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A Life of Generosity and Service

Shirley Bush Helzberg to Join Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

Life on a family farm taught Shirley Bush Helzberg much more than how to coax crops from the ground or manage livestock. It was a place where neighbors helped neighbors, where lessons of kindness were commonplace.

Helzberg’s hardworking parents insisted that it was not enough to care – you had to get involved. Through her acts of compassion, Helzberg’s mother taught her to take responsibility for making things better. Her father, a self-educated farmer, invented devices that would make farming easier for him and his Leavenworth County neighbors.

Helzberg took these lessons to heart.

In recognition of her lifetime achievements and contributions, Shirley Bush Helzberg is one of seven exceptional women from the Metropolitan Kansas City area included in the inaugural class of honorees to be recognized in the new Starr Women’s Hall of Fame. Stories of other inductees can be found online.

Helzberg attended Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., and entered the broadcast and advertising markets, working at agencies and radio stations in Kansas City and elsewhere.

As a volunteer, Helzberg preferred to stay in the background. But after her marriage to Barnett Helzberg, working together as a philanthropic team and using the resources of the Shirley and Barnett Helzberg Foundation, Helzberg stepped up her efforts as Kansas City’s good neighbor.

Her affinity for the arts led her to chair the board of the Kansas City Symphony. During her almost 20-year span of leadership, the Symphony earned more money and brought in more donations. The orchestra stepped up its educational programs and, with the hiring of conductor Michael Stern, grew in artistic development.

Helzberg devoted time and funds to many arts organizations, among them Starlight Theater, the Shakespeare Festival, and the Kansas City Ballet. She currently chairs the Board of Trustees of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Fittingly, in 2013, UMKC and its Conservatory of Music and Dance conferred the Doctor of Musical Arts honoris causa on Helzberg, for her many contributions to music.

In 2000, Helzberg decided to bring her Midas touch to the Crossroads and revitalize an area of downtown that was home to historic structures in bad need of restoration. She renovated the Webster School building, built in 1885, into Webster House Antiques & Restaurant. Her development company has converted other buildings in the area, such as the Vitagraph Building, into office space. In 2011, the nearby Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and its breathtaking Helzberg Hall opened their doors.

As much as she enjoys the bricks and mortar side of things, Helzberg loves the personal touch. A frequent speaker to women’s groups, she confessed to listeners at Mayor James’ 2014 Prayer Breakfast that she has a hard time saying no to friends when they propose volunteer projects.

She encourages would-be volunteers to keep an open mind, and find the right match: an institution you truly believe in. Find the one that fits, where you can make best use of your gifts.

Helzberg has a soft spot for children, and has worked closely with the City Union Mission and the Make A Wish Foundaton. The University Academy Charter School, founded by the Helzbergs, Lynne Brown and Tom Bloch, embodies Shirley Helzberg’s advocacy for all students to have an excellent college prep education.

Frank Byrne, executive director of the Symphony, says Helzberg “personifies philanthropy and leadership. She has transformed the landscape of our city and many of its organizations.”

Helzberg’s parents were the best of role models – they led by example and influenced their daughter to live a life of generosity and service to others.


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