A KC cereal heir dies trying to revitalize a desolate part of the city
Letters from the bank began arriving in late May.
It was 2009. John Uhlmann, a man active in political and philanthropic circles, received notification from Bank Midwest that one of his companies was in default. The letter asked for $5.4 million, which represented only a portion of the outstanding debt.
Uhlmann had guaranteed the loans. The demand letters made official what he must have known before he opened the mail: He was in over his head.
Scion of a family that made its fortune in cereal, Uhlmann could trace his financial problems to the day he decided to get into the rock business. In 2002, he lent money to a company that was created to exploit a limestone overburden near Springfield, Missouri. Later, he came up with an ambitious plan to quarry and develop land in a disorderly section of eastern Kansas City known as Knobtown.
The City Council blessed the Knobtown proposal by freezing its property taxes. City officials entered the agreement believing that Uhlmann and his partners were going to build houses, shops and offices, once they removed the limestone from the 140-acre site. The council agreed to assist the project in 2008. A year later, though, there sat Uhlmann, sifting through past-due notices, searching for answers.
In June, Uhlmann put in a call to Devinki Developers, a real-estate management company in Kansas City. He and Sam Devinki discussed options.
The two men had known each other a long time. When Uhlmann ran for U.S. Congress in 1984, Devinki donated $500 to the campaign. Uhlmann finished third in the Republican primary but remained active in conservative politics. “He was tea party before there was a tea party,” as one observer puts it.
Uhlmann asked Devinki to determine the value of his partial interest in a company. Devinki said he could find a willing buyer at $300,000. Uhlmann wanted to know if anyone would pay $350,000. “I’ll look into it,” Devinki told him.
A follow-up conversation never took place. On August 21, 2009, Uhlmann committed suicide.
Knobtown sits between Raytown and Lee’s Summit. Kansas City annexed the area in 1961, but it looks untouched by zoning ordinances or planners.
Knobtown’s heart, the intersection of Noland Road and Highway 350, caters to libertines. A strip club called Pure hugs one side of the highway. Along the other side, a liquor store and a tattoo parlor share a building with a boutique, Sheila’s Closet, that specializes in exotic dancewear.
Sheila Ricker worked as a dancer for four years. During that time, she sold mini-dresses and platform shoes to her co-workers. Eventually, she gained enough confidence in her side business to stop performing and open Sheila’s Closet.
Though they may not wear much fabric, adult entertainers choose their costumes with care, Ricker says. It takes guts to go onstage or ask strangers for money. For some dancers, a flattering bra is like a piece of armor. Ricker makes it a point to stock a limited number of the same item. When she sees a shoe that she thinks her clients will like, for instance, she doesn’t buy it in every available size. “I hated it when I had the same things as everyone else,” she says.
Knobtown is a comfortable place for Ricker to operate. But on occasion, the permissive atmosphere draws complaints.
Last fall, the owners of Pure set up a temporary Halloween attraction next to the nightclub. The pumpkin patch and the rides were for children. Pure’s owners put a fence and a trailer between the nightclub and the Halloween activities. The barriers weren’t adequate for some passers-by, however, who called television stations to complain.
A strip club has operated at Pure’s location since 1988. People who live and work in the area say Knobtown hasn’t changed much over the years. In 1975, a resident complained to The Kansas City Star that annexation hadn’t brought the area a “damn thing” except more taxes.
That Star article describes how the neighborhood got its name. In 1897, a merchant named Charlie Engler built a general store near the Little Blue River. Engler decided to brand the area “Englersville,” and he ordered a sign. A day or two later, he was found dead at his store, his suspenders wrapped around his neck. Engler’s body was left hanging from a basement doorknob. His death was ruled a suicide; given the limits of forensic investigation in the late 19th century, murder seems just as likely. Either way, Englersville was now an inappropriate name for the community. The doorknob that may have played a role in his death provided an alternative.
Gary Watts, for one, thinks Knobtown needs a new identity. He’d like to see the community adopt a name with a classier ring. His choice: Silver Crossing.
Watts used to quarry limestone out of a hillside near the intersection of Highway 350 and Noland Road. Limestone wasn’t worth much — and still isn’t — but Watts scraped out a living. “I had a good market,” he says. He had learned how to operate heavy equipment at a young
age, digging graves and swimming pools. The military taught him how to use a crane. He bought the Knobtown quarry in 1985.
