Three generations of the Spencer family were involved in the coal mining industry of southeast Kansas, and one of the last involved, Kenneth Aldred Spencer, was hailed as one of the nation's great industrialists.
He and wife Helen Foresman Spencer are remembered today for their philanthropic work, including the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, both at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, along with notable gifts to the Nelson Art Gallery and the establishment of the Spencer Theatre at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.
Kenneth F. Crockett has detailed their lives and legacy in his new book "Kenneth and Helen Spencer of Kansas - Champions of Culture and Commerce in the Sunflower State," published by the History Press.
"What led me to write the book was my first book, 'Missouri Coal Miners Strike - They Gave Their Word'," Crockett said in a telephone interview. "That book was a tribute to my father, who worked for the Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Company at their Pioneer Mine at Appleton City, Mo. The mine was the subject of a seven-year battle between the company and the United Mineworkers of America. My father was one of those who was loyal to the coal company. Doing that book led me to write a book on the Spencers."
Crockett was born in 1942 at Pittsburg. The family moved to Walker, Mo., after his father started working for P&M. The mine was later moved to Appleton City.
"I was a year old when I left Pittsburg, but my parents grew up in Mulberry and I had lots of aunts and uncles there," he said. "Crawford County has always been a special place to me."
Crockett also had an early acquaintance with Kenneth Spencer.
"I met him when I was 9," he said. "He introduced himself as also being named Kenny."
Crockett did extensive research through Spencer family records and letters and had the help of numerous Spencer family members and former employees. His research brought him to Pittsburg, where he talked with George Nettels Jr., whose father, George Nettels Sr., had been Spencer's first boss at P&M, and Billie Smith, Frontenac, who had been the secretary of Harold Hughes Spencer Sr., Kenneth Spencer's brother.
The first family member to come to the area was John W. Spencer, a Civil War veteran. Born in Illinois, Spencer went back there for a short time following the war, then, around 1865, decided to visit a sister who had moved to southeast Kansas.
He worked first as a cowboy, participating in cattle drives from Texas to Kansas, before starting his career as a farmer and cattleman near Hallowell in Cherokee County. He ceased his cattle operation after falling off a horse in 1880 and suffering a crippling injury. In 1881 he incorporated the Columbus Coal Company.
Spencer and his wife, the former Ambrosia LaFavor, had three children, two daughters, one of whom died at the age of 2, and a son, Charles Favor Spencer, the father of Kenneth A. Spencer.
Charles F. Spencer attended Columbus schools and KU. While his father preferred that he become a farmer and stockman, the son decided to enter the coal mining industry and became a clerk at Columbus Coal. He soon worked his way up to company superintendent and was recognized as a pioneer in surface mining, as opposed to the antiquated method of deep-shaft mining. In 1911 he purchased controlling interest in the Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Company. He and his wife, Clara, moved to Pittsburg, where they resided at 1002 S. College.
Kenneth Spencer graduated from Pittsburg Normal School, the high school affiliated with the teachers college. In his senior year he met his future wife, Helen Foresman, a Pittsburg High School sophomore, who was watching football practice. He later told friends he knew that he had met the love of his life.
She was born in Joplin, the daughter of Frank Wade Foresman and Francis Foster Foresman. Crockett devotes a chapter to her family.
"I had approached the chapter with the idea that Helen was fortunate to marry money, then I learned that her maternal grandfather, Samuel Walker Foster, was a founder of Chanute and its first mayor," the author said. "His brother, Everett Worthington Foster, was doorkeeper of the United States Senate, and another brother, Addison Foster, was a U.S. senator. I had to re-write the chapter."
Spencer attended KU, graduating in 1926, then began work as a P&M junior engineer. He lived with his parents until marrying Helen on Jan. 6, 1927.
Crockett said that while in college Spencer was thinking of ways to use coal for the production of chemicals.
"By the age of 30 he had patented the process to recover pyrite from coal and produce concentrated pyrite for the production of sulfuric acid from coal refuse," Crockett says in his book. "He also developed what was called a differential cone process used to separate certain minerals."
In 1936 Spencer became president of the Mineral Products Company, a P&M subsidiary organized to hold his patents, and in 1938 became P&M general manager/treasurer.
In 1940 he and his wife moved to Kansas City because he was flying frequently to Washington, D.C. to do work for the U.S. government and wanted to be near the Kansas City airport.
In 1941 the U.S. War Department contacted Spencer about operating a weapons-grade ammonia nitrate plant in Galena which became the Jayhawk Ordnance Works. He set up the Military Chemical Works, Inc., as a P&M subsidiary with himself as president. The plant, built by 1943, produced 14,500 tons of ammonia nitrate per month.
Spencer was one of the nine original founders of the Midwest Research Institute, founded in 1944. Its first mission was finding peaceful uses for ammonia nitrate.
Following the war he entered into a lease with an option to buy the plant to use the ammonia nitrate as fertilizer under the name of Spencer Chemical, which was in operation for many years south of Pittsburg.
Spencer died on Feb. 19, 1960, at the age of 58. He and his wife had no children, but had established a foundation for charitable giving in 1949.
"From that point on, Mrs. Spencer was furthering her husband's legacy and thereby establishing her own," Crockett said. "She lived for him."
He noted one incident where a reporter referred to her as Helen Spencer.
"She wrote in no uncertain terms that she wished to be known, not as Helen Spencer, but as Mrs. Kenneth Spencer," Crockett said.
Mrs. Spencer died in 1982. She and her husband are buried in Kansas City.
He acknowledged that the most notable monetary gifts of the Spencer Foundation have been given in the Kansas City area, the KU campus and Baker University, Baldwin City. There are no Spencer endowments at Pittsburg State University, for example, and the Spencer Chemical Company was sold to Gulf Oil.
Crockett said there is a cemetery monument at Highland Park Cemetery acknowledging the lives of several family members, including Charles F. Spencer.
"I drove through the cemetery for an hour looking for the marker and couldn't find it," the author said. "Then I was driving down Centennial, glanced to the right and saw it."
Crockett earned a bachelor of arts from Central Missouri State University in 1964 and a juris doctor from Washburn University in 1967. These days he stays busy as a substitute teacher.
"I'm at Topeka West nearly every day," he said. "I really enjoy it. Today I taught ceramics and jewelry, tomorrow I might teach math."
However, he would be happy to make time to get down to Pittsburg for a book signing.
"I've left messages for Randy Roberts at the university," Crockett said. "I'd love to have a signing on campus."