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Jay Dillingham

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Jay Dillingham Obituary
Kansas City civic leader Jay Dillingham, who ran the city’s famed stockyards and helped shape the region’s highways and reservoirs, died Monday night. He was 97.

Dillingham was president of the legendary Kansas City Stockyards from 1948 to 1975 and he helped build the American Royal Livestock Show into a national institution. He was a key promoter in the city’s expansion, including locating the Kansas City International Airport in the Northland.

The cattle business also was his springboard into civic issues and politics. His influence stretched from city halls in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., to the presidential offices of Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman.

Developer and civic leader Charles Garney said that Dillingham played a huge role in shaping Kansas City.

"He’s a man who truly made a difference over a long, long period of time," Garney said. "He’s right at the key root of many important things for Kansas City for the past 50 or 60 years."

Dillingham was born in Platte City in 1910 to a family involved in public service. His grandfather, who died of a gunshot in 1900, was the only Platte County sheriff ever killed in the line of duty. Dillingham’s father ran a harness shop and later farmed.

"We had three meals a day," Jay Dillingham once said, "oatmeal, corn meal and miss a meal."

He married Frances Thompson, a daughter of a founder of the American Royal, in 1935. Family members introduced them, Dillingham said. She arranged the first date, requesting that he escort her to a horse show.

Dillingham graduated in 1935 from the Kansas City School of Law, which is now part of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But he was hired to work at the stockyards shortly after graduation and never practiced law.

He was named president of the stockyards in 1948 when thousands of cattle, hogs, sheep, horses and mules were auctioned each year in the West Bottoms. The Golden Ox steakhouse that adjoins the Livestock Exchange Building was his creation.

"There’s nothing around here I haven’t done," Dillingham once said, "from shoveling manure to cleaning the sewers."

His southern gentleman manners and folksy humor put people at ease.

But he was equally comfortable addressing tough issues in big-business board rooms, and he was active in numerous civic affairs.

Because the stockyards straddled the state line, he served as a Chamber of Commerce president for both Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan. He served on numerous civic committees and commissions.

Dillingham helped land federal reservoir projects in Kansas and Missouri after the 1951 flood surged through the stockyards and devastated the Kansas City area. He was especially active in promoting lakes in the Kansas River basin and Smithville Lake in Clay County. He served on federal and state water resource boards.

Dillingham’s influence in his later years was often more private than public. He kept in close touch with elected officials, government employees and civic leaders on issues of the day. Then in telephone calls or meetings he would state his opinions about appointments or projects.

“I never would have amounted to a damn if I hadn’t had a lot of friends,” he said once.

Published in Kansas City Star on Aug. 14, 2007
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