Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The unkissed pedestrian

Twelfth and Baltimore in the heyday of Kirby McRill.
Anderson Photo Company Photograph Collection (K0489). The State Historical Society of Missouri.
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Kirby McRill has not been forgotten. A few years ago there was a 5K walk named for him in Tonganoxie, Kansas, near the land he once farmed. He’s immortalized in a few books, notably Tom’s Town, a definitive account of the Pendergast years in Kansas City. He even has his own web page. That some memories of him are incomplete, or inaccurate, probably would not have mattered much to Kirby, so long as his name was still out there. He hasn't disappeared, as he did for a time in the summer of 1920, weeks after following railroad tracks out of town, on foot, toward a different life.

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Fifty years ago, a Kansas City Times reporter recalled seeing Kirby McRill downtown in the 1930s, “silhouetted against the sun, moving hell for leather behind his loaded wheelbarrow.” Passing gambling joints along Twelfth street he “pounded through Baltimore avenue, his great red beard and his shoulder-length tresses quivering, clad in his 1918 baseball pants and a shirt as green as the gamblers’ aprons.” 
 
Kirby McRill late in life.
This is the Kirby McRill that evolved from the summer of 1920, the eccentric old man in the weird outfit who walked around town wearing a sandwich sign for a pet store or pushing a cart full of splintered wooden boxes that he rebuilt and sold for income. The guy who lived in a fleabag hotel near the city market, who did time in the municipal farm for creating a fire hazard with his pile of broken wood. Guards there held him down and shaved his hair and beard. He filed a $160,000 suit against the city, without success. 

That old guy resembled his younger self only in that he walked everywhere.

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In the summer of 1920 Kirby McRill was 44 years old. He farmed more than two hundred acres of Kaw Valley bottomland in Leavenworth county, northeast of Lawrence. He had his own threshing equipment, which he hired out at harvest time. He tinkered with his machinery, traveled to implement shows, and in winter sometimes worked at equipment dealers in Kansas City. 

Back then Kirby was tall, dark, blue-eyed and handsome, with carefree hair and a thick mustache. He didn’t consume alcohol, coffee, or tobacco, was a Shriner and a member of a group of bachelor farmers in his rural neighborhood. He was a big eater, favoring rare beef and blackberry pies. He enjoyed walking. A lot. 
 
The younger Kirby.
For years he had walked to Tonganoxie and Lawrence and Topeka, for business or pleasure. In 1911 he covered the forty miles of Union Pacific railroad tracks between Lawrence and Kansas City’s old Union Depot in nine hours and seven minutes, against a head wind. It would have been quicker had not several trains come along.

Sometimes business and pleasure mixed. He’d start from home around midnight, arrive in Kansas City mid-morning, and check into the Baltimore or Muehlebach hotel, Twelfth and Baltimore. Then bathe and eat a big meal, visit a few threshing companies, and start home in the late afternoon.

In 1917 jury duty in Leavenworth meant twenty-seven miles each way in the snowy cold for several days. A local newspaper took notice. “Americans don’t walk enough,” Kirby was quoted as saying. “If they walked more they would have better health; it is the best exercise in the world.” His favorite walking uniform consisted of his old amateur baseball uniform, wide-brimmed hat, and size 12 shoes.

As Kirby kept walking, reporters kept writing about him. In the spring of 1920 he announced he would walk to Chicago, visit a few threshing houses, take in the Republican National Convention, see the sights. With permission to use the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way he set out on May 14 and pulled into Chicago eight days later.  The Chicago Tribune published a small story:


Days later the Tribune ran a story about five young Evanston women seeking husbands, promoted by the local justice of the peace. Soon Kirby showed up at the judge’s office, saying he’d read about the women and would like an introduction, having decided he “ought to a got hitched up long ago.” Unfortunately, the judge was out of town, so Kirby walked on. 

Next day the Tribune’s front page story began:



 “I haven’t ever kissed a girl,” he had told the paper. “And I’m 44 years old.”

By August, worried friends and relatives had not heard from him in weeks. Meanwhile, Kirby continued walking, visiting Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His crops and business were suffering from neglect. When he finally returned in early September, the bank had foreclosed on his livestock. But Kirby would not stop walking, or seeking publicity. He began spending even more time in Kansas City.

