Ah, Jack Steadman.
What a bold, imposing figure he was on the Kansas City sports and civic scene for so long.
I read with sadness that he had died over the weekend at age 86. Also disturbing to me was reading that in recent years he had suffered from Alzheimer’s…It’s hard for me to envision Steadman without that steel-trap, all-business mind.
Jack was not one of those people of whom you’d hear people say, “What a teddy bear,” or “He was such a nice guy,” or “He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
No, none of those were Jack, although I’m sure his friends and close associates would say he was a nice guy…and I’m sure he had some warm moments…and undoubtedly he was generous at times.
But that’s not how I remember Jack, and I don’t think that’s how anybody who dealt with him very much will remember him.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Jack was mean or unfriendly or difficult to get along with. What he was was Lamar Hunt’s hammer and enforcer. Lamar could go around smiling and waving and shaking hands with tailgaters in the Arrowhead parking lots, knowing all the while that Jack had his back.
Lamar recognized early on that Jack, the accountant and bare-knuckles negotiator, was a resolute protector of the Hunts and their fortune. Jack was the Dale Earnhardt of the Chiefs “family” — the man you had to get past to forge a deal with Lamar. Whenever he felt it necessary, which was a lot of the time, Jack could be tart, and he was always direct. He didn’t care; he was doing Lamar’s business.
I didn’t know Jack extremely well, but I encountered him enough in the course of my KC Star reporting to exchange casual greetings with him and to understand exactly what his role was.
I first met him in the early- or mid-1970s, when I was covering the Jackson County Courthouse. The county, of course, paid most of the construction costs of the Truman Sports Complex, and I was covering the county when the stadiums were going up in 1971 and 1972. As you would expect in the course of a $100-million construction project (a phenomenal deal for taxpayers), there were several hitches along the way, including a labor strike and arguments among the various parties involved in the project.
Steadman was in the middle of some of the dust-ups. I remember one time when he got into it with someone — can’t remember who or over what — and he wrote the guy a nasty letter. I will never forget this line in that letter: “I am not going to be your whipping boy!”
I don’t think I had ever heard that term, and to see it on paper from a person of Steadman’s stature riveted my attention.
As I recall, that letter was one reason I decided to do a feature story on Jack in the early or middle 1970s. I talked to several people about him, but no one was willing to go on the record with critical quotes. I used one unattributed, off-the-record quote from a key member Sharp-Kidde-Webb contracting consortium — I believe it was from Don Sharp Sr. — who called Steadman a “knife-in-the-back” or “knife-in-the-gut” kind of person…I caution, Sharp was speaking figuratively.
I interviewed Steadman at what was the Arrowhead Club — I think it’s gone now — and he bought lunch. The greeter and wait staff all bowed and scraped and called him “Mr. Steadman.”
Very naively, I said, “They all know you.”
To which he replied, curtly, “They should.”
Another thing I remember about the interview is that when we were talking about the Chiefs and the new stadium — which had been opened a couple of years at that point — Steadman said, “We’ve only had one or two exciting games there.”
I was a wild Chiefs’ fan at that point, even though the team was well into its decline, and I was taken aback; I thought every game was exciting.
“One or two?” I said. “Really?”
“Well, maybe three or four,” Steadman said with a slight smile.
I don’t remember too much else about the interview, or the story, and I didn’t save the story…It’s one of many “clips” that I pitched a few years after The Star’s library staff returned to us the by-lined stories we had built up over the years.
(An aside: For decades, the librarians neatly folded those stories and maintained them in gold, No. 10 envelopes. When we needed to refer to something in “the clips,” we called the library — often in a dither, on deadline — and one of the librarians would put the pertinent envelopes on a metal lift that clanked and clanged its way between the third-floor library and the second-floor newsroom. A red light would come on to indicate the shuttle’s arrival on the second floor.)
…But back to Jack. That was the only time I wrote about him in depth.
Years later I saw him at City Hall one day when I was on that beat (1985-1995). He was chairman or past chairman of the board of Starlight Theatre, as a I recall, and he had played a big role in rejuvenating the theater. Jack wasn’t supposed to know why he had been summoned to City Hall, but I think he sensed he was going to be honored for his Starlight achievement. I had looked at the council agenda and knew about the resolution honoring him.
Accompanying him that day was Anita Gorman, who was also on the Starlight Board. I knew her very well from covering her when she was on the Park Board.
Anyway, on my way to the 26th-floor council chamber, the elevator doors opened and in the car were Anita and Jack. I got on, we exchanged greetings, and then there was an awkward silence. I broke it, saying, “Well….”
And Jack instantly cut me off, snapping, “Well what?!”
Just like that he nipped in the bud any possible allusion to why he was in City Hall.
The last time I saw him was a few years ago at Bruce Smith Drugs in Prairie Village. Time had taken its toll, and he was no longer the erect, intimidating figure he had been for so many decades. I didn’t approach him. I don’t know why; I just didn’t. It wasn’t like we were old buddies.
But Jack was a great one. A legendary, towering figure on the Kansas City scene. A difference maker…For one thing he was instrumental in convincing Lamar to bring the Chiefs to Kansas City instead of taking them to New Orleans, which also wanted the team. We owe Jack our gratitude for that, if nothing else.
…I really liked Lamar — whom I also wrote a feature story about — and I miss him. I miss Jack, too. He wasn’t your ordinary second banana.