On February 9, Kansas City lost one of its top cheerleaders. Jim Fitzpatrick died after suffering heart failure while playing golf on vacation in Florida. He was only 76. Way too soon.
There will be a celebration of Jim’s life at 4:00 on Thursday, April 13, at Country Club Christian Church (to be followed by a party). The next day, his beloved fountains of Kansas City will be turned on for the new season.
I met Jim (a/k/a Fitz) 50 years ago. Our connections can be divided into two time periods:
The Political Years – The 1970s and early 1980s
The Conversation Years – 2016 to 2023
In the three or so decades between, we ran into each other occasionally at civic or sports events, and in 2010, I signed on as a subscriber to his blog. Otherwise, we were not in touch.
The Political Years: Jim moved from his native Louisville in 1969 to become a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star. He was 23 years old.
In 1971, after two years as a general assignment reporter, he became a political and governmental reporter covering the Jackson County Courthouse. I was deeply involved in Jackson County politics at the time, and this made me a subject (and sometimes source) of his reporting.
In those early days, he wrote for the Kansas City Times, the once-upon-a-time morning edition of the Kansas City Star. I reviewed clippings in my political archives and found many with a Fitz byline. I picked the two samples below for obvious reasons.
1974: Mike White ran for County Executive, and I was his campaign manager. This meant constantly dealing with Fitz. After Mike won the primary, I was elected Jackson County Democratic Chairman. My counterpart on the Republican side was Jerry Fogel, and Fitz wrote an article about us that ran on the front page of the Times (below the fold).
The print is too small to read, so I’ll quote Jim’s “lede” (the first sentence):
“Friends of Lonnie J. Shalton, new Chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Committee, nicknamed him the Wolverine because of his tremendous energy.”
Thanks to Jim, a nickname used only within the campaign crew became widely known. Took months for it to fade away.
1976: Senator Stuart Symington elected to not run for another term, and three major candidates surfaced: Jerry Litton, Warren Hearnes and Jim Symington. Kansas City Mayor Charlie Wheeler also threw his hat in the ring. I was working for Jim Symington on the race, and Wheeler thought I should be neutral or back the only Jackson County candidate (i.e., Charlie).
This was fertile territory for a reporter like Fitz, and one of his articles had some fun Wheeler quotes about the “Shalton spin.” Wheeler told Fitz that in joint appearances with Symington, he planned to “spin around,” point at Symington and demand “When are you going to fire Lonnie Shalton?”
After covering the courthouse for many years, Fitz moved across the street to cover City Hall. His columns on local politics would have numbered into the hundreds (thousands?). He was well known to candidates, office-holders and campaign workers. Below are a couple of emails I received this past week that nicely capture Jim’s work.
Former City Councilman Jim Heeter: “I got to know Fitz well almost forty years ago when I was a young city councilman and he was a young reporter covering City Hall for the Kansas City Times. Fitz was always working hard for a scoop. He once wrote a story that was pretty hard on me for something I’d said or done. I think he expected me to be uber-pissed but I acknowledged to him that his story was fair and that he was probably spot on — that he was right and it was just unpleasant for me to see in print! This began a mutually respectful friendship that endured for decades. Fitz was a great guy with a penchant for looking out for the little guy. He was a great reporter and columnist, too. I will miss him and his JimmyCsays columns.”
Bob White, a former staffer in Senator Tom Eagleton’s KC office: “You could count on Fitz to be fair and thorough. The relationship was cordial, but he never got so close as to lose his objectivity and commitment to his craft.”
Contact with Fitz was not limited to the news day. He and other reporters could reliably be found in the Westport bars after deadline. These were the same places frequented by campaign workers winding down after a hard day.
I also intersected with Fitz at Kemper Arena at Kings games. We both had partial-season tickets, but in different sections. At half-time, we would meet in the concourse and catch up on political news.
The Hiatus Years: I decreased my political involvement in the 1980s, so did not run into Jim as often. We both took on new lives. I married Rita in 1981. Jim married Patty in 1985 – met her at the New Stanley in Westport. Also in 1985, the Kings moved to Sacramento. In 1995, Fitz took over the Star’s Wyandotte County desk, far removed from my political interest. He retired from the Star in 2006. In 2010, he started a blog that would bring us back together.
