Topeka resident writes book about legacy of Spencer family
Topeka-based author Ken Crockett spent years researching the personal lives, business successes and philanthropy of Kenneth and Helen Spencer, two people who left a pronounced mark on Lawrence.
Crockett’s latest book, titled “Kenneth and Helen Spencer of Kansas: Champions of Culture & Commerce in the Sunflower State,” is a nonfiction, biographical account of the Spencers and their major contributions, including the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University and The Spencer Wing inside Collins Library at Baker University, which houses the Quayle Bible Collection.
“As I started to write the book, I knew of the philanthropy they had been involved in, but I really had no appreciation for the breadth of it,” Crockett said. “Kenneth bled crimson and blue, and Helen had the same loyalty and dedication to the University. It’s just unbelievable what they paid back to the community.”
Crockett, 72, formed the idea for this book while researching another. He spent years of his early post-retirement life inside the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, rifling through the correspondence of Kenneth Spencer, whose family owned Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company, the subject of Crockett’s first book.
After publishing that book, titled “Missouri Coal Miners Strike: They Gave Their Word,” Crockett returned to the library to take a closer look at Spencer’s life.
Kenneth Spencer and Helen Foresman attended high school together in Pittsburg, Kan. They both went on to study at KU, and Spencer graduated in 1926. They were married soon afterward.
Spencer went to work for Pittsburg & Midway Coal Co., where he started out as a junior engineer and learned the ins-and-outs of the coal mining business. During World War II, Spencer led an effort for Pittsburg & Midway to win a government contract to create and manage Jayhawk Ordnance Works, a plant near Galena that produced weapons-grade ammonia nitrate.
After the war, Spencer took over for this father, becoming the general manager of Pittsburg & Midway. He purchased the Jayhawk Ordnance Works facilities from the government and founded Spencer Chemical Company in Kansas City, Mo. The company later added factories in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi.
In the late 1940s, Kenneth and Helen formed the Spencer Foundation and began socking away money to use for charitable giving. The Spencer Wing at Baker University was the first project the Spencers funded, Crockett said, but Kenneth died of a heart attack in 1960 before its completion. He was 58.
Just three years later, Helen Spencer arranged the sale of Spencer Chemical Company to Golf Oil Corporation for a total of $150 million — the world’s largest acquisition price at the time, Crockett said.
“From that point on, Helen’s purpose in life was to see that what Kenneth had succeeded in accumulating was used for philanthropic purposes,” Crockett said. “They had no kids, so she intended to spend all the money that the Foundation had acquired. She did not want to leave it to others to decide how Kenneth’s money should be used. And that’s what she did for the rest of her life.”
Before her death in 1982, the Spencer Foundation funded many large construction projects in Kansas City and Lawrence. Helen Spencer sought for these projects to advance the arts, sciences and education within the Kansas City region.
Crockett spent five years researching his book, conducting interviews with remaining acquaintances of the Spencers and reading all he could find in the Spencer Research Library and at the Kansas Historical Society.
“I would hope readers could see that these are two very extraordinary people who came from a common background and had a sense of obligation to share success with others,” Crockett said. “And that’s exactly what they did.”