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Harry Wiggins

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Harry  Wiggins Obituary
Former state legislator dies

‘I loved every minute of being a senator'

By STEVE KRASKE
The Kansas City Star

Former Missouri Sen. Harry Wiggins, who handled a major share of Kansas City's legislative package in Jefferson City for nearly three decades, died early Saturday.

His passing came a day before his 72nd birthday. The cause was stomach cancer.

Among the major pieces of legislation Wiggins handled during his 28-year career in the state Senate were the 911 emergency telephone number, bistate tax authority for Kansas City and early childhood development screening that led to the Parents as Teachers program. He never missed a roll-call vote.

In his final session in 2002, Wiggins rose to defend “the sick, the elderly and the disabled” as fellow senators made deep cuts in the state budget.

“I loved every minute of being a senator,” Wiggins said in his Senate farewell speech in 2002. He was known for notes he jotted to constituents from his office desk, often alone in the Capitol.

Serving in the Senate “was his life,” said a longtime colleague, state Sen. Mary Groves Bland, a Kansas City Democrat.

Visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at St. Elizabeth Church, 2 E. 75th St. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Thursday, also at St. Elizabeth's.

For more than two decades, Wiggins was known as Kansas City's go-to senator in the state Capitol.

“Senator Wiggins has made enormous contributions to this city, going back for decades,” Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes said. “He will be truly missed.”

Said U.S. Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, a former governor: “Harry was the lead legislator when I was there. If something was going to happen for Kansas City, Harry Wiggins was usually the one who came forward with it.”

Wiggins employed an unusual style to succeed in Missouri politics. He was nice to everyone, always hospitable and hard-pressed to say anything critical of anyone, Republican or Democrat.

“I liked them all,” Wiggins once said of the more than 100 senators with whom he served with during his career.

On the Senate floor, he was regarded as the ultimate compromiser.

If one of his bills was in trouble, Wiggins would pull the legislation from the calendar, then work behind the scenes to mend problems.

“He would rather do that than get beat on a bill,” said state Sen. Jim Mathewson, a Sedalia Democrat.

Bond recalled Wiggins as a key player in the passage of the Parents as Teachers program, which teaches parenting skills and provides support and health screenings for children.

In the early 1980s, when some educators sought to defeat the proposal because they feared the new program would compete with existing education services, Wiggins was undeterred, Bond said.

“He said this is not just an education measure, this is a complete child well-being measure,” Bond said. “Harry worked to help break the filibuster to help get it passed.”

Former Kansas City Mayor Richard L. Berkley, who knew Wiggins for 35 years, said Wiggins never let party affiliation stand in the way of what was right.

A lifelong bachelor, Wiggins was born in Kansas City and lived here all his life. At Rockhurst College, Wiggins pledged to the Alpha Delta Gamma fraternity, was elected chapter president and served three times as national president. He also was president of the student body. He won a three-year scholarship to attend law school at St. Louis University.

From 1957 to 1959, Wiggins served in the Army as a legal adviser to the 2nd U.S. Army Missile Command at Fort Hood, Texas.

After he returned to Kansas City, Wiggins was drawn to John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. He became a friend of then-Congressman Richard Bolling, who recommended Wiggins to the executive committee of Missouri Citizens for Kennedy.

A short time later, Wiggins met Robert F. Kennedy, the national campaign manager, and the friendship Wiggins developed with Kennedy became a topic he often referred to in speeches he gave for years to come.

After Robert Kennedy became attorney general in his brother's administration, he named Wiggins assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri. Wiggins worked under Russ Millin, who became U.S. attorney.

Wiggins prosecuted a series of cases involving liquor and prostitution at Fort Leonard Wood, and afterward Gov. Warren Hearnes appointed him state supervisor of liquor control.

He resigned in 1970 to run for western judge of the Jackson County court, a position Harry S. Truman once held.

In 1972, Wiggins broke with his fellow Missouri Democrats and endorsed George McGovern for president, and became McGovern's state coordinator.

In 1973, Bond, the new Republican governor, offered Wiggins the job of general counsel for the Public Service Commission. Wiggins lasted less than two years on the job, resigning over the commission's decision to grant utility rate increases without public hearings.

The next year, Wiggins ran for the state Senate against a two-term Republican incumbent, Lem T. Jones.

Wiggins went all out, knocking on doors nearly every day for four months. Wiggins won by 6,000 votes, launching what would be a 28-year career in the state's upper chamber.

Each year, Wiggins traditionally handled big loads of bills. Some complained that he handled too many, that he could not do justice to all of them.

“What kind of senator would I be if I said to the mayor and the chief of police, ‘I'm too busy,'?” he responded.

A spokesman for the Missouri Senate said Wiggins never missed a vote, a total that topped 18,000 by the time he retired.

In 1980, Wiggins gave up a chance to attend a World Series game between the Royals and Phillies in Philadelphia to avoid breaking his streak.

In the Senate, he served as Kansas City's first majority floor leader from 1980 to 1984.

Wiggins thought several times of running for statewide office, including governor in 1988, but he never tried to make the jump.

In 1994, Wiggins was elected to the Missouri Academy of Squires, a group founded in the 1950s to honor the most distinguished 100 living Missourians. An ardent Royals fan, he often attended spring training and was the host of Royals Day each spring at the Capitol.

In 2000, he was given the Royals' annual award of Mr. Baseball of Kansas City. Wiggins said later he was virtually speechless when his name was called. A year later, he was given the Charles Evans Whittaker Award as the city's top lawyer.

Despite predictions that Wiggins would be miserable in his post-Senate life, he often said he was more than content as a lawyer and partner at Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin, where he worked following his retirement from the Senate in 2002. The Senate was part of his past, and Wiggins said he relished going to work at the firm's office north of Union Station.

Friends said Wiggins handled the news of his cancer with an unshakable serenity, often citing the line from the Lord's Prayer, “Thy will be done.”
Published in Kansas City Star on Aug. 1, 2004
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