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Kansas City travelblog: World War I musuem is a KC treasure

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The National World War I Museum and Memorial is in Kansas City, Missouri, for the best of reasons. Kansas City wanted it and has treasured it.

For almost 100 years, the bustling and proud city that straddles the Missouri and Kansas state lines has been home to America’s greatest honoring of the war that we so often forget. That’s longer than Kansas City has been hosting conference basketball tournaments (the Big Six Tournament launched in 1946).

The 2019 Big 12 Tournament has brought me again to Kansas City. My first Big Eight Tournament was 1992; when I was a kid, I turned down a chance to come to the Big Eight Holiday Tournament in KC, which I’ve always regretted.

Anyway, the Big Eight and Big 12 tournaments have allowed me to get to know and to love Kansas City, and in recent years, Tim Cowden has pounced on my admiration for his adopted town. Cowden, an Edmond native and OU graduate, is the president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, which promotes economic development throughout Greater KC.

Cowden reached out to me a few years ago after reading some of my travelblogs and started giving me annual tours of Kansas City institutions. The renovated and glorious Union Station. The Negro League Museum. SubTropolis, a 55-million square foot manmade cave below the bluffs above the Missouri River that is the world’s largest underground storage facility.

This year, Cowden wanted to show us the World War I Museum. Our schedules didn’t mesh great, so our best option was to zip to Kansas City as soon as possible on Tuesday, and that’s what we did.

I toured the museum a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was a history major and had a couple of World War I-era classes, so I already had an appreciation of the Great War. That was true even moreso after touring it, and now I have an appreciation of Kansas City’s role in preserving the war that has long been cast to the shadows of history by the next world war.

OU writer Joe Mussatto (I call him Saint Joe; he’s a Mount St. Mary graduate) and OSU writer Nathan Ruiz (I call him Chico, after the old Cincinnati Reds utility infielder Chico Ruiz), fought through heavy rainstorms and got to Kansas City around 2 p.m. Tuesday, Cowden picked us up at 2:45 and we were in the museum by 3 p.m.

Matt Naylor, the president and CEO of the museum and memorial, came out to greet us and gave us a short history of the memorial. The Great War ended in 1918, and in 1919, some Kansas City civic leaders sought to build a memorial. Within 10 days, a city of 250,000 raised $2.5 million, with 83,000 households contributing. Virtually the entire city took part. Among the leading proponents of the memorial was J.C. Nichols, who in the 1920s developed The Plaza district in Kansas City.

On November 11, 1921 – Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the war – the five Allied Commanders from the war (U.S., Great Britain, Italy, Belgium and France) descended on Kansas City for the dedication of the memorial, the 217-foot Liberty Tower. U.S. Army General John Pershing represented the United States. Then-vice president Calvin Coolidge also was in attendance. The crowd was estimated at 200,000. The local veteran chosen to present the flags to the commanders was a Kansas City haberdasher, Harry S. Truman.

The Liberty Tower itself, a tower looking over the city, was completed on Armistice Day 1926, with Coolidge, by then the 33rd president, in attendance, and the memorial opened as a museum. Unlike most of the Great War museums in Europe, the Kansas City museum did not focus solely on its own nation’s war history. KC sought collections from all over the world and began to tell the story of the entire war, which ran from 1914-18, through the U.S. didn’t enter the fracas until 1917.

The monument was rededicated and renovated in 1961 by Truman, who in between his trips to Vinegar Hill had become president of the U.S. but retired in suburban Independence, Missouri. The memorial had some upgrades, but it was closed in 1994 due to safety concerns over the aging building. Local malls displayed part of the collection. But in 1998, KC voters passed a sales tax to restore the memorial and build a full-fledged museum. More than $100 million was raised, and the museum reopened in 2006.

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed legislation naming the World War I museum as a national memorial. A World War I memorial also is planned for Washington, D.C. (but no museum), which would give the nation two national memorials for the Great War.

Our tour guide was Dennis Cross, a volunteer at the museum who is a retired lawyer. This being Kansas City, the NCAA/Big 12 ties run deep. Do you recall the lawsuit against the NCAA over restricted-earnings for coaches? The NCAA created a restricted-earnings position on every coaching staff except football. In basketball, the restricted-earnings position was capped at $16,000 per year and replaced the third assistant. The position allowed younger coaches to get their foot in the door but caused the salaries of many veteran coaches to be slashed. A lawsuit was filed in 1993, a class-action lawsuit followed and the case finally was settled in 1999, with coaches agreeing to $54.5 million.

Dennis Cross was the lead attorney for the coaches. Cross now is retired and spends part of his time volunteering at the museum. He was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and particularly loves the air and sea portion of the museum.

The main museum building consists of two main galleries with exhibits and artifacts. The first focuses on pre-U.S. involvement, the second on post-U.S. involvement. A 13-minute film gives you a quick history lesson what led Europe to the brink of war and the Sarajevo assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, which quickly ignited the

The museum artifacts include a tank, uniforms, vehicles like a 1917 Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a 1918 Ford Model T, flags, munitions, replica trenches, photographs, interactive displays, audio recordings and more.

The museum also includes a research center that routinely draws academicians.

Less than 10 percent of the collected material is displayed.

The museum can be quite sobering. You reach the museum proper by walking over a glass bridge, below which are 9,000 silk poppies, each representing 1,000 soldiers killed in the war. That’s nine million dead, and you remember John McRae’s immortal poem, “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow; between the crosses, row on row.”

We didn’t get to stay as long as we would have liked. OSU interviews began at 4:30 p.m., so we had to scoot over to the Sprint Center. But we’d like to go back. The National World War I Museum and Memorial is a Kansas City treasure.

At the arena, we got to chat with both camps, OSU and OU, since both are playing Wednesday. Tuesdays are low-key days. A small media group waited on Mike Boynton, but a large group waited on Lon Kruger, wanting to talk about his Kansas State ties. Kruger is Mr. Big Eight/Big 12 basketball, having played and coached in the former. I jumped on the bandwagon myself, writing about Kruger for the Wednesday Oklahoman and how he goes back to visiting the Big Eight Holiday Tournament as a boy in Silver Lake, Kansas. That was 55 years ago.

We finished up around 8 p.m, pretty late, but made it to dinner at Garozzo’s, my favorite restaurant in the world and a Big 12 tradition. This was Saint Joe’s first trip. It was great as always, though the service was a little lacking. That’s never the case. I guess everyone can have a bad night.

We made it back to the hotel at almost 11 p.m. and I crashed, a hectic but fulfilling day.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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