[I’m pausing postseason baseball talk to honor two of Kansas City’s finest. More baseball talk soon – Astros and Phillies in the World Series.]
Last Thursday, October 20, 2022, two of Kansas City’s greatest storytellers died. Paul Vardeman at age 92. Bert Bates at age 96. In the last Hot Stove, I covered Paul Vardeman. Today, Bert Bates.
Bert Bates – Raconteur: Bert Bates was born on April 14 – a date I kept on my calendar to set up an annual lunch with him. He liked to point out that the date is best known for Lincoln being shot (1865), the Titanic hitting the iceberg (1912) and Bert being born (1926). A typical response from him, this one for his 88th birthday:
“Well – aren’t you thoughtful – My birthday is April 14 (same date as Lincoln was shot and the Titanic went down – three tragedies) – but I can celebrate anytime – yes, 88 sounds about right – BB.”
Bert was a well-known lawyer with the Lathrop firm by the time I started practicing law in 1967. I never had a legal matter with Bert, but I knew his excellent reputation as a lawyer and civic leader. He was known for representing Armco, then a major force in the Kansas City community. When Bert was asked what kind of law he practiced (litigation, corporate?), he answered “Armco Law.” And he was very good at that. Bert had an office at the Lathrop firm until the day he died.
My first connection with Bert was through politics. Bert’s time in Missouri Democratic politics dates back to at least his father’s successful campaign for state treasurer in 1952. Bert was a long-time supporter of Senator Stuart Symington, and this carried over to Stuart’s son Jim who ran for Stuart’s seat in 1976. I worked on Jim’s campaign, and that’s when I got my first taste of Bert’s encyclopedic knowledge of Missouri history and politics.
We also often crossed paths at bar activities and had a shared appreciation for the work done by Legal Aid.
What I enjoyed most about Bert was listening to him tell stories. A raconteur. About law, politics, business, Missouri history, etc. By good fortune, I got to hear those stories many times during long lunches.
I can’t remember the exact year we started our lunches, but Bert would have been in his 80s. Irv Blond had left Lathrop (Bert’s firm) and joined Polsinelli. We found we had a shared respect for Bert and thought getting together to hear Bert stories would be a treat. And of course it was. It became an annual affair on or around Bert’s birthday. It was so much fun, we added another at Bert’s half-birthday. Another friend of Bert’s, our Polsinelli partner Jack Kilroy, also became a regular.
Here is another email from Bert for one of the lunches:
“Thanks – not a whole lot of people remember me anymore – Actually April 14 not too good in history – Lincoln shot – Titanic went down – me born – tsk tsk – BB”
Other than some Covid interruption, we continued our twice a year pattern. Below, a photo from last October for Bert’s 95.5th birthday. Bert’s the one with the coat and tie. Then Jack, Lonnie and Irv.
Bert sent this gracious email after that lunch:
“You guys are all great – and I appreciate greatly the time and attention – I promise I’ll buy next time – I plan to live to 125 so you’ll go broke if you keep buying – I won’t need any more stories because you will start forgetting the ones I’ve told – thank you again – Bert
I love his comment that he would not need any new stories. That’s the mark of a true raconteur. He could tell the same stories, often being prodded by us with reminders, but his delivery was like a favorite song. You could listen again and again.
I sent Bert an email on October 14: “Happy 96.5th Birthday! Jack, Irv and I would like to host you for lunch. How does your calendar look?”
But I did not hear back. Bert had a heath setback and died on October 20. Although he did not get to that aspirational age of 125, he gave us 96.5 memorable years.
As did Queen Elizabeth. Bert was born a week before Queen Elizabeth in 1926 and died a month after she did. This is a good parallel. Ask anybody who knew Bert and they will tell you he was a prince of a guy.
And a most deserving member of the Raconteur Hall of Fame.
Bert Bates – Citizen of Kansas City and the State of Missouri: Why did Bert have so many stories? Because he did so much in his life. If there was a civic cause in Kansas City, Bert was invariably involved. He frequented the halls of power in Jefferson City. President of the Missouri Bar. Chair of the KC Chamber of Commerce. Tons of awards for community service, including Kansas Citian of the Year by Kansas City Rotary. And on and on (comprehensive list on the Lathrop website here).