The Creation of JimmyCsays (3/23/10): No doubt having an itch to write again, Fitz launched his blog JimmyCsays in 2010.
In his first post, titled “Cub blogger – rollout,” Fitz set forth his goals:
“I have long been a cheerleader for the city and the metro area. While I was a reporter, of course, I couldn’t openly be a cheerleader – had to stay objective, you know…You will find me commenting on civic, political and quality-of-life matters…Naturally, I’ll also be commenting on the newspaper business, which has atrophied significantly during the last two decades…
I will try to avoid shooting from the hip and being pedantic. (If you think I veer into that, let me know.) Instead, I will try to bring personality and perspective to the writing…I do think I can write in entertaining and somewhat informative fashion. I hope you like it.”
Mission Accomplished: I think it’s fair to say that Jim accomplished his goals. Most certainly the part about being entertaining and bringing personality to his writing.
He provided a unique take on city life and operations of local government (including the fire and police departments) and the press (especially the Kansas City Star). He also wrote about music, his travels and whatever else came to his mind.
He was opinionated. He went out on limbs. He made himself vulnerable. He was fun. He sometimes shot from the hip.
Restarting Our Conversation: I signed on as a subscriber soon after JimmyC launched and encouraged others to do so. In 2016, I reached out to Fitz about one of his posts and luckily still have our email exchange. I let him know that I had started my Hot Stove newsletter in November of 2015 and had just written a blurb about the Kansas City Kings. So I reminisced about that:
“Our time with the Kings was not long, but still great nostalgia. I remember you often being at the games and us chatting in the concourse at half-time.”
Then I added…
“I don’t know your work schedule these days (understand you substitute teach), but if you want to visit over coffee sometime, say Aixois, let me know. Maybe even drag along Margolies.”
We were both friends of Dan Margolies who I got to know well in the 1980s when he was a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal. Dan later moved to the Star where he overlapped with Jim for several years. In 2014, Dan joined the newsroom at KCUR.
Fitz agreed we should meet, and he also referred to our Kemper Arena days…
“Those were fun times at Kemper – a great stew of basketball and political discussion. I liked half-time as much or more than the games themselves.”
And there it was. Something we had not focused on for some 30 years. Fitz and I liked talking to each other. Those conversations from the Kemper concourse were about to be restarted.
Coffee and More: We started meeting for coffee each month at Aixois. And we drug along Dan Margolies. We had to start at 7:45 so Dan could be at work at KCUR by 9:00. Fitz sometimes had to reset the date at the last minute if he was called in as a substitute teacher.
Fitz was not keen on the early 7:45 start, so somewhere along the line, we tried a Saturday afternoon. The weather had turned warm and Fitz offered his back yard. With no time restriction, we went for two hours. As we left, someone said see you next week. And that’s how we started meeting weekly on Saturday afternoons. We missed some because of travel or other conflicts. During the early days of Covid, we switched to Zoom. It added up to a lot of hours of conversation.
Each of us had decades of shared institutional memory about Kansas City – government, politics, sports, entertainment, media, Frank Morgan’s legacy, etc. We never lacked for topics and created some of our own from the latest out of JimmyCsays, Hot Stove and Dan’s work at KCUR. Below is an example of that institutional memory:
In a post in 2017, Fitz wrote about the history of Fairyland Park. He added his personal experience, including a connection to his beat, the Jackson County Courthouse.
“I arrived in KC in the fall of 1969, when Fairyland was well on the way to extinction. I missed the glory days…But I do remember being there once. In fact, I have a photo of me and a young lady who were there on a hot Sunday afternoon…At the time, I was a young reporter covering my first beat, the Jackson County Courthouse, where I was assigned from 1971 to 1978. The woman I was with that day was Susan Reeder, who was administrative assistant to then-Jackson County Executive George W. Lehr.”
I picked this story because I love the photo. The cub reporter with hair. Context: This was years before Patty came along.
Kansas City Star: From the beginning, a major topic in Jim’s blog was his former employer, the Kansas City Star. He held no grudge – he had retired on his own terms – but felt it was part of his mission to tell the sad tale of the national decline of local newspapers. He had loved his time as an “ink-stained wretch” and fondly spoke of his days with the Star and his cohorts from the newsroom.
