James M. Kemper Jr., the former chairman of Commerce Bancshares and a major supporter of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, died Dec. 15. He was 95.
“Jim lived an extraordinary life,” said Carmon Colangelo, the Ralph J. Nagel Dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “We had many wonderful conversations about the role of a university art museum, and I always loved his intellectual curiosity. He was such a tremendous advocate and supporter of the arts.”
Born and raised in Kansas City, Kemper attended Yale University but, after Pearl Harbor, left his studies to enlist in the U.S. Army’s first cavalry division as a first lieutenant. He served with distinction in the South Pacific, seeing combat as head of a machine gun platoon and receiving a Purple Heart. His older brother, David Woods Kemper, was killed in action in northern Italy in April 1945.
“I could easily have been shot in World War II at the same time that my brother was,” Kemper observed in a 2011 interview with Sabine Eckmann, the museum’s William T. Kemper Director and chief curator, and Buzz Spector, professor of art. “When I was there, I thought, if I get out of this, I’d like to do something to prevent it happening again, to prevent the same thing happening every time.”
He added: “What is a university for if not to produce people who understand the world?”
Kemper left the army as a captain, in 1945. He returned to Yale to complete his undergraduate degree and, the following year, returned to Kansas City to join the Commerce Trust Company. He married Mildred Lane Kemper, a Wellesley College graduate and later a trustee of the college, in 1948. The couple had four children and were married for 39 years, until her death in 1986.
Kemper was elected president of Commerce Trust in 1955 and, in 1966, re-established the company under the name Commerce Bancshares, Missouri’s first major bank holding company. He retired as chairman in 1991. He was succeeded by his son, David Kemper, who currently serves as vice chair of Washington University’s Board of Trustees.
A longtime patron of the arts, James Kemper collaborated with his uncle, William T. Kemper, to found the bank’s renowned art collection in 1963. Today, it includes more than 1,000 pieces by Nell Blaine, Donald Judd, Elaine de Kooning, Arthur Dove and Fairfield Porter, among others. In 2004, Washington University renamed its historic art museum in honor of Mildred Lane Kemper and, in 2006, dedicated a new, 65,000-square-foot facility, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki.
More recently, James Kemper helped to support numerous exhibitions and made one of the largest single donations in the museum’s history — for the acquisition of contemporary German art. Works by Franz Ackermann, Thomas Demand, Charline von Heyl, Sergej Jensen and Corinne Wasmuht, among many others, have entered the permanent collection thanks to his generosity.
“Jim will be greatly missed,” Eckmann said. “Over the last decade, he was enormously engaged with and instrumental to the development and growth of the Kemper Art Museum, including the establishment of the endowment of the Director’s position, the large-scale acquisition project of contemporary German art, and essential exhibition and program support.
“Personally, I enjoyed and learned from the many conversations and exchanges with Jim about art, history, education and the state of the world,” Eckmann added. “He was a real friend, and I will miss his very unique and concerned voice.”
A former member of the Kansas City School Board and founding chairman of the Downtown Council, James Kemper also served as: chair and CEO of Tower Properties; a trustee of the Midwest Research Institute; and an associate of The Brookings Institute. He previously served as: chair of the Board of Associates of The Smithsonian; a former trustee of the Committee for Economic Development; and a former board member of the Federal Reserve Board of Kansas City.
Kemper is survived by three children, sons David and Jonathan and daughter Julie Foyer. Another daughter, Laura Kemper Fields, preceded him in death in 2014. He has 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
There will be a memorial service in mid-January. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to Operation Breakthrough, 3039 Troost, Kansas City, MO 94109.