eKC feature
May 11, 2007


Crosby Kemper III – 'chief' librarian
by Tom Bogdon

R. Crosby Kemper III, chief executive of the Kansas City Public Library, seems to enjoy his job, particularly the role of introducing speakers in the 10-branch system’s increasingly popular Special Events series.

At one recent such program, Kemper previewed the then upcoming appearance by John Patrick Diggins, a history professor at the City College of New York (CCNY), whose most recent book is Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History.

“At first I didn’t think it was the right job, so I turned it down,” said Crosby Kemper III, chief executive of the Kansas City Public Library system. “But then, ultimately, due to their persuasiveness and my sense of the potential of the job, it made me say ‘yes.’” (photo by Ron Johnson)

“John Diggins has a great reputation as a liberal intellectual historian,” Kemper noted. “Yet he calls Reagan one of the great liberating presidents along with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Diggins places Reagan in the Emersonian tradition.”

Kemper explained that Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist and poet from the 1830s into the 1860s, whose most famous essay is titled, “Self Reliance.”

The Kemper name in Kansas City is often associated with banking, and Crosby Kemper III has served as chairman and CEO of Kansas City-based UMB Financial Corp., one of the largest banking companies in the Midwest.

But Kemper has always valued books, and for about the past two and one half years during which he has been the chief executive of the Kansas City Public Library, the library system, with its with a magnificent new downtown facility and a fine new Plaza branch, has been experiencing a renaissance.

Kemper, the son of R. Crosby Kemper, Jr., the now-retired UMB chief executive known for his crusty outspokenness, civic leadership and patronage of the arts over a long career in banking, served five years in his father’s old job. Crosby III’s decision to leave banking happened to coincide with the Kansas City Public Library board’s search for a new head of the library system.

“I left the bank and was offered the job more or less simultaneously by the chair of the board, Olivia Dorsey,” Kemper said in an interview. “At first I didn’t think it was the right job, so I turned it down. But then, ultimately, due to their persuasiveness and my sense of the potential of the job, it made me say ‘yes.’”

Dorsey, director of public affairs for KMBC-TV, who still serves on the library board though she is no longer its chair, was originally an appointee of then Mayor Emanuel Cleaver. She said Library Director Dan Bradbury had retired and the board hired another man for the job, who didn’t work out well after about a year.

Dorsey said there is a lot of competition for library directors in cities the size of Kansas City or larger, and the pool of candidates is limited.

“We knew Crosby had decided to separate from UMB and knew of his passion for books and libraries and that kind of thing,” Dorsey said. “At first, we looked at him possibly as an interim director.”

When the board decided to offer Kemper the position on a permanent basis, they had to approach the Missouri General Assembly because the qualification for the position specified that the head of the Kansas City Public Library had to hold a master’s degree in library science. When the legislature approved the change, Kemper was offered the job.

Although Kemper, now 56 years old, did not have a degree in library science, he has had an excellent education and a wide range of business experience.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Kemper attended elementary school at Pembroke Country Day School (now Pembroke Hill), and high school at the Andover Academy in Massachusetts. He then attended Yale University in New Haven, CN, where he majored in history.

Coincidentally, President George W. Bush attended both Andover and Yale four years ahead of Kemper. Did Kemper join Skull and Bones at Yale, as did George W. Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush? No, Kemper said, he joined Wolf’s Head, another secret society.

After leaving Yale, Kemper spent about two years in New York, working on a book and holding down jobs in a T-shirt shop and then a bookstore in Grand Central Station. The book, which Kemper is still working on to this day, is tentatively titled, “Imperialism: The Rise and Fall of Empires.”

At Yale, Kemper had majored in late 19th Century British and American history. As for “Imperialism: the Rise and Fall of Empires,” Kemper said it deals with a time when the world was divided into British, American, French, German and Russian empires.

Kemper returned to Kansas City in 1977, and worked for UMB until 1981. He then spent a year in China teaching English. Then, it was back to New York where he worked as executive director of the British Institute of the United States. That group, Kemper said, awards scholarships and promotes contact between British and American scholars.

While heading the British Institute, Kemper supervised a show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington titled, “Treasures of the Great Country Houses.” As part of that event, Kemper said, noted writer Gary Wills spoke on Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s famous Virginia home, Monticello.

Kemper then returned again to Kansas City and worked again at UMB. That involved a move to St. Louis, where he became president of UMB-St. Louis. He held that job seven years before returning to Kansas City and became chairman and CEO of UMB Financial Corp, the holding company of the UMB group of midwestern banks, a position he held from 2000 to 2004.

The Central Library downtown in the former First National Bank building at 14 W 10th St. (photo by Ron Johnson)

That’s when Kemper left the bank and accepted his current position at the Kansas City Public Library.

Kansas City’s top librarian is currently single and has four children, ages 27, 22, 15 and nine.

The Kansas City Public Library system serves the same area as the Kansas City School District, including Sugar Creek and part of Independence. The showpiece of the system is the Central (downtown) library at 14 W. 10th St.

The library is housed in the former First National Bank, a white marble columned building built in 1913, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. A jewel of the current Downtown renaissance, the renovated building was made possible by collaboration of the Downtown Council and the Library Board at a time when the Library Board even considered leaving Downtown all together.

“It looks like a library and it was available and we were able to obtain the building from the Bank of America for a reasonable price,” said John Laney, a former city development director and assistant city manager who went on to a position with Hallmark Cards, Inc., and the Hall Family Foundation. Laney later served as chairman of the Downtown Council.

The new Central Library represents a $52 million investment and was made possible by contributions from a number of foundations, businesses and individuals. Business savvy was provided by downtown business leaders including Jonathan Kemper, CEO of Commerce Bank of Kansas City and Crosby Kemper III’s cousin, and Phil Kirk and Bob Graham, who Laney described as “geniuses at real estate.”

“We got a $52 million library for about $10 million,” Laney said. “That’s a good bargain by any standard.” Much of the savings was accounted for by sale of historic tax credits on the bank/library building to the Merriman interests, Laney added.

Laney said Crosby Kemper III is “superbly qualified” for his position as chief executive of the Kansas City Public Library.

“He seems to be quite natural in the job and quite happy in it,” Laney added. “That’s good because he might stay in it for years. The library director will need to continue raising money, not just for the downtown library but also for the district itself. He’s good at that.”

The Kansas City Public Library, which is governed by the appointed library board, has a current annual operating budget of $17.3 million, and is the beneficiary of a tax levy of 47 cents on $100 valuation. But the system also relies on donations, which last fiscal year amounted to $2,866,835.

Kemper and other library officials say that books and other printed materials are still in demand from library patrons, but that information and entertainment in other media are increasingly important. The various branches have computers, which are available for public use. Kemper said that the library system is looking at placing computers in certain community centers, especially for teens and young adults who might not otherwise have computer access.

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com.


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