Historian Saves KC’s Story a Box at a Time

Photo credit: Mary Ellen Lohmann, The State Historical Society of Missouri

David Boutros’ 35-year mission draws to a close

David Boutros has what he calls an “historian’s heart.”

Most of us, when we think about our past professional lives, think in terms of educational attainment, degrees, years spent in a position, and other milestones. Boutros, now retiring as Assistant Director of the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Kansas City research center, measures his life in cubic feet. And there are a lot of them.

“I have a saying about collecting,” Boutros explains. “We collect because history informs the present and anticipates the future. Every time we are offered something, I ask myself, ‘What will historians in the future care about? What will they be curious about?’ “

The answer can be found somewhere in the 14,000 cubic feet of history Boutros has unboxed and processed since he came on the job in 1980.

Years ago, Missouri placed the State Historical Society under the University of Missouri, for administrative purposes. They began with a branch on each of the UM campuses, and expanded to include Springfield and Cape Girardeau.  Funding issues and changes in leadership have created some challenges, but Boutros has remained true to his philosophy of providing a window to the past. The result is an eclectic and somewhat mind-bending assortment of modestly-sized documents that tell a much larger story.

UMKC’s facility, located in Newcomb Hall, is particularly good at handling large collections. Some examples:  Kansas City school desegregation records; Trans World Airlines documents from the 1920s to 2002; 5 million negatives and a few prints of Kansas City Star images from 1980 to 2000; and a nationally significant built environment collection composed of architectural drawings and renderings, J. C. Nichols’ company papers, engineering and design concepts, and plans for parks and other public spaces.

From the time that boxes of papers, movies, negatives and other collectibles arrive at the Newcomb Hall offices, until researchers can have access, is usually a couple of months. A notable exception was the arrival of papers from the American Institute of Architects; as Boutros wheeled them into the receiving area, researchers were already seated at tables, waiting to have a look at the treasure.

After processing, most of the collections are sent to the Record Center in Columbia; about 300 cubic feet of materials are kept in Newcomb. In response to calls and requests, additional materials are retrieved and brought to campus for on-site researchers.  Those unable to visit the Research Center may pay a fee and have copied materials sent to any part of the globe. And although there are reasons to digitize, it is a process that is 17 times more expensive than the preservation of paper or other forms.

Boutros is especially pleased to have some rare, one-of-a-kind collections.

On occasion, he has bent the “no three-dimensional items” rule for exceptional collections. Dolls for Democracy is one example. Beginning in the 1950s, an Independence woman, Cecil Weeks, hand-crafted more than 1,000 dolls representing famous people, living and dead, who embodied the abstract notions of brotherhood, equality, tolerance, and courage. Groups of women took the dolls into area schools, to educate students about tolerance and to erase racial and religious prejudice. The State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City boasts 60 such dolls.

Another piece, prized because it is emblematic of the collection as a whole, is a 9’ X 6’ map of the Country Club District, created in 1930. The map came from the former J. C. Nichols offices on the Plaza, and a smaller version is a popular item in the SHS virtual gift shop.

A rare glimpse of Kansas City people and places is found in a donation from the Kansas City Slide Company, started in 1910. The company made lantern slides, imprinting a negative onto a piece of glass and sometimes hand-tinting them. A young Walt Disney worked there briefly, making commercial slides shown in movie theaters during intermission. Until the 1960s, every type of business – from cattle feed to life insurance to local eateries – advertised this way.

Swenson Construction Company president Godfrey Swenson filmed Kansas City projects as he built them, from foundation to grand opening. These included City Hall, Municipal Auditorium, and the Sears building on the Plaza. The Swenson donation includes film from the dedication of the Jackson County Courthouse, featuring Senator-elect Harry Truman, then presiding county judge, performing a Mason’s ceremony.

Every incident involving a TWA plane was written up in great detail. The Research Center has the records of a crash over the Grand Canyon in 1956, involving a TWA flight headed for Kansas City and an American Airlines plane. The Center has the reports of TWA Flight 800, destined for Paris and Rome, that went down in the Atlantic in 1996, moments after takeoff from JFK. Boutros acknowledges continuing interest in another TWA mishap that claimed the life of a celebrity.

“People are still fascinated by the TWA crash in which Carole Lombard, Mrs. Clark Gable, was killed in 1942. Over the years, there was speculation that it was Nazi sabotage – Lombard had just sold over $2M in U.S. war bonds – or some other evil plot. But most likely it was navigation error, causing the plane to deviate off course and into the top of a mountain.”

A study of the four largest collecting institutions in Kansas City supported their coming together for more effective and accessible collection-building. Boutros embraced this ideal as a truly valuable history center. Although this didn’t happen, Boutros feels that the mission was carried out. Because of the State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City, smaller historical societies and groups have a place for their treasures.

Maybe someday there will be such a building housing shared collections. It would be a real boon for those curious future historians Boutros talks about.

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