Now the stories were in papers nationwide, usually referring to him as The Unkissed Pedestrian. The Heart of America Walking Club here in town recruited him to help promote walking and the city. He participated in publicity stunts. In 1921 a Post reporter ambushed him with a showgirl named Flossie Devere. “You can’t tell me he’s never been kissed before,” she said after planting one for the camera. Kirby looked surprised, but not displeased. He was still searching. 
 
Kissed at last.
Finally, in the summer of 1922, he was seen with a young female walking companion. A trainee, he called her. She was Daisy Belle Hicks, half his age, daughter of a neighboring farmer in Leavenworth county. All that fall, as Kirby trained for another Chicago walk, this time sponsored by the HOA Walking Club, Daisy Belle was there. Though he hoped she would soon be ready for long-distance walking, he paid for her to attend barber school in the meantime. “She's going to get a job in one of these here lady barber shops,”  he told the Post.

In December, leaving the steps of city hall in Kansas City, bound for Chicago, he passed her school whistling “The Girl I Left Behind.” She waved goodbye with her clippers.

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Of course, Daisy Belle Hicks ran off with another man. Kirby never recovered. As a silent protest he grew his hair and beard long, and sued Daisy for breach of promise. The suit was thrown out of court. 

Walking had become an obsession. He lost his farm. His plan to break the transcontinental record of Edward Payson Weston never materialized. Kirby was growing old, and the only walking left was behind a wheelbarrow in the streets of Kansas City. 

“This never would have happened if I had not been kissed the first time,” he told a reporter. “Kissing is a dangerous habit. It is like opium. The more you get the more you want. I wish the women would leave me alone forever now.”

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The end came for Kirby McRill in 1950, when he was hit by a car on Third street in the cold hour before a January dawn. At first no one claimed his body, but four hundred Kansas Citians filed past his wooden coffin at the Lapetina funeral home on Campbell street. Finally, some relatives and friends buried him in a little cemetery near his old Kansas farm. 

Some of them recalled the old Kirby, before his walking became newsworthy. 

“After that,” said one, “Kirby wanted nothing greater out of life than to get his name and his picture in the newspapers.”
In death, he made the front page of the Star.

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Elegy for Elmhurst

Etched in stone on Pennsylvania street, near Valentine road.
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The old stone wall looks like others around town, low barriers built long ago to encircle institutions or cemeteries or private estates. This one, with crowned pillars and rusting ornamental ironwork, is a remnant running along two sides of the Broadway-Valentine shopping center, north of the Uptown Theater. Its unique feature is the ghostly name cut into a limestone slab on the less-traveled Pennsylvania street side: Elmhurst. And its story originates in loss and sadness.

History-minded midtowners might know Elmhurst, built in 1898, was the home of Joseph T. Bird, president of the iconic Emery Bird Thayer department store downtown. Newspapers described it as a "five-acre estate with a huge southern colonial house" and "one of the show places of the town, which is in the midst of a large lawn shaded with massive trees." Bird was said to enjoy walking the three miles from home to work, where he kept a picture of Elmhurst in his office.

Elmhurst as it appeared in the 1930s.
Bird died in 1918 while on vacation in Colorado. His widow, Annie, carried on the store's business and lived at Elmhurst until her own death there in 1937. The Birds were prominent philanthropists, and early benefactors of Children's Mercy Hospital. They adored their leafy estate, and filled the large house with collected antiques and artwork. Their memorial services were held there.

Annie and Joseph Bird, top, and their store.

But the story of Elmhurst predates the Birds. It was the dream of one John Perry, a native of England who in the late 19th century became "one of the wealthiest men in Kansas City," according to news accounts, by selling coal. Perry and his wife, Kate, had four children and lived in a grand house of their design at 27th and Troost. Elmhurst would be an even more palatial home to grow old in. Each of the children would have a room, bearing their name.
John Perry.
By late June 1898 the foundation for the new house was in and contracts let for the frame construction. The two oldest Perry daughters were graduating from a convent back east and the parents and their young daughter and son traveled to New York for the ceremonies. They intended to return to Kansas City, but while in New York the family decided Kate and the four children would sail to Europe for the summer on the French liner La Bourgogne. John Perry came home alone.

Just before dawn on July 4, La Bourgogne collided with an English ship in a thick fog off the coast of Nova Scotia, and quickly sank. More than five hundred people drowned, including John Perry's entire family. It was thought they probably never escaped their quarters.

