Posts Tagged ‘Bob Lewellen’

The leader of  “Team Gray” got a touching and powerful send-off yesterday at St. Thomas More Catholic Church.

Several hundred people packed the church (standing room only) at 118th and Holmes to pay their last respects to Kevin Gray, 51-year-old president of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission, who died of cancer last week.

Part of the crowd that attended Kevin Gray's funeral

Besides the huge crowd, a testament to Gray’s influence and popularity was the presence on the altar of six priests, led by St. Thomas More pastor Rev. Don Farnan, who was a good friend of Gray.

It’s not often that you see the chief celebrant at a funeral choke up and have his voice crack, but it happened yesterday. The first time it happened, Farnan had to stop speaking for several seconds, which triggered a flood of tears from the people in the pews.

Just four weeks ago, Farnan, one of the most popular priests in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, presided at the funeral of another well-known Kansas Citian, former City Councilman Bob Lewellen.

Lewellen was a close friend and mentor of Gray’s, and in the last week of Lewellen’s life, he and Gray rode around town looking at some of their favorite spots — some of them sports related — and sharing memories.

But back to yesterday…

The service had just the right combination of eulogies, prayerful supplications and great music, including the responsorial psalm “Shepherd Me, Oh God” and the David Haas classic “You Are Mine.”

The eulogists — Farnan, widow Katy Gray and long-time friend John Mulvihill — painted a portrait of a man who could juggle dozens of balls, who was never content to rest on past achievements and who, all the while, found ample time for family and friends.

Katy Gray, receiving condolences from a well-wisher after her husband's funeral

Katy, Kevin’s wife of 23 years, delivered an uplifting eulogy, surrounded by family members who seemed to comprise a convoy of courage.

“The outpouring of love for Kevin has been overwhelming,” Katy said. “As I look out at you today, I’m proud to say that each of you are a part of  Team Gray.” (That’s the handle that Gray gave his family, which includes four surviving daughters.)

In a light moment, Katy noted that Kevin had always said, “Everything is always black and white with you.”

“Funny,” Katy added, “that I ended up with the name Gray.”

Mulvihill, a classmate of Gray’s at Rockhurst High School, said:

“He was upbeat, honest and fun…He was the most successful politician never elected to office..The man was all about faith, family and community.”

Mulvihill went on to say that while Gray was “a man in a hurry,” he also was “a realistic guy who knew some things were going to get complicated.”

Gray’s approach to difficult and complicated challenges, Mulvihill said, was unfailingly pragmatic.

“He would say, ‘Figure it out,’ ” Mulvihill said. ‘Figure it out.’ ”

Kevin M. Gray, 1959 to 2011

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As many of you know, a great friend and promoter of Kansas City, former City Councilman Bob Lewellen, died May 18.


His funeral was held last Wednesday at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in south Kansas City, where Bob lived.

Former Mayor Richard L. Berkley, who served on the council with Lewellen, gave the eulogy.

Here is that eulogy, edited slightly for length.

“Bob Lewellen was my friend. I feel very honored to be asked to speak at this service. What a great asset and now what a loss for his family, numerous friends and our entire community. Bob had a combination of many skills. He was a businessman and, even more, an entrepreneur. He was a politician and a very good citizen. He was an idea man and a very good one. He was a great promoter of the city. He was a sports fan, and he worked as a TV cameraman.

“He was a neighbor activist and a real estate investor. He was a humorist, a devoted husband and a great father. Many times, I would see Bob do what he thought was right or best for the city, even when it was not necessarily popular or to his political advantage. His motive was to improve Kansas City, spend wisely, try new ideas, be creative, use good business practices and search for new way to accomplish the objective.

“Another great characteristic of Bob was that he didn’t care who got the credit for an idea or new plan. He just wanted to see it succeed. When Congressman Emanuel Cleaver – then a city councilman – proposed a plan that had in it several different capital improvements projects of significance for the city, Bob supported what later became known as “The Cleaver Plan.” The plan was not inexpensive, and there was opposition to it.

