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William Thornton Kemper, Sr.

Birthplace: Saint Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri, United States
Death: January 19, 1938 (71)
Immediate Family:

Son of James Madison Kemper, Jr. and Sarah "Sallie" A Kemper
Husband of Charlotte Crosby "Lottie" Kemper
Father of R. Crosby "Coker" Kemper; James Madison Kemper and William Thornton Kemper, Jr.
Brother of Jane Rout Kemper and Infant Kemper

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About W. T. Kemper

William Thornton Kemper, Sr. (November 3, 1866 – January 19, 1938) was the patriarch of the Missouri Kemper family who developed both Commerce Bancshares and United Missouri Bank to become a major banking family in the Midwest. He also founded the Kemper Grain Company and the Kemper Loan and Investment Company. He was treasurer of the Kansas City Commercial Club, a club made of local businessmen to promote Kansas City's growth.

Life and career

Kemper was born in Gallatin, Missouri, the son of Sarah Ann (née Paxton) and James Madison Kemper. He swept floors in St. Joseph, Missouri, at the shoe store of his father. One of his accounts was with the Valley Falls, Kansas, firm that his future father-in-law Rufus Henry Crosby owned. He married Charlotte Crosby in 1890 and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1893 where he became president of Commerce Bank in 1903.

In 1913 he sold Commerce Bank shares at a price of $220 a share and bought controlling interest in City Center Bank (which was to become UMB Bank). Kemper was to buy back the original Commerce Bank at $86/share.

His son James M. Kemper became president of Commerce Bank, while R. Crosby Kemper became president of City Center.

Kemper’s good fortune was not confined to banking. After being appointed receiver for the bankrupt assets of the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railroad, Kemper was awarded 15,000 shares for his duties. Oil was discovered along the railroad's right-of-way. Kemper would make the biggest portion of his fortune by selling these assets to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and converting his shares into Santa Fe stock.

Kemper's history was intertwined with that of Harry S. Truman. Truman's father, John Anderson Truman, traded grain commodities futures alongside Kemper until John Truman lost his fortune. John took Harry, then a teenager, to the local Democratic functions in Kansas City where Kemper was also in attendance. Kemper arranged for Truman to be a page at the 1900 Democratic National Convention in Kansas City. As a young man Harry would go to work in the National Bank of Commerce, 1903–1905, where Kemper was a director. In 1934 during Truman's first run for the United States Senate, Kemper bought the assets of the failed Continental National Bank which included the mortgage on Truman's failed haberdashery and in turn allowed Truman to retire it for $1,000 (while at the same time coincidentally contributing $1,000 to Truman's campaign).

His former residence was at 1007 Westover Road in Kansas City.

He is the great-great-grandfather of actress Ellie Kemper and writer Carrie Kemper.,_Sr.

William T. Kemper’s father was James Madison Kemper, and James Madison Kemper was Thornton Kemper’s son, who had a farm in what is now downtown Louisville. When his father got that land, only two other people lived in downtown Louisville on the river, an Indian and a white man with tuberculosis. How we lost downtown Louisville, I would like to know. He had 10 sons and named them all after presidents, thus James Madison Kemper.

James Madison Kemper married Sarah Paxton and brought her from Louisville to Missouri in a covered wagon. Her sister married J. C. Penney’s father, so J. C. Penney and grandfather were first cousins, and they worked adjacent farms. Great-grandmother Sarah brought honey tulips from Kentucky to Missouri. They were so sweet smelling. When Howard Adams took me to see the farm and the cemetery, I dug up some of the tulips and planted them on my farm in Blue Springs. Great-grandfather James Madison Kemper had a shoe company in St. Joseph named Kemper Noyes, which still exists, and your grandfather William T. Kemper only finished 8th grade and at a very young age sold shoes out in Kansas for his father at $3 a week. Thus he met Rufus Crosby, who had the general store in Grasshopper Falls, later Valley Falls. Rufus Crosby’s only daughter was Charlotte, and she loved art and went to Vassar College on the Hudson River and is said to be the first girl west of the Mississippi to go to Vassar College. It was strictly an art school then. At any rate, Rufus Crosby asked William T. Kemper to come home for dinner, and he met Charlotte, later known as Lottie Tot Tot and shortened to Tot by the family. He married her and soon became a banker in a new bank which was founded in 1870. In the late 19th century, they moved to Kansas City, and he started the Kemper Mill and Elevator Company and became the youngest president of the Board of Trade and was a very popular young man. William Woods’ bank, the National Bank of Commerce, was one of the five largest banks in the country because it was the clearinghouse bank for all the banks in the western United States. It went under in the panic of 1905, and it was so bad that the Controller of the Currency himself came out to be president of it. In the meantime, William Woods, who was Jamie’s great-grandfather but no relation to our family, sought out the popular young man, William T. Kemper, to form a new bank, Commerce Trust Company, so that customers who fled his bank would take their business to this new bank. His idea was that when they cleaned up the National Bank of Commerce, the two banks would merge. William T. Kemper liked being a banker and didn’t want to merge with the National Bank of Commerce. Later though, when J. W. Perry was head of the National Bank of Commerce, the two banks consolidated.

Of course, the City Bank was bought by William T. Kemper when both Jimmy and Dad were both fighting in the war in Europe. Jimmy was the first to come home and took over running the million dollar City Bank. He was married to Dr. Woods’ granddaughter, Gladys, who was a wealthy woman, and decided he didn’t like being a banker and moved to Santa Barbara and sold bonds for the Mexico & Orient Railroad. Dad came home and because he “always did what his father told him to do,” went down to run this little bank and borrowed money from old man Huttig from Huttig Bank to buy 20% interest himself in City Bank. When W. T. sold his interest in the Commerce to some of the big movers and shakers in Kansas City, he started helping dad with City Bank. The men over at the Commerce were so worried that they hired Jimmy to come back from Santa Barbara and run the bank to neutralize grandfather. During the depression, the new owners sold their stock back to grandfather for ¼ the price he sold it to them for, and at about the same time, he sold the Orient Railroad to the Santa Fe, which was largely the basis of his worth, rather than bank stock.

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W. T. Kemper's Timeline

November 3, 1866
Saint Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri, United States
February 23, 1892
Age 33
Kansas City Ward 10, Jackson, Missouri
Age 53
Kansas City Ward 4, Jackson, Missouri
Age 63
Kansas City, Jackson, Missouri
January 19, 1938
Age 71
Age 71