Even in a crowd of people who know him, R. Crosby Kemper III is easily overlooked.
He's a rich, connected man whose name is branded across the metro. His family has made its Kansas City-founded bank, UMB, one of the nation's most stable, with 135 branches in seven states. His face has been in newspapers and business magazines. His hand is still fresh from the congratulatory touch of first lady Laura Bush, who just presented him with an award coveted by every U.S. librarian. But the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library director remains inconspicuous, working the room with an almost stealthy charm.
On this October evening, nearly 300 people have packed the stately main floor of the Kansas City Central Library. The high-ceilinged vestibule of the former bank folds discussion among small groups of local politicians, architects and environmental activists into an excited hum. The event about to start is "Conversations on the Environment," a year-old lecture series put on by the library and a dozen other groups that has become a big draw for the library. Tonight's speaker, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will cite the rehabilitation of old buildings as an act of environmental responsibility and urban-core invigoration.
Kemper stands, hands clasped in front of his waist, a patient smile on his face as he waits for the polite moment to enter each conversation. When he does, he drops historical names and dates with easy erudition, his references meandering back and forth over the line between intellectual vanity and sincere enthusiasm.
Printed matter is always stitched to his right hand — the monthly program of library events, a hardback copy of Reinventing Knowledge by Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, a crinkled printout of the latest state assessment of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. He has the disheveled look of a college professor who has forgotten his last barber's appointment and left his nail clippers stuck in a history book to hold his place. His suit hangs as though tailored for a man 10 pounds heavier and a couple of inches taller. The sleeves graze his knuckles. His pants sag in the back.
As members of the audience settle into their seats, Kemper scribbles some notes on a credit-card-sized scrap of paper. He climbs the podium to introduce Moe but can't stifle a sly mention of yesterday's trip to the White House. His gold medal from the Institute of Library and Museum Sciences, he tells the audience with a conspiratorial smile, was a ploy to save precious symbolic real estate in a time of financial panic.
"Actually, the Asian central bank was trying to repossess the White House, and we were there to stop it," he says. "We did. So it's safe for a couple more days. Until they screw up again." He gets the laugh.
Kemper knows about saving important real estate. He stepped in as library director at a key moment. In 2005, the renovated Central Library had just opened, the new Plaza Library was racing toward its debut, and the library was facing a $1.4 million hole in its budget. The incoming leader would be lauded for the library's rise to prominence or blamed for its failure to meet expectations. So the banking scion put himself front and center at the library, taking a leading role as no other director had done. Several times a week, he introduces a speaker or an author.
"It helps brand the library," he says. "It gives us a face."
As the face of the library, Kemper is staking his legacy on something only a man possessing 23,000 books of his own would attempt: making Kansas City smarter.