Mercy transport team also took several other patients to other children’s hospitals.

“When children are in need, you reach out and help,” Dr. O’Donnell said at the time. “That is what we’ve been doing for more than 100 years in Kansas City. We could not sit by and wait.”

Neither could the Kansas City community. Not long after the children arrived, calls came

2005_Katrina N.O
Members of the Children’s Mercy critical care transport team returned from New Orleans with precious cargo.

to Children’s Mercy from people in the community who wanted to help. With patients ranging from age 3 months to 23 years, and conditions like cystic fibrosis, kidney failure and broken bones, Children’s Mercy had the medical care covered. Total cost of the care for the children was about $1.8 million. But the families had other needs, since many arrived in Kansas City with only the clothes on their back. Some families stayed at the hospital, others were put up for free or at discounted rates at area hotels. The Ronald McDonald House stepped in to help. The hospital directed donations to the Family Support Fund, which helps families in out-of-the-ordinary situations.

In all, about $700,000 was raised for the 24 children and their families. The money came

As they have throughout Children’s Mercy history, children did their part to help.

from 3,000 donors, 2,150 who gave to the hospital for the first time. Donations ranged in size from $1 to $60,000. Community members also contributed other items like toys and toiletries. Children’s Mercy coordinated the shipment of truckloads of toys to Louisiana and Mississippi for children there.

“Money was not part of the discussion,” Dr. O’Donnell said. “We’d worry about that later. First we had to do the right thing and save these children and families.

“I’m so proud of our community, which has responded overwhelmingly with offers of lodging, financial support and other help for these families. I know this is the most caring community on earth.”

The story of the rescue was big news, not only in Kansas City, but around the world. I was managing our work with the news media in those days and we had a very busy week or so. I stayed up all night the first day the children arrived, collecting information for news reporters, taking dozens of phone calls, doing media interviews at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport for the 10 p.m. news while we were waiting for the children to arrive, and putting together a special edition of our employee newsletter so it would be hot off the presses (yes, it was printed in those days!) when people came to work in the morning.

One phone call in particular I remember came from a producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show. I like to tell people I talked with Oprah, but that’s not true. It was a producer. (I did dance with Oprah’s friend Gayle King — without knowing who she was — but that’s another story about another time.)

Anyway, this producer called Labor Day weekend looking for a story. She asked what the situation was, how many children we had, what kind of condition they were in … the same types of questions lots of other reporters asked. But then she got to what she wanted. I’ll paraphrase:

“Do you by chance have a child, young, no more than about 8, who is there without their parents or any other family? Maybe a child who doesn’t even know where her parents are or if they’re OK?”

I thought about this for a minute. This was the Oprah show, for goodness sake, so it would be a coup if we could get Children’s Mercy featured on Oprah. But something about it didn’t feel right. So I asked, just to make sure I understand.

“So, are you asking me to find you a sick child, 800 miles from home, who was rescued from a flood and who has no idea if their parents are alive or dead? And you want to put this child on camera and ask her how she’s doing?”

There was a little silence. “We’d do it very sensitively, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. “I don’t think I can do that. But thanks for calling.”

I like to tell people I hung up on Oprah, too. But it was just as producer.

A few years later, I was at a meeting with public relations folks from other children’s hospital. I had been asked to give a talk about crisis communications and one of the examples I used by the Katrina evacuation … we were in crisis mode for at least a couple of days, preparing for an unknown number of children, with unknown conditions, with increasing requests for information from the news media, and an ever-changing timeline.

Before the talk started, I noticed one of the people in the audience was a colleague from New Orleans Children’s, Brian Landry. I made sure everyone in the crowd knew Brian was there and said I felt a little silly talking about my “little Katrina crisis” when he lived through the whole hurricane, evacuation and much, much more.

Brian, like the real pro and gentle soul that he is, listened patiently and intently. When I was finished, he raised a hand to speak. I don’t remember his exact words, but what he basically said was:

“You, and all the people who pulled together to help us are the real heroes. It is too easy to turn off the TV and forget. We all have busy lives. But you cared. A lot of people cared. It renews my faith in the human race.”

And as we see stories out of Houston and other spots this week, no doubt we’ll see similar heroes. We’ll be reminded of the capacity of people to help out, strangers as well as neighbors.

It helps me understand how, for more than a century, Kansas City has pulled together and worked together and cared, “for all children everywhere.”



Are we destined to repeat history?