“I am convinced that if Bob had opposed it, it would not have passed the council. But Bob, who, I believe, was thinking of running for mayor against likely opponent Emanuel Cleaver, supported it, knowing Emanuel would get significant good publicity as a result of the plan.

“Bob did what was best for the community – not what was best for Bob Lewellen. (Editor’s note: Lewellen did end up running against Cleaver, and lost to him, in 1991.)

“Bob, as we know, had physical problems virtually from birth, which were later made even more difficult as a result of an auto accident. Not once did I ever hear him complain about his situation. In fact, he had a quick wit and a very good sense of humor.

“On one occasion, Bob and I were having a meeting with a number of citizens who were concerned about problems that develop in working with the city. They mentioned one department head who they felt was difficult and inflexible. This department head was of German heritage, as am I. Without hesitation, Bob replied in a deep German accent, “He is on his way to Germany at this very moment to get more stubbornness lessons.” It brought down the house.

“Bob was very involved in improvements at the airport. He wanted to see more direct flights to other significant cities. He also worked on getting more freight traffic at the airport. We both came up with the same idea at the same time — after being in other airports — that we needed to have a more attractive and promotional airport by having large photographs that showed important areas of the city. Bob wouldn’t stop until that was accomplished.

“Bob devoted an extraordinary amount of time to the Leukemia Society. He told me once how many times he went to New York each year, and I was amazed. He did that for about a dozen years, maybe more. His time and effort had a major impact nationally for that organization.

“Bob was a tremendous sports fan. He worked with the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission. He again was novel in creating ways to get people involved. He generated the idea of creating honorary coaches for the NAIA Basketball Tournament, held each year in Kansas City. It was a big success.

“In his sports activities, I’m sure many of you knew of his interest but didn’t realize that at the Chiefs’ football games, the man in the tall chair with the TV camera, riding up and down the sidelines was Bob Lewellen. It was another unique way that he was involved. He loved it.

“His entrepreneurial skills were demonstrated by his involvement in developing franchises for Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Working with Block and Co., he was the initial operator of a company that eventually had over 50 locations in this area. He was also involved in a variety of other small businesses.

“After his service on various boards and then eight years on the council, Mayor Kay Barnes appointed him to the Parks Board, which is generally considered one of the most prestigious and important appointments a mayor makes. Bob did a great amount to improve an already-top-level Parks Department.

“He particularly appreciated and helped the zoo and the Friends of the Zoo. He was able to make sure the zoo had a carousel, primarily for the kids. And it was dedicated to Ruth (his wife, who died in 2007). That was great.

“Bob was someone I had a great deal of confidence in. We didn’t always agree, but I knew his motives were right and his thinking sound. He wanted what was best and would fight for it. He was a true citizen-politician in the best sense of the term. Because of Bob, we all have had a better quality of life, as will many in the future.

“Thank you, friend.”

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I was very saddened to read in Sunday’s paper about the death of former Kansas City Councilman Bob Lewellen.

I’m proud to say he was a friend to me personally, and, from a professional standpoint, he was a reporter’s delight. He was always thinking, figuring out how to advance the causes that were important to him, and he was a font of information and shared it liberally.

Between Lewellen and former Councilman Frank Palermo, who served contemporaneously with Lewellen, the information spilled out like the swollen Mississippi River.

I used to call Lewellen “an equal opportunity tipster” because, when he wanted to get a story out about one thing or another, he might first pitch it to a favored reporter, but if that reporter didn’t run with it, he’d tip off the next reporter on his list.

I covered City Hall for The Kansas City Times and, later, The Star, from 1985 to 1995 and had a lot of opportunities to write about Lewellen, who was on the council from 1983 to 1991.

The most memorable story I have about Lewellen came about as a result of a brouhaha over a secret, illegal meeting that took place in the late 1980s, I believe, while Lewellen was chairman of the Finance Committee.

Here’s what happened:

One of the main jobs of the Finance Committee was to recommend a proposed city budget, which the full council took up in late April every year. At about $750 million dollars (more than $1 billion now), the budget was almost always delicate and controversial. Every council member fought for a piece of the pie for his or her district, and reaching a consensus required a fine balancing act.

