Sunday, March 6, 2011

James E. Burke, the would be mayor's father, and Tom Pendergast... a classic Kansas City story I wish I could remember

Kansas City Star reporter Eric Alder had been working on a piece about mayoral candidate Mike Burke and he needed some information about Burke’s father James E. Burke, a Kansas City lawyer and real estate developer, for the profile. Alder called me because he found a reference to an article I had written about James Burke. I couldn’t find the magazine or my notes in my pack rat boxes – it was 30 years ago – so I went down to the Missouri Valley Room in the Kansas City Mo., Public Library last week to find it and send him a copy.

Turns out I wrote the piece in 1981 for a business magazine called Corporate Report: Kansas City. I was wet behind the ears, having spent just 10 years in journalism, and it was a very long piece, typical of those who are wet behind the ears. Here’s the strange thing: I remember almost nothing about it. Frankly, reading it at the library was like reading somebody else’s words. This other guy, I might add without enough humility, was a darn good writer.

As I read it, some of the situation and the interview came back to me, but not much. Alder and I agreed I should not be considered an expert on James Burke.

Nonetheless, the article is pretty interesting. (I feel like an athlete talking about himself in the third person…) I tried to remember why I went to the 24th floor of the Commerce Towers to interview the elder Burke, who was 73 at the time, and -- I found out from Alder’s article -- died the next year before another birthday. Two reasons for the article emerged: One was his relationship to the World’s of Fun property and to the Hunt Midwest Cave. He once owned that land with partners Lamar Hunt and Frank Carswell. Several months earlier I had done an article about Hunt Midwest which included the intriguing notion that an underground World’s of Fun might be built to keep the park going all year long and to assuage rainy summer days.

The second was Jim Burke’s relationship to Tom Pendergast. Like all green feature writers in Kansas City I was enamored of anything Pendergast. Jim didn’t disappoint. He served as the boss’s attorney near the end of his political career. He recalled the Good Friday he and a bulldog lawyer named John Madden ushered their powerful client down the hall of the fifth floor of the Federal Building after Pendergast had been indicted for income tax evasion.

It was the first time, the elder Burke said, that he had met Pendergast. He was also, on that Friday, placed in charge of Pendergast’s corporations while one of the last of the big city bosses served his time.

The story included an extraordinary excerpt from a speech the elder Burke made in 1976 at the Shepherd’s Center at 5144 Oak. I have no idea, at this distance, how I came upon the excerpt because I probably didn’t attend the talk. It’s likely Mr. Burke gave a copy of it to me during the interview.

In the speech, Jim Burke talked about a request Tom Pendergast made. He was fresh out of prison and still on probation by my account, still in prison by Alder’s. Here’s how Burke described the encounter in the speech:

“He reached into his pocket and drew out an envelope and said, ‘On this envelope are the names of 12 men. They’re the blue blood of Kansas City, as you’ll recognize when I read off their names. They are prominent in civic and banking and various fields. I want to give you in detail my relationship with those men over the years, how I helped them grow in whatever their business was.

“'When I get through, I’d like you to go to each of these men and tell them that I’m intending to apply for a pardon, and I’d like them to write a letter on my behalf. Tell them that once I let go of those letters… they might see them on the front page of the Star.'”

I was probably pretty excited at this point in the interview. I was probably putting little asterisks everywhere in the margins of my notes to be sure I didn’t miss the good stuff later when I started to write.

The elder Burke said he finally secured all the letters. It took four months, the president issued no pardon, and Pendergast died before he could finish the sentence.

I picked out one particular story from the speech for my article. Burke apparently told the audience J.C. Nichols had been one of the men on the list. He said when he went to the pioneering developer and made his request, Nichols told him he didn’t care if the letter appeared on the front page of the Star and to simply tell his secretary what to write and he’d sign it.

“There, in my opinion, was a great man in Kansas City,” Burke told the audience.

I’m not sure how, or if, any of this helps anyone understand candidate Mike Burke. I quoted several prominent Kansas Citians in the article with exceptionally good things to say about his father. Most mentioned how much the elder Burke liked working for the city under the radar. From here on, that won’t be possible for his son.

If you want to read the entire article you will find a PDF of it here.


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