I’ve recently begun giving talks about “For All Children Everywhere” in part in an effort to make sure I don’t die, or retire, with an office full of unsold books. I like speaking before groups. It’s the teacher in me, I think. (Thanks, Mom.) There’s a lot to learn from the story of Children’s Mercy and there’s a lot to learn from the process that I went through to get where we are today.

You want stories? I got stories.

The talks vary depending on the audience. When I spoke to the Maywood Club (our oldest auxiliary, no longer active) I told different stories than I did when I talked with our patient financial services department. But I always like to tell stories about some of the key moments in our history. Or key eras, if not single moments.

I ask the audience if they’ve heard the expression: “Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.” There’s pretty much universal agreement, except for the characters nodding off in the back or sending emails from their phones. Then I surprise them by saying, “Well, I think if we learn from Children’s Mercy history, we’ll be lucky to repeat it.” It’s that good of a story.

The news lately has had me thinking about learning from history. Without trying to be political, all this talk about unity and hatred and bigotry and pulling together, has my mind reeling: have we not learned anything from the past?

The founders of Children’s Mercy were children of the Civil War era. Living in Kentucky, their dad ran off for fear of his life because he would not pledge support to the Confederacy. Dad so believed in abolishing slavery that he left his family behind and joined the Union Army. The sisters and their mom stayed.

The sisters grew up with lessons about helping others. And not just their own. Their father instructed them to care for other people’s children, too. Beyond that, he said it was their responsibility to care for all others in the community and help make “good citizens” out of their fellows. It doesn’t appear they grew up believing some people were more deserving than others.

In fact, they worked hard to take care of the least among them. The poor. The children. The sick and crippled.

When people argued that crippled and sickly children were not worthy of health care, the Berry sisters disagreed. Children were often abused, or discarded, and the sisters picked them up and took them in, no matter their address, their religion or their pocketbooks. Immigrants who could not speak English were not turned away. Instead, the sisters printed their post cards in Russian, Italian and Yiddish so the parents could understand and get help.

Decades after the Civil War, when the mores of society prevented Children’s Mercy from taking care of African-American children, Katharine Berry Richardson, the surgeon

Katharine Berry Richardson, MD
J. Edward Perry, MD

among the sisters, found a way. She did not let the segregation of society prevent her from extending her care to those who needed it, regardless of their color of their skin. She worked with a friend, J. Edward Perry, MD, who operated Wheatley-Provident Hospital for African-Americans. They raised money, in both the black and white communities, to care for these vulnerable young people and help train African-American doctors and nurses.

When Katharine declared Children’s Mercy was “for all children everywhere” once the Model Ward at Wheatley-Provident was opened in 1923, she meant it. It was a dream come true.

“For years, the sign over Mercy – The Children’s Mercy Hospital – had haunted and troubled me,” she said in a newspaper article. “I felt the sign was a lie as long as nothing was being done for the unfortunate and suffering Negro children. It is now for all children everywhere.”

Almost a decade later, a “no color line” bed was endowed at Children’s Mercy to care for African-American children who needed the specialty care they could get nowhere else. Health care in Kansas City was integrated in the 1950s. Wheatley-Provident stayed open serving the African-American community until 1972. The hospital building has since fallen into disrepair. (More about that, next time.)

To some, doctors Perry and Richardson made an unlikely pair. But, as I wrote in “For All Children Everywhere,” “although of different races and genders, Katharine and Dr. Perry proved to be somewhat kindred spirits. Both had suffered discrimination of different kinds and degrees and both had been marginalized in their profession.”

They found similarities, despite their differences. That’s at least one lesson from history we ought to take to heart.






Six degrees of … Katharine Richardson?

In certain circles they play (or used to play … it might not be a thing anymore) something called “Six Degree of Kevin Bacon.” The goal is to link the actor Bacon to any other actor through no more than six connections — where two actors are “connected” if they have appeared in a movie or TV commercial together.

It might be called a “parlor game” if we had parlors anymore, but the point is that there’s a theory that all things are six or fewer steps away from each other through a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements.

I was thinking about that when I stumbled onto an interesting story that connects Katharine Berry Richardson, the co-founder of Children’s Mercy, to Sinclair Lewis, the blasphemous Nobel Prize winning author of “Main Street,” “Elmer Gantry” and “Arrowsmith.”

In this case, the “friend of a friend” was Dr. Burris Jenkins, who from the 1910s to the

burris jenkins
Rev. Dr. Burris Jenkins

1940s was the pastor at Linwood Boulevard Christian Church. I wrote a bit more about him and sermon he wrote about Katharine after she’d died last time.

