William Volker

Author: 
Kansas City Public Library
  • Date of Birth: 1859
  • Place of Birth: Germany
  • Claim to Fame: businessman; reformer; philanthropist, Research Hospital, Liberty Memorial, University of Kansas City (present-day UMKC)
  • Also Known As: "Mr. Anonymous of Bell Street"
  • Spouse: Rose Roebke, married 1911
  • Date of Death: November 4, 1947
  • Place of Death: his home at 3717 Bell St.
     

On April 14, 1910, the City Council approved the creation of the Board of Public Welfare to provide aid to the city’s poor. As the brainchild of Kansas City philanthropist William Volker, the Board of Public Welfare was the first modern welfare department in the United States, a groundbreaking forerunner to modern welfare programs, and intended as a counterbalance to the charitable activities of the city's political machines led by Tom Pendergast and Joe Shannon. The board was just one of Volker’s many memorable contributions that included the creation of Research Hospital, the establishment of the University of Kansas City (now UMKC), the Civic Research Institute, the purchase of the land for Liberty Memorial, and reportedly thousands of individuals who received his gifts when down on their luck. He received these callers on an almost daily basis at his private home on Bell Street. 

William Volker, a successful businessman, was known to many Kansas City residents as “Mr. Anonymous” because of his penchant for discretely giving away large sums of money. Volker was born in Germany in 1859 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1871. In 1882, with little money in his pocket, he moved from Chicago to Kansas City in hopes of opening a picture frame business. From this inauspicious beginning, William Volker and Company introduced a successful line of window shades and later developed a thriving home furnishings business that included satellite locations across the western U.S.

In 1908, Volker utilized the municipal government for philanthropy. He became the president of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which oversaw the process of releasing prisoners. According to Herbert C. Cornuelle, Volker’s biographer, this board functioned as something of an employment agency with the unofficial slogan of “no job, no parole.” Volker believed that former prisoners were less likely to steal or commit other crimes if they were employed. Consequently, the board devoted its resources to the difficult task of finding jobs for prisoners.

Volker shortly found a second political outlet for his philanthropic desires. In 1909 high unemployment levels caused hundreds of jobless men to march on city hall in demand of work. In response, Volker proposed the novel idea of a department whose sole purpose was to fight poverty and squalor.

The resulting Board of Public Welfare sought to eliminate poverty by researching its causes, educating the public about those causes, training social workers, providing free legal services to citizens in trouble, loaning money to the poor, and even inspecting local businesses for safety and moral “decency” standards.

Despite authorizing the board in the first place, the City Council failed to fund it adequately. To fulfill the board’s budget needs, Volker anonymously donated $50,000 to get the board started and thereafter provided money whenever funds fell short.

Surprisingly, Volker received little praise for his efforts on behalf of the Board of Public Welfare. Some Kansas City residents lacked sympathy for a municipal department that, as they saw it, gave tax-funded handouts to the undeserving poor. Other critics ascribed to false rumors that Volker had created the board to fulfill his business’s labor demands with poorly-paid criminals.

Unfortunately, the Board of Public Welfare fell victim to political interference shortly after its creation. Pendergast and Shannon gradually gained control of the board and co-opted it to their purposes by allocating its benefits to win political patronage for their factions. By 1918, Volker lost his last influence on the board and had grown skeptical of the concept of using politics for charity. He supported the 1925 city charter reform efforts, but that, too, backfired as Tom Pendergast gained full control over the city government. Volker turned back to quietly providing private charity to individuals in need, whether they were strangers or friends. Eventually he provided financial assistance for civic projects such as the construction of Liberty Memorial and Research Hospital. He also started the William Volker Fund, which provided grants for scholarly research projects into libertarianism between 1935 and 1965.

Despite Volker’s ultimate pessimism about government involvement in public life, the Board of Public Welfare initially drew attention nationally and internationally while it thrived in the early 1910s. Municipal governments around the world began to copy some of its programs in an effort to reduce the prevalence and effects of poverty. Kansas City itself rejuvenated the department in 1940, a year after the indictment of Tom Pendergast. Volker passed away at his home on November 4, 1947. 

Acknowledgement: 

A previous version of this article appears on KCHistory.org: http://kchistory.org/week-kansas-city-history/promote-general-welfare

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.