In January of 2022, Fitz reminisced about the days of newspapers being delivered on the front lawn. And how he had reluctantly converted to digital delivery. He gave a history lesson…
“I’m not going to wring my hands over the situation, but with the passing of print, I wanted to tell you about some of the great newspaper terminology that is being consigned, little by little, to history.”
He defined about 35 terms of the “coded, professional language,” such as clips, dummy, extra, flag, gutter, hot type, jump, masthead, press run and proof. And of course the one that is often thought to be misspelled:
“Lede — Generally, the first sentence of a story. One reporter would sometimes compliment another by saying, ‘Great lede’.” Remember “Wolverine”?
Derby Day: Fitz and I had a shared interest in Derby Day – the first Saturday in May each year when the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs.
I was part of a group that held Derby Day parties for many years in Kansas City in the 1960s/1970s. The race has had regular coverage in Hot Stove.
Jim’s interest in the Derby ran much deeper. You can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take the Kentucky Derby out of the boy. He attended the Derby at least 20 times, including several after he moved to Kansas City.
The Derby was postponed in 2020 because of Covid, but Fitz donned his Derby hat when Rita and I dropped by in May for a socially-distanced conversation in his front yard.
Last year, he had two posts about the 2022 Kentucky Derby. In the first, Fitz lamented the high cost of tickets for sporting events in general, and the Derby in particular. He often got his Derby tickets from scalpers operating outside of Churchill Downs. This was a part of his strategy:
“I used that sign successfully for at least two Derbies, and people would always ask me, ‘Who goes if you only get one ticket?’ My gentlemanly answer was always, ‘Patty.’ But it never came to that.”
In his second post, Fitz reported on the Derby results. I don’t know if it was the ticket prices, but Fitz did not attend in person. This did not keep him from enjoying the win by long-shot Rich Strike ($163.20 on a $2 bet):
“I lost $100 on the Derby, but I don’t care. It was the best and most exciting Derby in a decade or more.”
Fitz and Patty watched the race at a Derby Day party with friends on the rooftop of the Crossroads Hotel. Looking good in their Derby Day hats.
Big Slick – Shooting From the Hip: Fitz did not hold back in giving his opinions, and more often than not, he could rightfully claim the Harry Truman mantra, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s Hell.”
But there was the occasional “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Remember how his inaugural post said he would try to avoid shooting from the hip? Well, he was not perfect. In our Saturday conversations, Dan and I would sometimes post-edit (i.e., too late) his choice of words. After a column in 2016, I could not wait for our next meeting. I picked up the phone and called him.
Fitz had gone after “Big Slick,” an annual celebrity charity that began in 2010 for the benefit of Children’s Mercy Hospital. To publicize the 2016 event, campaign volunteers placed yard signs around the city, many of them along Ward Parkway. Jim lived two doors west of Ward Parkway.
His beef was that the volunteers did not seek permission to place the signs. That part was correct. But he did not stop there.
“It’s some sort of celebrity event in June called Big Slick ’16, which features home-grown comedians Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis and Rob Riggle. (For the record, I’ve never seen any of the three and now have less interest than ever in seeing them)…I hope Big Slick ’16 is a big flop.”
I knew a little about Big Slick because my son Brian has been a volunteer for the event since it started. Those volunteers and the KC-based families of the celebrities work year-round to pull off the event. The celebrities give generously of their time and work to bring in other celebrities for what has become one of the signature charity events in the city.
I called Fitz to protest. Many comments rolled in on his blog (pro and con). But I think the clincher was the comment he posted the next day – “I’m trying to come around after a scolding from my wife about being overly negative.” He added in a later comment, “I’m taking back my desire the event fails. I went too far.”
Below on stage at the 2016 Big Slick – Riggle, Rudd and Sudeikis. They raised $1.3 million for Children’s Mercy that year.
In hindsight, I have some empathy for Fitz on this. It was not just a “get off my lawn” moment for him. Many signs had been placed around the fountain on Meyer Circle. This was hallowed ground in Jim’s world. A good segue to one of his passions…
Jim Fitzpatrick – Fountain Man: Part of Jim’s beat as a city hall reporter in the 1980s was the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation. The board president was civic leader Anita Gorman, and the other two commissioners were restaurant magnates Ollie Gates (Gates Bar-B-Q) and Carl DiCapo (Italian Gardens). In Jim’s words, “That was quite a trio, and they were fun to write about because all three are powerful personalities.”
