The History of The Mercury Club of Kansas City, Missouri
The Mercury Club was founded originally in 1920 as a local Lions club.
The members soon grew tired of the rules and regulations imposed by the national organization and broke away, and renamed the club the Mercury Club. It looks like this happened sometime in the 1940’s or early 50’s. From its early days, the club disdained rules and regulations. Although it was nearly always made up of business leaders in Kansas City, the business roles of the various members were down played considerably.
The club was intended to appeal to more mature business leaders and, in fact, there was a limitation placed on special treatment of members under age 40. When I joined in 1978, I was the youngest member by at least one year at the ripe old age of 32. My father congratulated me on joining the club which he had belonged to for eleven years, with a comment that he was glad to see some younger people joining because he thought it might become a last man’s club.
At that time the essential strength of the club lay in men of my father’s generation, many of whom had served in important positions within the community, as well as having spent a year as president of the Mercury Club. Virtually all of those men were in their 60s at the time and, lamentably, very few are still alive. It was a pretty lively group in spite of their age, although they all comported themselves as gentlemen in the best sense of that word.
Fred Brady epitomized that group which also included Bill Scott, Bill Smith, John Ruddy, Dick Newlin, Charlie Schmelzer, Dave Newcomer, Ed Biggar, Bill Grant, Paul Henson, Tom and Jack Robinson, Jim Kemper and Herman Sutherland. Among many others, these were all a part of “America’s Finest Generation.” They had been through Depression, war and financial and social success. They were pretty much a fun bunch of GENTLEMEN.
At that time in the 70s, we were going through a stretch when the next age group down was serving as presidents, and that brought us such terrific presidents as Woody Davis, Dusty Millage, Charlie Horner, By Schutz, etc.
At the time there was an unwritten rule that you had to be a member of the club for 10 years before you could serve as president. Attendance was regularly in the low 50s, and a particularly good speaker like George Brett would bring out 65 members for lunch.
At that time most of us officed downtown and we, therefore, could afford the luxury of a nice long lunch with a good speaker since there was virtually no travel time involved. During that time frame, the speakers were truly excellent, and it would not be uncommon to have the very top level business leaders in the community speak to the group.
For that matter, many of those top level business leaders were members, although a lot of them did not attend regularly. An exception might be Elmer Pierson, the past president of Vendo, who came virtually every Tuesday and Taylor Abernathy, chairman of First National Bank, who never missed a Tuesday. Although these gentlemen rarely missed a speaker, due to their advanced age, they rarely stayed awake for the speech. There were always one or two tables of these really old guys who were entertaining to lunch with, but then you had to try to listen to the speaker through their snoring.
Members like Jim Kemper, Herman Sutherland, Bob Wagstaff and Paul Hensen did not attend too often, but certainly lent stature to the roster. One of the traditions that existed when I joined was the system of fines for mentioning your company’s name. The treasurer, who was called the “revenuer”, would promptly present himself with his hand out and expect a $1 fine any time you mentioned your company’s name.
The Welfare Fund was originally established in 1924 for the purpose of aiding handicapped children. About that time R.J. Delano was president of the club. The Delano school later became named after him and an annual beneficiary of the club’s attentions. It is probably no accident that Mr. Delano’s son in law, Herman Sutherland became involved with children’s health issues and has served for many, many years as one of the guiding lights of Children’s Mercy Hospital.
An Adjunct of the hospital itself evolved to be what was known as the Crippled Children’s Nursery, which has been the principal recipient of Mercury Club funds for decades. Now it is known as the Children’s TLC and there is strong consideration within the present day Board of the Mercury Club and the welfare fund to make it the exclusive recipient of our largesse.
In 1974 we became worried about the tax deductibility of contributions to the fund and so a separate Welfare Fund Trust was established and it obtained a tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3), making contributions tax deductible. The Welfare Fund was funded through the proceeds of the Bingo games and “fines.” Even though the Bingo ante was only a dime, we always raised over $10,000.
It was a common practice when a member of the Mercury Club died for many of his friends or admirers to make a contribution to the Welfare Fund in memory of the deceased member, or a member who had been accorded some honor or recognition.
At the end of the year, a call went out for those who were of a charitable demeanor to make a contribution. At that point Bill Deramus would come through with his check for about $10,000, so we could always meet our goal. It was a blow to the fund when Bill died, but the members have gradually brought the annual level back up.
The club always had the wonderful tradition of providing a turkey dinner with boxes of candy each Christmas for the children at the Delano School. Although Lou Ward never mentioned it, a number of people felt that he just might have been behind the Russell Stover candy that Bud Mackey handed out every Christmas in his Santa Claus suit. Only Bud could say how many years he has sweated inside that suit and held those precious kids in his lap as he handed out the presents and listened to the whoops of joy. It ought to be a requirement that all first year Mercurians go to this event to carve turkey and get an adjustment to your heartstrings.
Some of us go back almost every year. David Newcomer usually brings his wife and kids. It is an amazing way to enhance your enjoyment of the holiday season and feel real good about being in Mercury Club.