As I wrote last time, Dr. Jenkins name first appeared in my research as one of the leaders of the fund drive to build Children’s Mercy Hospital on Independence Avenue. After the campaign was successful in 1916, he dropped off my radar as far as the book was concerned. But evidently, he remained close to one of our founders, Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson.

But what does this have to do with our parlor game? With Sinclair Lewis. Well, let me explain.

When I started to dig into more about the good reverend, I ran across the

sinclair lewis
Sinclair Lewis in his later years.

Paris of the Plains blog. It’s a local blog (Wandering side streets in the forgotten past of Kansas City, Missouri. A good old town.) by John Simonson. He told the story of Lewis and how he was connected to Jenkins, who was connected to Katharine Richardson. See? Just three steps.

Lewis, as the story goes, was living in Kansas City in the spring of 1926, working on “Elmer Gantry,” his satirical take on evangelism. One of the pastors he came to know was the pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Christian Church. According to the blog by Simonson:

Jenkins was a native Kansas Citian, Harvard Divinity grad, former college president, novelist, former newspaper publisher, war correspondent, and syndicated columnist. One of his four standing-room-only Sunday sermons was broadcast to several states on WHB radio. He was a free-thinking clergyman who, when civic leaders were choosing a name for a war memorial opposite Union Station, suggested “liberty.”

He believed that parts of the Old Testament were unfit to teach children. And that churches catered to the middle-aged and elderly at the expense of young people. That anyone who considered dancing sacrilegious was behind the times. That sex education was helpful, not harmful. And that a church should be open to everyone, regardless of denomination.

Depending on one’s perspective, Rev. Jenkins was either modernist or blasphemous.

Burris Jenkins’ church burned down on Halloween 1939. The fire reportedly had started on the auditorium stage. Three years later, renamed Community Christian, the congregation moved into a new building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, at 46th and Main.

But back to the author Lewis. According to Paris of the Plains:

For a time the actress Ethel Barrymore, performing downtown in a vaudeville show, was Lewis’ neighbor at the Ambassador [Hotel, 36th and Broadway]. She later remembered passing his open door:

“It was always crowded with ministers of every denomination whom he was bullying, in the hope, I suppose, of extracting something for his book. He would stride around the room, pointing a finger at one of them after another and saying, ‘You know you don’t believe in God.’ “

In April 1926, Lewis was invited to speak at a forum at the Linwood church. He ranted about Christian fundamentalism to a crowd of about 1,500. At one point he dared God to strike him down. He survived. (Both God and the writer.) The stunt gain national publicity.

There’s more to that story, of course. There always is. And there are many more “celebrities” that our co-founder Katharine Richardson was connected with. Babe Ruth. Herbert Hoover. Wonder Woman. The Beatles. Ant Man. To name a few. (All of these are included in the book “For All Children Everywhere,” by the way.

The stories keep coming.

And that’s why we open up dusty age-old scrapbooks looking for treasures.



How science and spirituality can coexist

You never have a friend all figured out. Just when you think you know what makes them tick, they tock.
―Robert Brault

Just when you think you know something about someone, they go and do something that surprises you.

And not that I think I’ve figured out Katharine Berry Richardson, one of the founders of Children’s Mercy, but I do know more than the average person about her. I’ve read a lot of what she has written. I’ve read what other people have written about her. I’ve spent hours thinking about her and why she did the things she did, what she thought about certain events and even what she’d think about her hospital today.

I thought I had a pretty good handle on her spirituality, but a recently uncovered sermon by a pastor friend of Dr. Richardson’s shed new light on the subject.

Dr. Burris Jenkins, who from the 1910s to the 1940s was the pastor at Linwood Boulevard Christian Church. As I wrote last time, Dr. Jenkins name first appeared in my research as one of the leaders of the fund drive to build Children’s Mercy Hospital on Independence Avenue. He remained close to Dr. Richardson.

While looking through a scrapbook from the Mercy Hospital Maywood Club recently, I found a sermon by the Reverend Doctor Jenkins. I don’t know of any connection to the club, but I am sure glad they saved it.

In the sermon, given in 1944, more than a decade after the good doctor had died, he offered some powerful insight into this women of science who devoted her life to kindness and caring.

