William T. Kemper

Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

In an homage to William T. Kemper at the time of his death, The Kansas City Star fondly wrote that “no one was just like ‘W. T.’ in flashing a welcome across the wide expanse of the Commerce lobby, a kindling of the eye, an impetuous wave of the arm, warmth in homely words.” Kemper applied this spirit of friendliness and approachability to his business and banking organizations, resulting in a number of highly profitable ventures.

William Thornton Kemper was born November 3, 1865, in Gallatin, Missouri, to a pair of Kentucky transplants, James M. and Sallie Ann Paxton Kemper. William’s exceptional work ethic surfaced early in his life, when at age 11 he found a position at a dry goods store in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he had gone to live with his father after the death of his mother. At 14 he was working in a St. Joseph shoe store, socking away much of his $3.00 weekly salary. A stint as a traveling salesman in northeast Kansas took him regularly through the town of Valley Falls, and in 1886 he applied his small savings to a partnership share in a new store there: Evans and Kemper, “dealers in dry goods, boots, shoes, hats, caps.”

Success in Valley Falls led to a friendship with one of the town’s leading citizens, Rufus Crosby, a cattleman and head of the Valley Falls Bank of Deposit. Kemper’s business sense so impressed Crosby that he made the 22-year old Kemper bank cashier, and several years later Kemper received an invitation to become a bank partner. A less formal invitation—to dinner at the Crosby home—led to Kemper’s first meeting with Crosby’s daughter, Charlotte, and they began their own lifelong partnership when she married Kemper on June 10, 1890.

The young couple moved to Kansas City in 1893, and Kemper established himself as a grain merchant, working out of the Kansas City Board of Trade. His reputation for fairness led to his popularity there, and in 1900 he became that organization’s youngest ever president at age 34. Over the next decade he also reaped profits from several organizations of his own creation: Kemper Mill and Elevator Company, Kemper Mercantile Company, and Kemper Investment Company.

An avid Democrat, Kemper had a lifelong taste for politics. He was appointed to a seat on the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners by the governor of Missouri in 1902, and ran for mayor of Kansas City in 1904, losing in a year when the Democratic vote was split by a factional rift. He made another run for mayor in 1906 on an “anti-bossism” platform, but his party’s nomination went to the Democratic machine-backed candidate. Despite these losses, Kemper remained interested in politics. He served as Missouri’s Democratic National Committeeman from 1924-36 and was discussed as a potential candidate for governor throughout his 50s and 60s, although he never ran for the office.

In 1906, Kemper was recruited by Dr. William Stone Woods to head an affiliate of his National Bank of Commerce. Over the course of the next two decades, the organization led by Kemper evolved into the Commerce Trust Company, reaching new heights with the construction of its 16-story headquarters at 10th and Walnut, although the frequent presence of “Uncle Bill” in the building’s ground-level lobby reflected his preference for the human side of banking.

By the time William T. Kemper died at the age of 72 on January 19, 1938, the Commerce Trust Company, onto which he had so impressed his philosophy of business and life, was led by his middle son, James M. Kemper. Decades later, William T. Kemper’s oldest son, Rufus Crosby Kemper, engineered the growth and success of City National Bank and Trust, antecedent of today’s UMB Bank.

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A version of this article previously appeared at http://www.kchistory.org/content/biography-william-t-kemper-sr-1865-1938...