William Volker in front of his home, Roselawn, in 1936.

UKC/UMKC = A Gift from Mr. Anonymous

In the midst of the holidays and with UMKC’s 75th anniversary coming to a close, there’s good reason to remember the extraordinary beneficence that made our University possible.

Though many far-thinking civic leaders played a significant role in launching the University of Kansas City, only one took a decisive step that made the long debated goal of higher education in Kansas City a reality in 1933.

For more than a decade, the issue of organizing a hometown university suffered many false starts. Continued debate centered around three main issues: the school’s name (Lincoln and Lee University was one option); its location (one 1925 proffered property at 75th and State Line included a long list of onerous stipulations); and its financing (a $5 million capital campaign produced only 16 percent in pledges toward the goal).

About the Gift

In November 1930, shortly after the two main factions had reached their third compromise, Kansas City’s university was on a clear and undisputed path. The driving force behind this final push to launch the University was a man often referred to by contemporary journalists as “Mr. Anonymous.”

William Volker was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who shied away from the press. In 1930, he paid the estate of William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star, $100,000 in school bonds for 40 acres just south of the recently begun Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose groundbreaking, on July 16, 1930, coincided with the merger of the two University factions. The following year, Volker purchased the William S. Dickey mansion [now Scofield Hall] and its 10-acre grounds adjacent to the Nelson acreage. The newly acquired land was dubbed by UKC Trustees as the “Volker Campus.”

About the Giver

Born in 1859 outside Hanover, Germany, William Volker (shown here as a young man) immigrated to the United States with his family, arriving in Chicago shortly after the 1871 Great Fire. At 17, Volker took a job as a bookkeeper and secretary to the owner of Chicago’s largest picture frame and molding manufacturer. Three years later, after the owner was killed in an accident, Volker was asked to manage the company. Desiring to start his own frame and molding business, but hoping to avoid competition with the Chicago company, Volker relocated to Kansas City in 1882. He was 23. After a rough start, the William Volker and Company eventually became the country’s largest wholesale distributor of interior furnishings.

Shortly after returning from his honeymoon in 1911, the 52-year-old William Volker announced that he intended to give his new bride, Rose Roebke Volker [shown here], one million dollars and to donate the rest of his considerable fortune to charity. For the next 36 years, until his death on November 4, 1947, Volker kept his word, granting 10 million dollars to philanthropy, much of it anonymously. The University of Kansas City, which received an estimated two million dollars from Volker, was one of the chief beneficiaries of a man known to most Kansas Citians as “Mr. Anonymous.”

The William Volker and Company was consistently profitable, except during the Great Depression. In 1930-31, when the financial crisis took its toll on many businesses, including Volker’s, he offered his employees one of two options. The company would either dismiss 30 percent of the workforce, with a little reduction in salary for the remaining workers. Or the company would keep the entire workforce, with 10 percent reduction in salary and a 14 hour (44 to 30) cutback per week, and a $250 ceiling on company leadership salaries. The employees chose the second option. Regular salaries were reestablished in 1934. By the following year, William Volker and Company was once again earning a profit. [On Nov. 6, 1947, The Kansas City Star ran this illustration two days after William Volker’s death.]

[Sources for this profile include “The William Volker and Company,” by David Boutros, 2007; History of the University of Kansas City: Prologue to a Public Urban University, by Carleton F. Scofield, 1976; The University of Missouri: An Illustrated History, by James and Vera Olson, 1988. Photographs appear courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City. The WHMC houses more than 15,000 cubic feet of documents, photographs, maps and books. Included in the archives is an extensive collection of Volker’s papers, which his biographer and many news reporters erroneously reported to be lost.]

"Among the things I have tried to do in this city, I am sure the University will pay the biggest dividends to the most people... Certainly it is the best investment I have ever made."

 William Volker

William Volker became a millionaire in 1906, when he was 47 years old.

 "Rose Roebke Volker, in 1911, the year of her marriage to William Volker.