The sinking of La Bourgogne.
Perry went east and made arrangements to sail the waters near the wreck in a futile search for the bodies. Back home by August, he attended a requiem mass for his lost family at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, then carried wreaths to decorate empty graves at St. Mary's cemetery.

The thought of living at Elmhurst was too painful for Perry. The project languished until he decided he would build it as a home for orphan boys. That plan was scuttled by deed restrictions, but by spring 1899 he was building the orphan home at the corner of 43rd and Westport (site of today's Westport Landing shopping center). It would be a memorial to his family. 

He also renewed his building permit to finish Elmhurst as a private home. Then he sold it to Joseph T. and Annie Bird.

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In May 1937, a few months after Annie Bird's death, the Birds' daughter made the decision to have Elmhurst demolished and make the property available for business development. More than twenty years later, the city approved rezoning from apartments to retail. And in late 1960 the Broadway-Valentine shopping center opened, retaining a remnant of stone wall with its reminder of what had been lost all those years ago.


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Friday, April 27, 2018

A hard and brutal business

Centennial Methodist Church, 19th street and Woodland avenue.
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It was a fair and cool Tuesday morning, seventy years ago today, the last time Jackie Darthard went to church.  For some in the 18th and Vine neighborhood April 27, 1948, was a day of anticipation. That afternoon the Blues were to play their home opener in the ballpark up the hill at 22nd and Brooklyn. That evening Sarah Vaughn and local product Charlie Parker, rising stars in the jazz world, would be performing downtown at Municipal Auditorium. But for those who showed up that spring morning at Centennial Methodist, corner of 19th and Woodland, it was a day of sadness.

Nine days earlier Darthard, just a couple weeks shy of his 19th birthday, had attended Sunday services here with his young wife, Ernestine. The pastor, Rev. E.L. McAllister, had called him to the front of the congregation that day and praised his strong faith and clean living. Some in attendance remembered Darthard as a Boy Scout. Or they knew him as hard-working bootblack with a stand on 18thstreet, shining shoes and flashing an easy grin. Some knew he hoped to go to trade school to study the tailor’s art. That would come in due time, after he retired from the ring.

Because they knew him best as a fighter, a two-time Golden Gloves champion here in Kansas City and now a promising professional, a national contender for the middleweight crown. In two years he had lost just one fight and won thirty-five, most by knockout.

Jackie Darthard
His next fight was on the Wednesday after Rev. McAllister singled him out in church. The opponent was a veteran, Bert Lytell, recognized as a strong and hard-hitting middleweight. The two had met in February at Municipal Auditorium here, slugging to a draw. The rematch would be in Milwaukee.

Kansas City fans who watched him train at the gym on 18th street described Jackie Darthard as tough, vicious, a terrific puncher who never backed away from an opponent. His trademark was a little blue baseball cap he wore to the ring for good luck.

Bert Lytell
Good luck deserted him that night in Milwaukee. Bert Lytell pummeled him in the third round and again in the sixth. Lytell’s manager tried to get the referee to stop the fight, but rules prevented handlers from speaking out during a match. In the sixth a brutal right to the head sent Darthard staggering to his corner. He complained of a headache, said he couldn’t see, then passed out. There was a rush to the hospital, surgery to remove a huge blood clot from his brain, but he never regained consciousness. He died the next morning. Bert Lytell wept. 

The news made the front page of the Kansas City Star at a time when sports stories, let alone about African-Americans, seldom did. It was the third death in a U.S. boxing ring in 1948, the sixth worldwide. The next day the Star’s sports editor recalled an earlier fight, “the agonizing minutes” he had spent watching another boxer die in the ring. “Death was not intended, of course, but where the main objective is the rendering of a boy or a man into a state of unconsciousness, death is just a step or two beyond. It’s a hard and brutal game, the prizefight business.”

So that following Tuesday Jackie Darthard went to church a final time, lying in a box carried by fellow fighters, including Bert Lytell’s brother. A thousand mourners packed Centennial Methodist’s auditorium and balcony and vestibule. Another fifteen hundred stood outside in the street. There were flowers and songs and tears. “He always fought the good fight; he neither asked nor gave quarter when in the ring. Prizefighting is hard business,” said the Rev. McAllister, echoing the Star editorial.

“But the most astonishing thing is that grown people will go to such fights and stand and cry for blood and not be satisfied until one or the other of the participants is knocked down and out.”

Jackie Darthard and Bert Lytell after their first fight.

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