Jack Kilroy tells of Bert’s work with LEAP (Lawyers Encouraging Academic Performance). This is an attorney organization that operates for the benefit of Operation Breakthrough. Per Jack:
“For those who were dedicated to LEAP, Bert was their hero. Bert got involved in Leap when Jim Heeter and I asked for his time when LEAP was being planned. Like the rest of his activities, he responded in endearing and successful fashion. I wish you could have seen him passing out back-to-school backpacks at Operation Breakthrough in recent years (photo below). As you know, similar comments could be written for countless organizations and causes.”
A major love was the University of Missouri. Among many roles, Bert served as President of the Board of Curators. Below from 2016, receiving his honorary degree for his longstanding and tireless record of service.
Bert was a member of the Missouri 100, a group of advocates for the university. My partner Jim Polsinelli is also a member and sent me a copy of a letter to the group from MU President Mun Y. Choi, honoring the memory of Bert. Some quotes:
“His life is a testament to what it means to truly serve all of the communities that played a part in launching his long and accomplished career as a professional and civic leader…Bert could diffuse what could otherwise be confrontational situations with a grace that not many others possess…We will miss Bert’s leadership, his passion and his grace.”
Bert Bates/Hot Stove: Bert was a charter subscriber to Hot Stove and often commented. He also had some cameos in Hot Stove on his birthday celebrations. Some excerpts:
April 14, 2016
For some years, I have joined with fellow “young” lawyers Irv Blond and Jack Kilroy to take Bert Bates to lunch around the date of his birthday – that occurred this week as Bert turned 90…Bert preempted us this year and took us to lunch. As always, we listened with pleasure as Bert the raconteur held court with great stories on Missouri lawyers, politics and history.
September 27, 2017
[On Jim Symington turning 90] Not that Jim is the oldest Hot Stove reader. Two other readers beat him to the punch as nonagenarians: Harry Jonas and Bert Bates. While I am talking about nonagenarians, I should also mention Roger Angell, the writer of wonderful baseball essays in the New Yorker. He turned 97 last week.
November 9, 2018
Bert Bates tells a story about a 1960 presidential campaign visit by Jack Kennedy in which he and Jim Symington participated. “We met a big group at Richards-Gebaur air base…had 20 Ford convertibles for the motorcade to downtown…hauling dignitaries…stopped at Truman Corners shopping center where Congressman Dick Bolling spoke and Jim played the guitar and sang to entertain the crowd…I was in charge of the motorcade (we had an 80-motorcycle escort) and sat in front seat of lead car with a walkie-talkie directing speed/slowdown. Jim rode in front seat with me from the airbase to downtown with Kennedy, Senator Symington and Governor Dalton in back seat. Kennedy stood all of the way – had metal braces for legs so he wouldn’t be thrown out if car stopped or sped up suddenly…huge crowds lining streets along the entire route…Kennedy spoke that night at Municipal Auditorium…Great daylong event.”
March 22, 2019
[On baseball fandom] Bert: “I grew up in mid-Missouri – listened to all Cardinal games – actually cried (still in grade school) when they traded Terry Moore – revered Pepper Martin, Dizzy Dean, Daffy Dean…”. Bert was also with the Cards for the next round of great players (Musial, Schoendienst, etc.), but “have been in KC now for 67 years and become a devoted Royals fan.”
May 18, 2020
Birthday House Call: [Covid Year – Bert at 94] Rita and I were able to do an in-person socially-distanced happy birthday to Bert while on one of our walks. We coaxed him to come out on his balcony, and he gave a friendly wave. And many more Bert.
December 28, 2021
Fun new fact we learned: Bates City, Missouri, is named for Bert’s great-grandfather.
Lonnie’s Jukebox – Bert Bates Edition: In lieu of the standard rock ‘n’ roll for the closing section of Hot Stove, I’m going to reach back to a song that would have been heard by 18-year-old Bert in 1944. It’s the same song I used in the last Hot Stove honoring Paul Vardeman, a fellow member with Bert in the Raconteur Hall of Fame. It nicely captures what they brought to us.
“You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum/Bring gloom down to the minimum.’
“Accentuate the Positive” (a/k/a Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive) by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers.