TOPEKA, Kansas — A Topeka man's new book about the lives of a Kansas couple tells the story of how their success in the chemical and coal industries turned into a life of philanthropy across the state.
Ken Crockett's work, "Kenneth and Helen Spencer of Kansas: Champions of Culture & Commerce in the Sunflower State," traces the couple's background and how they shared the wealth that they built. The couple donated millions of dollars to help establish various research libraries, art museums and research institutes in Kansas and Missouri.
"No one had written their story in a book," Crockett told the Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/1jFKYLF ). "Although they had been in Time and Forbes magazine, there was no biography."
Kenneth Aldred Spencer grew up in Pittsburg in southeast Kansas, the son of Charles Favor Spencer, owner of Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1926, Kenneth Spencer went to work for his father as a junior engineer and moved through the company ranks.
The Spencers were asked in 1941 by the War Department to operate a chemical plant near Galena that used anhydrous ammonia and other chemicals to produce munitions for the war effort. Two years later, Military Chemical Works Inc., was started as a subsidiary of the coal company.
Kenneth Spencer formed Spencer Chemical with the help of J.H. Whitney & Company, which focused on the fertilizer business with plants eventually in Texas, Illinois, Kentucky and Mississippi. He later would take over Pittsburg & Midway from his father.
Helen Foresman Spencer was born in nearby Joplin, Missouri She grew up in Texas and attended high school in Pittsburg. She married her husband in 1927 and the couple established a foundation in 1949 that began donating to community causes.
Among the facilities that bear the family name are the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, both at the University of Kansas in Lawrence; Spencer Art Reference Library at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; a chemistry building and performing arts center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Medieval Wing housing the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City.
When Kenneth Spencer died in 1960, his wife liquidated the companies and sold Spencer Chemical to Gulf Oil. She spent the remainder of her years overseeing the foundation until her death in 1982.
Crockett's family had ties to the Spencers when his father worked at a Pittsburg & Midway mine in Missouri. He wrote his first book in 2011 about the mining industry in tribute to his father. The story tells of miners who were loyal to the company and not the union and paid the consequences.
"In the process of writing the tribute to my father, I went to KU to the Spencer Research Library and read through the portion of (Kenneth Spencer's) writings in the collection," Crockett told the newspaper. "I already knew the background of the Spencers, but I had no awareness of their philanthropic interests."
Crockett, who is a high school substitute teacher, took five years to write his book, including researching and interviewing people who knew the couple.
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com