John Hammons dies: 'I swore I would never be poor'
John Hammons, who grew up during the Depression, built some 200 hotels and donated millions of dollars to hospitals, colleges, and public television, mostly in and around Springfield, Mo. Most have 'John Q. Hammons' in their name, prompting jokes that Springfield should be renamed 'Hammonsville.'
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — John Q. Hammons, a prominent hotel developer and southwest Missouri philanthropist who rose from a poor Depression-era childhood to build a national real estate empire, has died. He was 94.
Hammons, who actively led his company well into his 80s, died peacefully Sunday at a nursing home in Springfield, said Sheri Davidson Smith, a spokeswoman for John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts.
Hammons' first business — a company that sold mortar-less bricks — went bust in the late 1940s, saddling him with debt. He paid off that debt after two years and recovered to build housing subdivisions in southwest Missouri over the next decade before purchasing 10 Holiday Inn franchises with a partner in 1958 from the company's founder.
He went on to build 200 hotels nationwide, including Embassy Suites, Marriotts, Radissons, and Holiday Inns. Hammons also developed an expansive real estate portfolio associated with those hotels of golf courses, restaurants, convention centers, a casino, and riverboat gambling. He avoided big-city locations in favor of properties in college towns and state capitals.
"He would say, 'The kids will always go to school, and you can't fire the damn politicians,'" former company executive Scott Tarwater said in a March 2011 interview.
Along the way, he donated millions of dollars to local hospitals, colleges, and public television. His name graces so many buildings and streets in Springfield — from the basketball arena at Missouri State University to the city's tallest building — that comedian Bob Hope once joked that the city should change its name to "Hammonsville."
He regularly appeared on Forbes magazine's list of the wealthiest Americans and estimated his personal wealth several years ago at $1 billion. He took his company public in 1994 before returning it to private ownership a decade later. During his career, according to the company, Hammons developed 210 hotel properties in 40 states.
"He has made such a major, significant difference to this community," Jim Anderson, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a 2007 interview. "Some people may not see the way he has put us on the map."
But Hammons's recent years were shrouded in secrecy and controversy. In March 2011, a group of friends asked Greene County probate court to appoint Hammons a public guardian.
The friends' lawsuit said they weren't being allowed to visit him at a Springfield nursing home or even talk to him on the phone after Jacqueline Dowdy, whom Hammons gave power of attorney several years ago, took control of the John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts in October 2010, purged most of its top officials and placed Hammons in "involuntary seclusion."
The court appointed a Springfield doctor in May 2011 to serve as Hammons's temporary guardian. The doctor allowed supervised visits with Hammons, though that didn't alleviate the feud. Dowdy, a former administrative assistant and accountant, became CEO after nearly 40 years of working alongside Hammons.
On Monday, Dowdy praised Hammons for his professional and philanthropic work.
"Hammons was a giant in the hospitality industry and was unwavering in his commitment to exceptional quality and service and to giving back to the community," she said in a company statement. "He was a great mentor and friend and will be missed by all who came to know him, but his legacy will live on forever."
The hotel magnate was born James Quentin Hammons in 1919 in rural Fairview, about 60 miles southwest of Springfield, to a dairy farmer who lost the 200-acre family farm during the Depression. As a teen, he trapped rabbits and sold their pelts for a nickel apiece to survive.
"I swore I would never be poor," he told a biographer in 2002.
A graduate of Southwest Missouri State Teachers College, which is now Missouri State University, Hammons spent two years teaching science and history and coaching junior high basketball before going to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway. He married the former Juanita Baxter, a Springfield elementary school teacher and also a Southwest Missouri graduate, in September 1949. The couple, who met at a hotel dance, had no children.
Hammons's legacy is on full display in his adopted hometown of Springfield. His office in the John Q. Hammons Building is across from the federal courthouse his company built and the 22-story Hammons Tower, the city's tallest building. Nearby are a 270-room hotel and convention center he developed and Hammons Field, which he built for $32 million to lure the minor league Springfield Cardinals to town. All sit on John Q. Hammons Parkway.
Other buildings in town, including at Missouri State University, have his name. Hammons also gave a grant that started public television station KOZK.
"Whenever you can be successful in a community, it can't be without cooperation, without support," Hammons said in a 1992 interview. "So I think it behooves everybody to register that sincerity and try to return a little bit."
Hammons was unfailingly modest about his wealth and his success. An avid sports fan — especially of the St. Louis Cardinals — he faithfully attended baseball spring training and the NCAA Final Four annually for decades until his health faltered.
"It's no big deal," Hammons once said of his success. "I've been at it so long, it's just old hat by now."
Associated Press writer Erin Gartner contributed to this report from Chicago.