Another tradition, which continues to the present, is Bingo. I have always thought it was a hoot to see some of the city’s most distinguished business leaders locked in absolute concentration on a single game of Bingo. The prizes for many years were actually brought by the members themselves. Responsibility for the prizes was rotated through the Membership alphabetically. For those who didn’t want to bring their own prize, you might win a $10 gift certificate from Jack Henry’s, which would just about cover the cost of a pair of socks. After Ernie Dick from Jack Henry’s died, the club switched the certificates to Woolf Brothers. Eventually Tom Carpenter from Woolf Brothers resigned from the club and we changed to a plaza gift bond.
We had two social events every year, the golf tournament and the dinner dance. As for the golf tournament, it was always held at Mission Hills Country Club, or the Kansas City Country Club, and was followed by a lot of drinks, some remarks by the tennis players who did not happen to play golf, and a spirited poker game in which Bud Mackey always served as the banker, and old Frank Bolin usually was the principal winner.
There were also some games of gin rummy where Marsh Douthat and I sat down as partners and played Bob Esrey and Jim Lacy and learned exactly how fast you can lose $20 in penny a point gin rummy. Eventually the social calendar was expanded to include a pig roast at the farm of member Jay Olander. This rapidly became a favorite event and the members anxiously looked forward to the first full moon in August when Jay would spiff up the pigs and Morgan would sharpen a stick at both ends. He would perform his magic over a barbeque pit for many hours so that the hog was ready for eating about an hour after the guests arrived.
When I joined the club in 1978, the meetings were always held in the wine room of the Kansas City Club, on the fourth floor. Before that, under the guidance of club Secretary Russ Rine, the club met in a basement level room at the Hotel Muelbach, but in February of 1977, when it moved, everyone seemed to feel that the Kansas City Club venue was superior in a number of ways. Most of you will remember that we later moved down to the second floor into a bigger room, even though our attendance began to slip down to an average in the 40’s.
The bylaws at that time limited the membership in the club to 150 people, but made a special provision that the club could also have 10 members under age 40. When I joined, the next youngest members were Steve Soden, Barry Richardson and Pete Newcomer, none of whom attended on a regular basis. Steve and I began to put up some of our friends for membership in the club and I surmise that a large number of the club’s present members have evolved from our endeavors.
When I became president in 1988, I noted that, although the club still had 150 members, the same number as it had in 1978 when I joined, the membership had changed in that there had been 90 new members added during that 10-year time frame. During that time the club embarked on a mission to recruit good, middle-aged or younger members who owned their own businesses.
Although Sodden did not attend much, he nominated Fred Coulson for membership and for a number of years Fred and I would each be responsible for five or six people a year joining the club. At that time we developed a large core of baby boomer members, many of whom still belong today.
During that era, the club was managed by a delightful retired gentleman named Ken Spry, who had been in the military for awhile, and then served as Executive Director of the Muscular Dystrophy, or Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. Ken was very organized and never missed a Tuesday for many, many years. He kept strict attendance records and could provide you figures at the end of the year as to how many luncheons each member had attended. This was extremely useful information in selecting officers and directors for the ensuing year.
Ken also supervised the recruitment of speakers. He would prod the member whose responsibility it was to obtain a speaker and a lot of times would give him a name or names of someone who might be a good speaker. He would remind us each year if we had not had anyone speak from the Royals, or the Chiefs, or the International Affairs Council. At that time each board member was responsible for obtaining speakers for one month during the year. Although we continue this tradition, it is done without the watchful eye of Ken Spry who would remind us that we had a speaker that was too similar last year or that we hadn’t heard from a particular source for some time. It seemed that Ken was always thinking about the Mercury Club, and so his thoughts were helpful in countless little ways. He provided the corporate memory and continuity that is invaluable to any organization and did it all as a low profile gentleman.
In those days we did have a membership screening process under which the names of prospective members were vetted by a membership committee and then circulated to all of the rest of the people in their particular profession for comment and feedback to the secretary before they were voted upon by the board of directors. For that reason, occasionally a highly qualified person would not be voted into the club because there was already a member of his firm of about the same age in the club.
Each year we would have a big Christmas celebration in conjunction with the annual meeting that always featured eggnog, spiked, and otherwise. We usually had a local youth choir sing a few songs of the holiday season, a tradition which some of us miss today. This was the one time a year when members like Herman Sutherland and Paul Henson might show up.
This was followed the next week by the after Christmas lunch for the members, as well as their children and grandchildren. Wives and in-laws were rigorously excluded from this event unless their fathers had been Mercury Club members. We never wanted them to get their mitts on those precious silver dollars.
The club remains today a worthy symbol of those who have gone before. The membership carries forward the traditions of community leadership and service. We must never forget, however, the duty we owe ourselves and our predecessors to keep the Mercury Club the most esteemed luncheon club in the city.
by Robert M. Beachy
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Mercury Club of Kansas City, Missouri is a non-profit organization