Watts and his twin brother, Terry, organized a company in 2002 with three other men. They called it Crush Tech. Through the course of their business dealings, the Watts brothers would meet John Uhlmann, lose the quarry and spend years in litigation. “We were screwed,” Gary says. “There was nothing we could do about it.”
To say Crush Tech became convoluted would be an understatement. Aspects of the
business are still working their way through courtrooms. Terry Watts says he and his brother played the role of “village idiots” in the drama. His self-mocking tone communicates the relief he and his brother feel that they were pushed aside relatively early in the timeline of events. Uhlmann, who was in for a longer road, ended up in a place of despair.
A newsletter published in 2010 by Pembroke Hill School recognized the arrival of new legacies. The list included the great-grandson of R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann, who graduated from the elite prep school in 1933.
Pat Uhlmann was born in Kansas City. His father, Paul, was a German immigrant who built a successful grain company. After graduating from Dartmouth at a time when quotas suppressed Jewish enrollment, Pat learned the grain business in the pits at the Kansas City Board of Trade.
In 1951, Pat Uhlmann, his father and his brother, Paul Jr., bought a milling company. The business, which came to be known as the Uhlmann Co., eventually moved into consumer goods. The company owned the Wheatena and Maypo brands of cereal and sold charcoal under the names Patio Chef and Hickory River.
Away from the office, Pat Uhlmann took an active role in civic and religious affairs. He was the founding president of Friends of the Zoo and one of the founding members of the New Reform Temple. Established in 1967 at the intersection of Main Street and Gregory Boulevard, the New Reform Temple appealed to Jews who wanted less ritual and observance, with services conducted primarily in English.
Pat and his wife, Helen, had three children. John was the middle child. He attended
Dartmouth and Kansas State after following in his father’s footsteps at Pembroke. He came of age in a turbulent time. In 1970, he went to Vietnam, where he served in one of the Army’s psychological-operations units.
When Uhlmann returned home, he took leadership roles in the Uhlmann Co. and started a family. His wife, Patricia Werthan, came from a wealthy family in Nashville. They lived in one of the largest homes in Prairie Village and raised two daughters.
Uhlmann and his relatives moved in elite company. “To the extent there is a Jewish upper crust in Kansas City, they don’t get much crustier than the Uhlmanns,” says one friend of the family. And as political conservatives, the Uhlmanns stood apart in the left-leaning Jewish community. Perhaps no member of the Uhlmann family was more conservative than John.
The Uhlmann Co.’s success allowed John time to spend on politics. In 1977, the Associated Press cited a letter he had written to officials in the Carter administration. Uhlmann was angry that the policy recommendations he had made in an earlier letter did not seem to get the recognition they deserved. His follow-up asked that, in the future, he be spared “the indignity of another form letter.”
Uhlmann gave money to candidates and political action committees that shared his beliefs, chiefly a strong military and unrestrained capitalism. He contributed $10,000 to the National Conservative Political Action Committee before the 1980 election. The PAC used the money to run negative ads against incumbent Democrats in the U.S. Senate. One of the targeted lawmakers was George McGovern, the liberal South Dakota senator and one-time presidential candidate. McGovern was soundly defeated by his Republican opponent.
Uhlmann could be hard to please. In 1991, The Wall Street Journal asked a group of business owners for their opinions on the state of Washington policymaking. Uhlmann gave Congress a grade of “F-plus” and George H.W. Bush an “F-minus.” Uhlmann felt that the 41st president had proved to be a weak defender of the free-market system. “I think it’s almost too late for Bush,” he said. “I really wonder if there’s anything he can do.”
Conservatives who were disappointed by the elder Bush felt hope in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Uhlmann was with Newt Gingrich, the architect of the “Republican revolution,” on election night. Gingrich mentions Uhlmann in two of his books, telling the story of how his “old friend and supporter” warned him not to grow in his new role as the speaker of the House. To Uhlmann, “growth” meant becoming comfortable with liberalism. “I prefer conservatives who never grow,” Uhlmann told him.