That particular year, the budget process was particularly fractious and difficult. Unbeknownst to the council at large, one Finance Committee member, Mary Bryant, asked Lewellen and the two other committee members — Joanne Collins and Katheryn Shields — if the committee could meet in secret at Fedora’s, an upscale Plaza restaurant.

The idea was to hash out their differences and cut up the pie outside the public eye so the committee members could wheel and deal freely.

Now, anytime that a quorum of an elected public body, or a committee of an elected body, gets together in public, it’s considered an open meeting under the Missouri Sunshine Law, requiring at least 24 hours public notice. So, this gathering was clearly illegal, and the committee members knew it.

The meeting went off as planned, with one exception: Bryant, who initiated the meeting, didn’t attend. I never found out why; he just didn’t go.

At the next regular meeting of the council, Councilman Dan Cofran, who had learned about the meeting, stood up and, in front of everyone, exposed the dastardly deed. As I recall, one of the committee members either confirmed the meeting, or none of them denied it.

I was furious. When the meeting ended, I corralled Cofran and got as much information from him as I could. I don’t remember if I was able to talk to any of the Finance Committee members, who scrambled out of the chamber as fast as they could, but I got enough to know that Cofran was on the money.

As I left my parking lot on the north side of City Hall and proceeded south on Oak, toward The Star building, Lewellen happened to be pulling out of the City Hall garage. We looked at each other. He grinned. I gave him the finger.

I wrote a story for the next day’s paper, exposing the chicanery, but that didn’t satisfy me…not at all.

I tossed and turned that night, and the next morning, still fuming, I went straight to the third-floor office of then-publisher Jim Hale. “Jim,” I said, “as you probably know by now, the City Council Finance Committee held a secret meeting at Fedora’s last week, and I think we should sue them.”

These were the days when The Star was a cash cow, and we didn’t hesitate to sue someone over a violation of the Sunshine Law.

“I think you’re right!” Hale said, without hesitating. And with that he summoned Scott Whiteside, our in-house lawyer, had me brief him on the situation and gave him the green light to set in motion a civil complaint.

Then, Whiteside and I traipsed down to the second-floor newsroom for a meeting with managing editor Monroe Dodd and other top editors. That’s when I started feeling a little awkward. After all, in going straight to Hale, I had completely jumped the chain of command, bypassing my assignment editor, the managing editor and the editor.

But I had set the wave in motion, and nothing was going to stop it. I remember that Dodd glanced at me curiously a couple of times during the meeting. Afterward, he took me aside and said, “Fitz, I wish you’d let me in on the fun sometimes!”

That reaction greatly relieved me because I could see that while he was a little miffed at being circumvented, he recognized that I had acted strictly in the interest of the newspaper and the public.

The case went to trial in Jackson County Circuit, with Lewellen, Shields and Collins as the defendants. Bryant, because he had been a no-show, slipped the noose.

I remember Lewellen’s attorney cross-examining me at length on a variety of issues that didn’t relate to the issue of the Sunshine Law having been broken.

When Lewellen was asked how the meeting came about, he said, succinctly,“The girls (Shields and Collins) wanted to get together and talk things over, and I agreed.”

The judge — whose name I can’t recall — found all three guilty. He fined Shields and Collins $100 each, and he fined Lewellen $300, hitting him harder than the others because of his leadership post. Although the fine was small, it was a clearcut win for the paper and the public and, naturally, we reported the result.

Collins and Lewellen accepted the ruling and paid their fines. Shields, with her husband, Phil Cardarella, serving as her attorney, appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals-Kansas City District but lost.

Within days, I was back in Lewellen’s office, and we laughed and joked about the case, particularly about Bryant getting a pass. I asked Lewellen if he remembered me giving him the finger, and he said it had slipped his mind.

For both of us, the secret meeting was water under the bridge. City Hall was brimming with stories, and we needed each other too much to let a little thing like an open-meetings lawsuit lead to relation-changing resentment.

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