Over the weekend, there were a lot of headlines, Facebook posts and Twitter blurbs about the death of Kansas City business icon James B. Nutter. I read as much as I could because, even though I knew he was not in the best of health and was nearly 90 years old, it was a surprise, and a kick in the stomach, when I heard the news.
With a history as rich as his, it is hard to imagine that he is gone. But with compassion that never stopped, it’s comforting to know his legacy will never be lost.
The articles I read mentioned his work for many causes, including housing for the less fortunate when other lenders turned their backs; laws to forbid racial discrimination in places like hotels and restaurants; the creation of the Missouri conservation department; and, of course, Children’s Mercy (where his mother also contributed when she was just a child.)
My first meeting with Mr. Nutter, though I doubt he remembered it, was in the early 1990s when I was a brand-spanking-new public relations guy here at Children’s Mercy. He was the chair of the Marketing Committee of the Central Governing Board and my job was working with the local news media.
To say I was intimidated would be putting it mildly. The Nutter reputation as a bold mover and shaker preceded him, and his physical presence could not be ignored. His hands were huge, though soft when we shook. (I came to believe the same thing about his heart — big and tender — as I learned more about him.)
While Mr. Nutter was pleased with the work we were doing with the local news media, he wanted to know more about our efforts nationally. What about US News and World Report and that list it publishes that ranks children’s hospitals? How about being on that? Back then, it was purely reputation, we explained, and the voters were a small group of pediatricians with an East Coast bias. Not to be deterred, he came up with an idea and he even agreed to finance it out of his own pocket.
The project — a direct-mail piece that we sent to pediatricians all across the country — became known internally as The Nutter Postcard. It
was striking. It impressively made the case for Children’s Mercy to take its place among the top-rated hospitals. And it began to push our reputation higher. Within a few years, we hit that list. And we’ve been on it ever since. Today it is much less about reputation and calculates rankings based on pages and pages of quantifiable data. Still reputation is important.
Of course, Mr. Nutter’s interests were not just making lists. He was interested in the children. And he knew that if Children’s Mercy was more highly thought of, it would be easier to recruit the best and brightest scientists for research and physicians for clinical care. Even though health care was not his first business, he took to it like he took to the mortgage business and helped grow Children’s Mercy into one of the finest.
As our reputation grew, Mr. Nutter continued to put, as the saying goes, his money where
his mouth is. Two years after making its first “best children’s hospital list” (that one in Child magazine that included only 8 hospitals), Children’s Mercy opened the Sybil Silkwood Nutter Playground in 1999. It was named for James B. Nutter’s mother, who along with her friends were donors to the hospital when they themselves were children in the early 1900s. The story of their performances and the early donations is referenced in a previous blog post and is, of course, included in the book, “For All Children Everywhere.” The playground, pictured at the top of this post, includes a one-of-a-kind piano embedded in the sidewalk and a super-soft landing surface to prevent injuries after inevitable falls. Thanks to Mr. Nutter and his family, our children and their families (and hospital staff members) have been enjoying the park for nearly two decades.
Their generosity toward the children did not end there. In addition to James Sr.’s time and talent, his son, James B. Nutter Jr. also served on the Children’s Mercy Board, offering his expertise to guide this ship. And there is the family-supported Nancy Nutter Moore Garden, just outside our Lisa Barth Chapel, that serves as a serene haven for anyone needing a break. I’ve personally benefited from that special spot and know countless others have, too.
I also had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Nutter more than a year ago while I was working on “For All Children Everywhere.” I was after photos of his mom. Her story was legendary, but pictures from those days are hard to come by. He provided the photo above, and so much more. Instead of just having someone send me an email with the photo, he invited me and our chief philanthropy officer down to his office for a visit. He wanted to make sure we got what we needed.
He greeted us like long, lost friends and offered us a seat in his understated office on Broadway near Westport Road. He was joined by a grandson who was learning the business, and undoubtedly so much more, from his grandpa. For about an hour, Mr. Nutter shared photographs with us, but he also shared stories. He talked about some family history, about some business history and about politics. He talked about helping spread the word about Children’s Mercy and he was delighted to know we’d kept copies of, and fondly remembered, “The Nutter Postcard.”
I left there feeling a bit overwhelmed. I had far more pictures than I could possibly use in the book. I had more stories than I could remember. But the real sense I came away with is that that I had just been in the presence of someone who’s kindness and generosity — let alone business acumen — I could only dream of matching with my own.
A statement from the Nutter family that was published in the Kansas City Star summed it up far better than I could:
“On Friday, we lost our patriarch – an extraordinary man whose big heart, wisdom and generosity touched us and so many others in profound and lasting ways. He taught us not only how to be honorable and fair in business, but how to listen to and learn from people from every country, culture and religion and to have compassion for every living thing, whether on two legs or four.”
I am reminded of the ripple effect and how our actions can affect many, many people, sometimes in ways we might not imagine. I think of the sisters who started Children’s Mercy. They began with one small little girl in need and the work has grown to help millions of other children. I think of so many other doctors and donors who committed to the cause over the past 120 years.
Children’s Mercy was lucky to count James B. Nutter among its friends. I am blessed to have made his acquaintance. In terms of ripples, Mr. Nutter made a big splash. And the world is a far better place because of it.