Uhlmann stayed active through the George W. Bush years. Prior to the 2002 midterm election, he began working with two Kansas City-area conservatives, Rich Nadler and John Altevogt, on an effort to make the Republican Party seem more appealing to minorities. Altevogt wrote more than 50 scripts for radio advertisements. One of the spots suggested that Social Security discriminated against African-Americans and called the program “reverse reparations.”
The Social Security ad aired on a Kansas City urban radio station. GOPAC, a high-profile Republican political action committee, was identified as its sponsor. Officials at GOPAC disavowed the commercial; they acknowledged that GOPAC had ordered ads from Uhlmann and his collaborators but said none of them addressed Social Security.
Altevogt and Uhlmann continued to work together, though not as closely as they had during the 2002 election. Altevogt last saw Uhlmann, whom he describes as a “consummate gentleman,” at a memorial service for Nadler, who died on May 30, 2009. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. “He was just as he always was,” Altevogt says.
Around the time that the “reverse reparations” spot stirred outrage, the Uhlmann Co. was presented with an investment opportunity.
Having sold its cereal and charcoal divisions, the Uhlmann Co. made its main business managing money. A man named Jeff Hall, one of five original partners in Crush Tech, approached John Uhlmann in 2002 with a plan to use a special terrain leveler to profitably extract limestone from a quarry near Springfield.
Uhlmann, then the Uhlmann Co.’s chairman and co-chief executive, was intrigued. But his relatives on the board did not share his tolerance for risk or his interest in geology. So Uhlmann personally guaranteed the $1.8 million in loans that Uhlmann Co. made to Crush Tech.
He was not a passive lender. A short time after Crush Tech purchased the terrain leveler for $670,000, Uhlmann took a 92.5 percent ownership interest in the company.
Uhlmann’s stake is disputed by Gary and Terry Watts, who say their signatures were forged on a restatement of Crush Tech’s original operating agreement. Gary Watts says he and his brother were baffled when Uhlmann showed up one day and announced that he had fired Hall. “How do you fire somebody when you’re not even in the company?” Gary says.
A short time later, Uhlmann told Gary and Terry Watts that they were out, too. He changed the name of the company to Mo-Kan Rock & Gravel.
The Wattses later sued Uhlmann. He denied cheating the brothers. In his answer to their claim, he accused them of making off with tools and other assets that belonged to the company. A judge dismissed the suit last September.
The venture wasn’t profitable, in any case. Crush Tech and Mo-Kan Rock & Gravel incurred “significant losses,” according to court papers, until Uhlmann shut it down in 2003.
Uhlmann ended up with the deed to Gary Watts’ Knobtown quarry after Crush Tech broke up. Working with an excavator named Kevin Thomas, Uhlmann developed a plan to quarry the limestone and then prepare the ground and adjacent land for future development. They called the project Hillside Village. Drawings imagined nature trails and a “water feature” amid the houses, townhomes, office buildings, shops and restaurants.
Though inexperienced in real-estate development, Uhlmann was thinking big. “He wanted to take something that was nothing and make something out of it,” says John Martin, a consultant who advised Uhlmann on the project in 2008.
A proposal to spend $109 million in and around Knobtown excited city officials. “That area is in desperate need of attention,” Councilwoman Cindy Circo said when the request for tax abatement came before the Planning and Zoning Committee. The City Council approved the request.
The tax break was meaningful only if
Uhlmann and Thomas were able to develop the land. They were not.
The business model was flawed. Uhlmann and Thomas designed the project with the idea that the quarry operation would provide cash. But the rock was stubborn and could not be removed at a profit. Finally, in November 2008, the partners leased the quarry to an established operator, Quality Aggregates, in a last-ditch effort to generate a return.
Martin, for his part, points to events beyond Uhlmann’s control. He attributes the failure of the development to the financial crisis of 2008. “The world changed,” he says. (Thomas declined to comment.)
Whatever the root cause, the companies that Uhlmann set up to develop Hillside Village stopped making payments to creditors in early 2009. Bank Midwest had made 10 different loans. The debt, including interest, was more than $10 million.
The letters that Uhlmann received from the bank reminded him that he and his personal trust had guaranteed the loans.
Uhlmann never sold his conservatism to his wife, Patricia. She gave money to both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in advance of the 2008 election.