Several years ago, Fitz was honored to be added to the annual reunions of that board, along with Richard Berkley, the mayor who appointed them. Fitz posted this photo of the reunion held in November of 2020 (Fitz standing; from left, sitting, Berkley, DiCapo, Gorman and Gates):
Jim’s knowledge of the work of the Parks Department has been put to good use. He was active in his homes association (including serving as president), and he was instrumental in raising funds for repairs to Meyer Circle Fountain (about a block away from his house). Per neighbor Pat Titterington: “Every time I drive around Myer Circle I think of how he almost single handedly fundraised the fountain’s repair. Best president our homes association ever had.”
Several years ago, Fitz joined the board of the City Of Fountains Foundation, and this past year he has been president. His leadership has been widely praised.
One of his primary proposals has been the relocation of the Volker Memorial Fountain in Theis Park. Hippies and others once gathered around the fountain and its beautiful sculptures. But in the mid-1990s, the memorial was moved across Brush Creek to street level. Where drivers in speeding cars got a fleeting view. Per Fitz:
“The memorial, very inaccessible because of its remote location, has languished for the last 25 years and needs to be back in the body of the park to get the attention it deserves and to generate more activity in that 14-acre park.”
The completion of this project will be a fitting legacy to honor the work of Jim Fitzpatrick, the Fountain Man.
Last November, Rita and I were walking on the Plaza and happened upon Fitz posing in front of the fountain at Seasons 52. Legendary KC Star photographer Roy Inman was snapping photos for a brochure for the City of Fountains Foundation. Above, my photo of the photoshoot.
Patty: Jim’s love for Patty was on full display in his first post of 2023.
When Fitz woke up New Year’s Day, he picked up his phone and started reading the New York Times. He was drawn to an article titled “A happier new year.” The message in the article was that researchers had found that the one surefire, scientifically proven predictor of happiness was developing warmer relationships. So Fitz wrote in JimmyC…
“To personalize this, it struck me that lying right next to me in the bed, still asleep, was a person who fully understands the importance of strong and warm relationships and who is always reaching out to form new ones. Patty’s circle of friends is incredibly wide and forever growing, and it’s due to the fact that she is naturally gregarious and effuses an aura of kindness that is almost impossible to resist. So, my New Year’s resolution is straightforward: Be more like Patty so I too can cultivate more and warmer relationships.”
Any regular reader of JimmyC knows what Fitz was talking about. Jim and Patty’s active and eclectic social life was filled with friends. Many JimmyC posts became travelogues of their adventures with photos of highlights from Europe, Cuba, the USA, etc. News of restaurants, theater and music in KC (from zydeco to the symphony). And so much more.
Hot Stove #212 (12/2/22): When Dan Margolies retired from KCUR last year, I wrote about his career and also our time with Fitz…
“I have the pleasure of often meeting with Dan and our mutual friend Jim Fitzpatrick to talk about the world. Politics, history, books, culture, media, religion, Hebrew (Dan is fluent), crossword puzzles (Dan is fluent), trivia (again, Dan), music (Dan, classical; me, rock ‘n’ roll; Jim, both), jokes (mostly Dan, with a Yiddish flair), Seinfeld, critiquing Fitzpatrick’s JimmyC column when Dan or I think he’s off-base, and on and on. Sometimes we talk about baseball. Downtown stadium (I’m pro and nudging them)…There is one issue that has full agreement in our talks. Election denialism (a/k/a the Big Lie) is a blemish on our country.”
I had no idea I would be revisiting this subject so soon.
Last Conversation With Jim (1/24/23): Fitz was heading to Florida on January 26. To be gone for a month, missing four Saturdays. So we squeezed in a Tuesday session two days before he left. It was our last conversation.
Hot Stove and JimmyCsays (2/2/23): On the morning of February 2, I posted a new Hot Stove. It referenced a JimmyC column from last year that posed a KC history question about the correct pronunciation of a 1970s country-western bar on Main – the Club Royal(e). I had found the answer to his question and wrote about it, and he emailed me from Florida, “That’s an excellent explanation of the Club Royal(e) mystery. (A searing curiosity for detail is an essential credential for a top-level reporter.)”
The compliment was of course appreciated, but in full disclosure, you should also know his frequent response to a Hot Stove post – “It was a little long.”
