Hail to the Chief

H. Roe Bartle, 1938
H. Roe Bartle, 1938

On May 8, 1974, H. Roe Bartle, a former two-term Kansas City mayor and long-time Boy Scouts of America executive, died in Kansas City. Popularly referred to as "The Chief" (and the namesake of the Kansas City Chiefs football team), the charismatic Bartle was eulogized as one of the area's most important youth leaders and a dynamic public figure in Kansas City history.

H. Roe Bartle was born on June 25, 1901, in Richmond, Virginia. His full name was Harold Roe Bennett Sturdevant Bartle, but he almost always used the shortened version. In high school, he made full use of his large physical size by playing football. His father, a Presbyterian minister, encouraged him to enter the ministry, but Bartle never felt the calling and instead took an interest in a law career. After serving in the Navy in World War I, he attended law school at the University of Chattanooga. Upon graduation, he practiced corporate law and within four years had accumulated enough savings and investments to attain a higher standard of living than his family had possessed during his childhood.

Despite his success in the legal profession, Bartle soon left it to pursue a career in public service. He gained an interest in the Boy Scouts of America, which was then just over a decade old. He made a connection with Dr. James E. West, national chief scout executive, and arranged to serve as a scout executive in Wyoming. In preparation for moving to Wyoming, Bartle first came to Kansas City in 1921 for a brief training session to prepare for a one-year stint with the Scouts. Afterwards, he lived in Wyoming for two years, where he oversaw the growth of the state's scouts from four troops to 50 troops made up of 1,400 youths.

Then, in 1923, Bartle moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, to join his father, who had relocated there several years previously. Still working with the Boy Scouts, Bartle gained considerable renown for his leadership. In 1928, Bartle went on to Kansas City and became the chief area executive of the Boy Scouts. At that time, the Kansas City region had a total of 2,300 Boy Scouts and scout leaders, and under Bartle's guidance, it grew to more than 30,000 members by the early 1950s.

During this time, Bartle gained a fitting nickname, "The Chief." Indeed, Bartle's leadership qualities and mere presence were hard to ignore. At six feet, three inches tall, and more than 300 pounds, the former football player cast a noticeable physical presence in any room. His deep, baritone voice reflected his skill as an accomplished orator, which had been honed by debate, law practice, and years of public speaking. By the 1950s, he was known to give up to 700 public speeches each year, mostly for the Boy Scouts, other youth groups, and charitable organizations. Although he did not always charge high fees, he sometimes earned as much as $500 per speech; an extraordinary amount at the time considering that the average household income was only about $3,000 in 1950. Consequently, Bartle's speeches gradually became his main source of income.

While Bartle was reasonably well off, he was not known as an opportunist when it came to profits. During World War II, he worked as the executive director of American War Dads, and each year he turned down the $15,000 salary that was offered to him. As a longtime board member and then president of the Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri, he also worked without a salary. In 1948, he founded the American Humanics Foundation, which first partnered with the Missouri Valley College to educate young people in the management principles necessary to operate nonprofit organizations. Humanics still carries out its original mission today, but on a national scale. Bartle also served on more than 50 other boards for hospitals, youth organizations, and other foundations. Somehow he also found the time to own two working ranches (one in Oklahoma, the other in Osceola, Missouri) and a farm in Cass County, Missouri.

It was almost an afterthought, then, that Bartle entered politics instead of retirement in the 1950s. At the urging of President Harry Truman, he became the regional stabilization director for the federal government in 1951. He campaigned for mayor in Kansas City in 1955 and won handily despite running as an independent instead of on the non-partisan Citizens Association or Democratic tickets. As mayor, he perhaps devoted more energy to speechmaking and other ceremonies than to his other duties, but he nonetheless successfully promoted economic expansion and a reworked tax code. One of his most notable actions was attracting the Dallas Texans professional football team to Kansas City. In honor of Mayor Bartle, Texans owner Lamar Hunt renamed the team the Chiefs in 1963.

Other notable events during Bartle's tenure as mayor included the arrival of the Kansas City Athletics major league baseball team, the Municipal Auditorium Plaza Garage, the Sixth Street Interchange, and additional annexations of land to Kansas City (especially much of the Northland, which is still growing today). He also oversaw the creation of the Kansas City Commission for International Relations and Trade, which sought to improve Kansas City's trade relations in the western hemisphere. When running for reelection in 1957, Bartle received support from the local Democratic party, which caused some concern that he might use his popularity to revive the boss politics of the defunct Pendergast machine. In this vein, some critics accused Bartle of making a handful of patronage-based appointments, but these isolated incidents never amounted to anything resembling a real political machine.

After completing two terms as mayor in 1963, H. Roe Bartle continued his volunteer work and speech-giving for another decade. He died on May 8, 1974, and was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery. Today relatively few people remember that the Chiefs were named after H. Roe Bartle, but his name lives on at the Bartle Hall convention center (completed in 1976), which serves as Kansas City's largest exposition hall, and at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation in Osceola, Missouri. Both are appropriate venues to honor a leader who so skillfully brought people together for the betterment of the youth and of the Kansas City community at large.

 

Read a full biographical sketch of H. Roe Bartle, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to H. Roe Bartle that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and articles about H. Roe Bartle, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching H. Roe Bartle using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, The Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 31-32.

Susan Jezak Ford, Biography of H. Roe Bartle (1901-1974), Mayor of Kansas City and Boy Scout Executive, The Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

Richard Fowler, Leaders in Our Town (Kansas City, MO: Burd & Fletcher, 1952), 21-24.

George Fuller Green, A Condensed History of the Kansas City Area: Its Mayors and Some V. I. P.s (Kansas City, MO: Lowell Press, 1968), 133-134.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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