The Uhlmanns learned to stop arguing and coexist as political opposites. The marriage lasted 37 years.
Once, when John Uhlmann was visiting Washington, D.C., he ate lunch at the same restaurant as Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent who had trouble concealing her contempt for George W. Bush. John
Altevogt, who was also at the restaurant, says Uhlmann asked Thomas to sign a menu, which he intended to present to his wife as a gift. “We teased him about it,” Altevogt says.
Of two minds in the voting booth, the
Uhlmanns shared an interest in philanthropy. They wrote six-figure checks and gave of their time, particularly to Jewish causes. In 1997, John was elected chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. Trish, as Patricia is known, is a former president of the federation’s Women’s Division, and has been active with other nonprofit groups.
In time, John, who taught himself Hebrew and belonged to conservative pro-Israel groups, decided that the liberal New Reform Temple was not the place for him. He attended Congregation B’nai Jehudah — a more traditional Reform temple — at the time of his death.
August 21, 2009, was an unseasonably cool day, with winds picking up in the afternoon. Uhlmann spent part of the day at the Bullet Hole, a shooting range in Overland Park. It was his third visit in three months, according to receipts that the coroner would find, a day later, among Uhlmann’s silver money clip, cell phone and other personal items.
Uhlmann died of a gunshot wound. He was seated in a car parked outside his house when he aimed a .38-caliber revolver into his mouth. He was 64.
The coroner’s report indicates that Uhlmann had a “history of depression and financial problems.” The report does not say if this information came from the suicide notes that Uhlmann left or from statements that the police took. Patricia Uhlmann declined to speak to The Pitch about his death and the events that led up to it.
Uhlmann’s death shocked the community. The Bullet Hole receipts suggest that he had been considering suicide for several weeks. But he hid his inner turmoil. Martin says he spoke to Uhlmann on the phone shortly before his death. “He didn’t seem distraught at all,” he says.
Martin says he doesn’t understand how the financial pressures of Hillside Village could have overwhelmed Uhlmann so much that he wanted to end his life. Bankrupty and foreclosure, after all, are relatively common events. “Lots of businesses don’t make it,” he says.
Of course, the Uhlmanns are not wheeler-dealers who make and lose fortunes. The name has been synonymous with prosperity for generations. Perhaps Uhlmann became incapacitated by the idea that his wealth or his reputation might be irreparably damaged.
A tall brunette with natural curves shimmies up the pole. Her thighs clamp the stainless steel, as she begins her descent. This ceiling-to-floor display of technique draws a couple of men to the lip of the stage, where they leave tips.
The dancer, introduced as Amber, is wearing a bra, panties and rainbow-colored socks that reach her knees. She works the day shift at Pure. High-backed red chairs surround tables in the area between the bar and the stage. Strands of silver beads mark the entrance to the room where lap dances are performed.
Knobtown today offers no visible clues that a cereal-company heir tried to remake it into something more than a place to get a tattoo or admire the ink on an adult entertainer.
One of Uhlmann’s companies purchased the Kansas City International Raceway, a drag strip off Noland Road, in 2008. Uhlmann planned to relocate the track to a site where the sound of the engines would not disturb the people who bought homes from him. The collapse of Hillside Village removed the imperative. The track continues to host events, advertising itself as “your home for NHRA drag racing in Missouri.”
Uhlmann’s largest lender, Bank Midwest (now Armed Forces Bank), has a lawsuit pending against his companies in Jackson County. In Johnson County, the probate court is sorting through claims, including the bank’s, that have been made on Uhlmann’s estate.
Kevin Thomas is among those who believe that they are entitled to money from Uhlmann’s estate. Thomas has asked for $2.2 million, stemming from his purchase of an excavating company that Uhlmann established. Thomas says Uhlmann misrepresented the company’s assets and liabilities.
Gary and Terry Watts have made a claim. They are seeking between $3 million and $10 million because of “acts and omissions” related to Crush Tech. Uhlmann’s estate is also being pursued by lawyers; the drag strip’s operators; and Quality Aggregates, the company that signed a lease to quarry the limestone at what was to become Hillside Village.
With her husband’s estate tied up in probate, Patricia Uhlmann needed the court’s permission to pay for his funeral. The court allowed her to withdraw $28,229 for the mahogany casket and other expenses.