Another email came in from Fitz that morning. He was asking that I confirm some quotes from our conversations. He was on his way out to play golf and said he planned on posting a new JimmyC that evening.
And that’s what he did. Here are the opening paragraphs of the JimmyC he sent out that night:
“Almost every week for the last few years, three guys who love Kansas City and have been around here for decades have met almost weekly to talk about the state of the nation and the city.
I’m very happy to say I’m part of the group. The two others are Dan Margolies, who recently retired as a reporter and editor at KCUR, and Lonnie Shalton, a retired partner with the Polsinelli law firm.
Lonnie, who publishes a weekly email newsletter called “Hot Stove” (usually about baseball) brought us together.
We suffered mightily through the Trump administration, with Dan threatening to move to Portugal if Trump was re-elected, but we pulled through. Now we are feeling a lot more optimistic about the national situation, believing that Trump’s winning days are behind him and that Biden, or whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be, will prevail in 2024. (The Senate remains a major source of concern.)”
After that introduction, Fitz moved on to his main subject. Should the Royals move downtown?. He had initially been a skeptic, but after some Saturday conversations, he “was now on board” with the concept. But he would still be keeping a watchful eye.
So bittersweet. It was his last JimmyC post. He died a week later.
After the sad news of Jim’s death, Dan Margolies posted this on Facebook:
“For the last few years, Fitz, Lonnie Shalton and I met together, first on a monthly basis and more recently on weekly basis, to shoot the breeze about books, music, baseball, religion – you name it. Fitz was a steadfast friend who seemed to harbor no malice toward anyone. He had an insatiable curiosity about everything and was a veritable encyclopedia of information about Kansas City politics and history. I will miss his welcoming smile and his raucous laughter. He was, in a word, a mensch.”
I agree with every word of that.
RIP Fitz. Our long conversation was too short.
Lonnie’s Jukebox – Jim Fitzpatrick Edition: Fitz and I also shared an appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll trivia. He often wrote about records he liked and the background details – the songwriter, backing band (like the Wrecking Crew), different versions of the song, etc. Below is a small sampling from the Fitz Jukebox.
“I Only Want to Be with You” by Dusty Springfield (1964). When Fitz responded to my February 2 Hot Stove, he made a comment about a Dusty Springfield song in Lonnie’s Jukebox. “’The Look of Love’ is one of my all-time favorite songs, along with ‘I Only Want to Be With You’.” This was Dusty’s first chart hit (peaking at #12).
“The Shadow of Your Smile” by Tony Bennett (1965), from the movie The Sandpiper. Per Jim: “It’s one of the most beautiful and haunting songs ever…a song that soothes the soul, not only with its lilting melody but the great lyrics…”
The shadow of your smile
When you are gone
Will color all my dreams
And light the dawn
“Different Drum” by the Stone Poneys, featuring Linda Ronstadt (1967). In September of 2019, Fitz wrote back-to-back posts on Linda Ronstadt. After the first one, he got a comment from Marsha Campbell: “My roommate and I drove to Denver in 1969 just to hear her sing ’Different Drum’ at some truly small dive bar! She was awesome!”
So the next post was on “Different Drum.” Fitz said this record “lit the fuse on Ronstadt’s monstrously big musical career…One of the things that made Ronstadt so special was the power and intimacy of her voice.”
“Chubby Party” by Chubby Carrier (Live, 2015). Last April, Fitz went to Knuckleheads with his daughter Brooks and son Charlie to see Chubby Carrier. Posted this photo.
“Ain’t no party like a Chubby party cause a Chubby party don’t stop.”
“Happy, Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers (1957). Fitz used this doo-wop song to lead off a medley of “droopy drawers songs that pick you up while laying you low.” Not sure I understood that, but some good music. The other selections were “Blue Velvet” (Bobby Vinton), “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (Carole King) and “Tracks of My Tears (Linda Ronstadt).
“The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez (1959). Another medley by Fitz, this time organ songs. The others were “Magic Carpet Ride” (Steppenwolf), “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harem) and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (the Casinos).
“Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings (1973). In 1976, Fitz attended the “best concert I ever saw” – the Wings Over America tour stop at Kemper Arena. He reviewed the playlist, ending with what he called the “incomparable” “Band on the Run.”