Kansas City’s Spirit: Accomplishing the Impossible

(KC 1900 Series #18)

(Top images are just three of the sketches Norman Rockwell tried out for the painting, The Kansas City Spirit.)

We’ve already demonstrated that the phrase “Kansas City Spirit,” did not originate with the Convention Hall of 1900, but besides dispelling that misconception, I’d hoped to find a fresher, more pertinent meaning than seemed evident in the original phrase. It turns out that the deeper meaning was there all along, but to the modern ears is seems a glib slogan. In truth, the whole totality of the Convention Hall experience – from building to ashes to building again – had long ago turned a glib saying into a community’s credo.


It wouldn’t be until three years after the fire that someone first tried to define and describe the Kansas City Spirit, beyond its use as a mere slogan. The man who took the simple slogan and gave it the form of a manifesto was E.M. Clendening. In 1903, as (still) Secretary for the Commercial Club, he had been asked to address a large group of Indianapolis community leaders and businessmen. The banquet was convened as part of building interest in the construction of an Indianapolis hall. Clendening had been invited by his friend and former Commercial Club member, Hugh McGowan, now a resident of Indianapolis. McGowan had been involved in the Convention Hall project, but he knew only Clendening was in a position to know the real story, all the tricks and tips.

Clendening noted early in his speech that he recognized he was being asked to respond to question, “How did you do it?” He went on to say that he knew what the gathering really wanted, the answer to the question, “How did you get the money.” In sharing this in his speech, Clendening admitted he could have made an easy answer of it, telegraphing back to his McGowan, the glib answer of, “We did everything, and we did everybody,” for which he got a big laugh. But Clendening quickly changed the tone by adding, “or I might have said we laid awake at night thinking what we would do the next day.”

Clendening’s speeches show him to be a strong and clever speaker, adept at framing a story, and knowing the moment to set the hook, persuasion-wise. Here, the “hook” was a call for the greater good. The quotes above and following come from the minutes of the Indianapolis gathering.

“Civic pride,” he declared. “Unless you have that element in your hearts so deeply rooted that it will make you cheerful donors to a public enterprise, unless you value citizenship far more than the luxuries and comforts it buys for yourself, and your own family, and unless you have realized that you owe something to the community in which you live, you cannot hope to make a success of the proposition which you are about to launch.”

When the spontaneous applause died down, he finished his civic pep talk by describing the Kansas City civic pride.

The Kansas City Spirit inspires an original and locally published march, shortly after the Convention Hall’s reconstruction.

”I come from my own town, and there is one thing of which we are justly proud and that is civic pride. It has been inculcated into us, we preach it, we talk it, and we believe it, and we practice it. The building of a coliseum or convention hall such as Kansas City’s is not the work, gentlemen, of idle dreams, but in a modern phrase, it is the work of those who hustle while they wait.

These are sentiments that ring true to me. This speaks to me about a place where genuine individual connections to the community bring enthusiasm for seeing things done, to fix and especially to build for the community. It also heartens me that Clendening declares actual criteria for being able to claim one has civic pride. These lessons in character are particularly aimed at the well-to-do and those of any stature who believe they can only win if others lose. Clendening had spent his career with people who were genuine movers and shakers, and others that were opportunists and posers. He would have seen many examples of those both qualified and unqualified to earn the right to claim their civic pride based on his criteria. The Convention Hall experience taught him this, and helped him make clear his convictions around civic pride.

Just one view of the horrific destruction that the 1903 flood that tore through the West Bottoms, and other parts of Kansas City’s riverside neighborhoods.

Five months later, Kansas City would face its next great challenge. The 1903 flood wiped out the west bottoms, from the train depot to the rails to all the parked rolling stock. It killed the livestock, wiped out a whole riverside neighborhood on the Kansas side, and dozens of businesses in the area. It also was just one chapter in a flooding event that covered north Kansas and Missouri, the Missouri river towns above Kansas City into Nebraska, and east all the way at least to Des Moines.

There would be more floods in 1951, 1977 and 1993. There had been a tornado in 1886, and there would be more in 1957, 1996, and 2000. There would be ice storms in 1984 and 2002.There were three major fires over one weekend in January 1978. Structural calamities happened in 1979 and 1981, And bombings in 1977 and 1988. Each of these devastating events grabbed the full attention of the area when they happened, and no doubt they were worthy of summoning the phrase “Kansas City Spirit” in some way to raise the local moral.

But if the Kansas City Spirit were only about the strength to get up and go again, it might as well be “We’re Kansas City Strong.” Sadly, too many American cities have had to adopt the “be strong” message, after devastating human and property loss in the wake of weather and violence. But time has shown that while good at rallying a community in the moment, the “be strong” messages ironically weaken over time.

Norman Rockwell on site in KC for preliminary sketches

The phrase, “Kansas City Spirit,” has been around since about 1870. The underlining meaning was crafted by E.M. Clendening, around 1903. But the image that will forever be associated with it came as a result of another flood, the flood of 1951. Locally, the damage is remembered as, like in 1903, centered in the West Bottoms. In reality, over a three-day period the flooding covered more than 300 miles along the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries, from Wamego, KS east to St. Louis, Mo. Hallmark’s Founder, Joy C. Hall commissioned American’s most famous illustrator, Norman Rockwell, to capture the Kansas City spirit as a way of invoking the ideal and raising civic pride once again. The picture would be named “The Spirit of Kansas City.” Note the banner image at the top of this post. These are three of many of the sketches Rockwell produced and considered before selecting the final composition (below).

Rockwell’s finished painting

The image is remarkable on so many levels. First it is itself a collaboration, and the only collaborative painting of which Rockwell was ever a part. Collaboration has been a constant feature of the evolving definition of the Kansas City Spirit. The picture captures as best as can be hoped, the spectrum of industry that has – again in evolving forms – become the recognized character of Kansas City. Smoke stacks and sky scrapers fill the background. The airplane in the upper left heads west, while the locomotive in the lower right heads east. A shock of wheat, a stalk of corn, cattle in the pens make clear the foundational role of agriculture. Among the buildings, there’s a generic church, iconic government buildings with their deco touches, and some architectural references to the style of the Country Club Plaza. The only thing missing is the river. Given the prompting reason for the commission was the flood, its absence is understandable.

That background was painted by another Saturday Evening Post illustrator, John Atherton. But the central figure, “The Builder,” is classic Rockwell in detailed features, realistic rendering, and humanistic portrayal.  It’s easy to identify any number of fine traits in the man, but the ones that come to my mind are strength, confidence, insight, determination, and readiness. That’s just me. But I’m guessing most everyone’s word choices could fall under that larger category of “heroic.” Each of these ideas, or all of them, I would find easy to argue are part of the Kansas City Spirit.

But I take my final cue from one of the things E.M. Clendening said in his 1903 speech:

Unless you have [Civic Pride] in your hearts so deeply rooted that it will make you cheerful donors to a public enterprise, unless you value citizenship far more than the luxuries and comforts it buys for yourself, and your own family, and unless you have realized that you owe something to the community in which you live, you cannot hope to make a success of the proposition which you are about to launch.”

Joyce C. Hall, Founder of Hallmark Cards

As an early definition of the Kansas City Spirit, Clendening’s words align well with what has become the institutionalized definition, assigned in the dedication of the Rockwell painting, by Joyce C. Hall. For me, this is what began as and still is the definitive idea of the Kansas City Spirit.

The Kansas City Spirit is something to be found in good men’s hearts that enables them to place service above self to accomplish the impossible.

Joyce C. Hall, 1951


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