In the 1880s, Katharine, then known as Kitty Berry, went to a Methodist College for her undergraduate degree. She lived part of her early life in western Pennsylvania, where a Quaker influence can be seen in some of the teachings she attributed to her father. But there is no evidence of her ever belonging to a church and she and her sister, Alice Berry Graham, insisted that Children’s Mercy be “non sectarian” to ensure that it was open to all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, or lack thereof.

Some have suggested this means they were anti-religion or didn’t believe in God. But the evidence points otherwise. As I wrote in “For All Children Everywhere:”

The non-sectarian language was part of the effort to make Children’s Mercy accessible to all, said wrote Lena Dagley, Katharine’s personal assistant.

“To be non-sectarian, does not mean to be irreligious. We believe in God and in the Bible and we believe that worship is just as necessary to a well-rounded life and personality as is work, education, recreation, etc. We mean it is not controlled by any one particular denomination.

“We consider that Mercy Hospital is Christian in the highest sense of the word. Serving sick and crippled children who might not otherwise receive care. It embraces all religions and its doors are open alike to Jews, Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”

Further testament to this ideal came about a year after Katharine died in 1933. The Central Governing Board of the Hospital published the thoughts of C.L. Hobart, a long-time supporter and newspaperman. He wrote:

“The development of Mercy Hospital from a free bed in a corner of a small hospital to its present magnificent million-and-a-half-dollar plant, in the span of a generation is an epic. In my opinion, it is the greatest philanthropy of the age. But Dr. Richardson did more than that. She left an example of virile Christianity which should be an inspiration to the Christian world. In all the years of my acquaintance, I never knew her church affiliation, but I know she was a Christian in the fullest sense of the word. Christ said, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.’ Self denial, sacrifice and fidelity has glorious exemplification in her life … she knew what it was to be ‘reviled and persecuted’ but she never failed.”

A wooden plaque in a hallway of the Hall Family Outpatient Center bears a quote from Dr. Katharine Richardson that suggests the complexity of her philosophy: “Skill cannot take the place of sympathy, for science without heart is ugly and pitiless.”

Dr. Jenkins knew that Dr. Richardson was a woman of science. And in that era, it was not uncommon for science and religion to be at odds with one another. Or at the very least, they were not often mentioned in the same breath. But, in this startling sermon, I discovered that Dr. Jenkins also knew his friend Katharine was searching for something deeper in her life than science and medicine were providing.

On old onion skin paper, the typewritten sermon was in response to the argument by
“scientific men” that it isn’t worthwhile to treat underdeveloped and crippled children “because life will be a burden to them anyhow.”

“Better let them die, let the fittest survive … and let the others pass off the stage of action. That philosophy has prevailed frequently in all times, but perhaps most important in these scientific times,” Rev. Jenkins said, according to the written text.

He then went on to talk about Children’s Mercy and the lives saved there. He gave examples of children who were not, in fact, a burden, but instead healthy contributing members of society thanks to Children’s Mercy and Dr. Richardson. He praised the good doctor for her work and her medical expertise. But he also wanted his congregation to know — and now we get to know, some 60 years later — that she had a different side of her too. That all the medicine and science in the world could not completely fill her. There remained an emptiness.

“She used to drive up to the study in the old church in a hospital truck … ‘I have got to

linwood blvd christian
The offices of Linwood Boulevard Christian Church, Linwood and Forest, were visited frequently by Children’s Mercy co-founder Dr. Katharine Richardson. The church burned on Halloween 1939.

talk to somebody. Do you have anything to read?’ … I would pull out books for her … the hardest kind of theological and philosophical material that I could select from my limited stock and she would go away with an armful of books in her hands. Toward the end, I began to see what she was seeking: scientific women, free-thinking woman, she didn’t belong to any church

community christian
Community Christian Church near the Country Club Plaza replaced the church on Linwood, opening three years after the fire. It was designed by renown architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who referred to its pastor, Burris Jenkins, as a national treasure.

and she hadn’t any faith in immortality, but she wanted that faith; consciously or unconsciously, she was engaged in thinking about the life that is beyond. She was nearing 70 in those days and when I saw what it was the she was seeking, I did my best to give her the simple Christian faith which the church holds and nobody else holds, which is not home anywhere except the church, the faith in immortality and eternal life.”

I had read that Katharine was often lonely.

But I had not thought about the void inside of her because she lacked faith. I just assumed she was more well-rounded, fulfilled. And maybe she was by the end of her life, thanks to Burris Jenkins, his books, and, maybe even discovery of a higher power.

This gem of a find in one of our scrapbooks gives us a look at her like we’ve not had before. And it is precious.