I was sorry to see in today’s Kansas City Star that Bill Clarkson Sr., longtime president of one of the region’s biggest road builders — Clarkson Construction Co. — died last Friday.
Clarkson, who was either 90 or 91, left a decided mark on the bistate area and beyond. The company is now in its fifth generation of family ownership. (Bill Sr. was the fourth-generation president).
Clarkson also left a mark on me, when I was a young reporter at The Star. It was shortly after I had been assigned to cover the Jackson County Courthouse in 1971. I was two years into my 36-plus year career at the paper and on my first major “beat.”
One of my duties as courthouse reporter was to track the final construction phases of the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, the then-massive, $100-million project that was unique in that it featured separate baseball and football stadiums.
The Clarkson company was not involved in the actual construction, but Clarkson was chairman of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority. Being a publicly funded project — thanks to a massive 1967, voter-approved bond issue — the complex was, and still is, owned by Jackson County taxpayers. The Sports Complex Authority, representing the taxpayers, was the body that oversaw construction and also enforced the terms of the stadium leases with the Chiefs and Royals.
As many of you will recall, both stadiums — Arrowhead and Royals Stadium — originally were outfitted with artificial turf, which was laid over a bed of asphalt.
One day shortly after the asphalt had been laid at Royals Stadium, I went to the complex for a scheduled on-field meeting between Clarkson and Don Sharp Sr., the primary contractor who led a three-company consortium called Sharp/Kidde/Webb.
The reason for the meeting was the quality of the asphalt job. It seems there were problems.
Clarkson was thin, less than 6 feet tall and about 45 at the time. His most distinctive physical features were a fine head of hair and slightly sagging jowls that contributed to a look of perpetual weariness and sadness.
Sharp, on the other hand, was about six feet tall, with a barrel chest, crew cut, neatly trimmed mustache and gravelly voice. I later heard reports that he and his son Don Sharp Jr. brawled in their Arrowhead suite during a Chiefs’ game.
For the asphalt meeting, several people gathered on the third-base side of the field, close to what would become the on-deck circle. I remember looking out at that vast expanse of fresh, black asphalt and thinking how odd it was that this was the underpinning for a baseball field. Not grass and dirt.
Clarkson was ordinarily a quiet sort of person, a slow speaker, and I had never seen another side of him. He began by telling Sharp that the asphalt job had deficiencies, namely, that the surface was very uneven in spots. He pointed to various places to make his point. Sharp immediately balked at the suggestion that the asphalt work was unsatisfactory, and in seconds the men were yelling at each other.
It was so explosive that we bystanders froze. Unwisely — not anticipating any trouble — I had not bothered to get my reporter’s notebook out of the pocket of my sports coat. (Back then, I wore a coat and tie to work every day.) I was paralyzed and afraid to reach for my notebook, thinking Clarkson or Sharp might turn on me and say, “Put that damn thing away!” So, I tried, as best I could to commit to memory what they were saying.
The only thing I clearly remember Clarkson yelling was something like, “I represent the taxpayers, and I won’t have this.”
In a couple of minutes it was over, and the group dispersed. I went back to the office and wrote a story from memory. It wasn’t a bad story. It would have been better if I’d had my notebook out. But, then, the words were flying so fast and I was so nervous I wouldn’t have been able to capture more than a few snippets of the exchanges, anyway.
I don’t even remember for sure what came of the clash, but I believe parts of the asphalt job were redone. Also, in an ironic twist, several years later Clarkson Construction bought (or merged with) Bowen Construction Co., the company that had laid the asphalt.
…I will always remember fondly, and vividly, the day Bill Clarkson set aside his deep affiliation with the construction industry and spoke angrily and profanely on behalf of Jackson County taxpayers.