LaBudde Special Collections | L. Perry Cookingham Collection
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Scope and Content of Collection
The L. Perry Cookingham Collection was donated to the University of Missouri-Kansas City during the late 1970s and through the early 1980s by Mr. Cookingham. The collection contains a fairly concise and annotated selection of Cookingham’s personal and professional life. Inclusive dates are ca. 1870-1993. Included is correspondence, scrapbooks, photographs, slides, cassette tapes, date books and material related to the growth of Kansas City during 1939-1990. The material has been organized into 13 series. Photographs and slides are contained in 14 boxes and manuscript material and other items are contained in 12 boxes and one oversized drawer.
The strength of the collection lies in the material relating to Kansas City during the years 1939-1959. Among this material are miscellaneous letters concerning city development. Of particular interest is a set of handwritten notes by Cookingham relating to the 1951 flood. In his notes, Cookingham documents the events of that horrific day.
Another strength is the numerous photographs of a personal and professional nature. Included in the photographs are several boxes of stereo slides containing scenes of early Kansas City and views of social functions attended by local and national celebrities and politicians. Other highlights include seven scrapbooks documenting Cookingham’s professional career and drafts of published and unpublished biographies.
Laurie Perry Cookingham was born October 23, 1896, in Chicago, Illinois, to Joseph and Elmore Cookingham. At the age of 8 years, his family moved to Danville, Illinois, where he grew up with his elder brother George W. Cookingham became interested in politics at a very young age when in 1915, as part of a class assignment, he read a newspaper article about the Council/Manager form of government. This left a lasting impression that would inspire his professional course. During summer vacations Cookingham worked on a local railroad and studied surveying and mapping. Encouraged to pursue engineering, he worked full-time on the railroad after graduation.
When World War I erupted, Cookingham enlisted in the Signal Corps. While serving with the Army of Occupation, Cookingham entered a technical school operated by the Corps of Engineers. Following his military discharge Cookingham returned home to Danville and resumed his employment at the railroad, but soon accepted a job in the City Engineering Department at Flint, Michigan, where he met and wed Harriette West. In 1927, Cookingham was asked to become Village Manager of Clawson, Michigan. In this town, population 3,500, he was also appointed Chief of Police, Health Officer and member of the Volunteer Fire Department. Eventually, Cookingham would become city manager of two more Michigan cities, Plymouth and Saginaw.
On Memorial Day 1940, Cookingham left Saginaw to assume the duty of City Manager of Kansas City, MO. Here he would hold the record of the longest tenure for any city manager in a major city. Sweeping the path of Tom "Boss" Pendergast and facing a huge budget deficit, Cookingham sliced payrolls, cut jobs based on friendship, stopped graft, and instituted a merit system for employees. On ending his first fiscal year, he had eliminated the deficit, and left a substantial city surplus. Cookingham was affiliated with many organizations that meshed his personal and professional life. He became a founding member of the Saddle & Sirloin Club of Kansas City and also held memberships in many other organizations including The Kansas City Club, International City Managers’ Association, and the Starlight Theatre Association.
One of the worst disasters challenging Cookingham while in Kansas City came on "Black Friday," July 13, 1951. The Kaw River, rising above its 33-foot flood walls, covered 1,500,000 acres, killed 41 persons, and drove 100,000 people in Kansas and Missouri from their homes.
Notable contributions to the city during the "Cookingham Years" include the purchase of 4,590 acres of land in Platte County for Mid-Continent International Airport, 3rd largest municipally owned airport in the nation; the acquisition of a lease with TWA for an overhaul base at Mid-Continent International Airport; and the establishment of Major League Baseball in Kansas City. Cookingham also effected the annexation of the Northland to Kansas City.
Influenced by the increasing dissension among the city manager and the new city council, Cookingham submitted his resignation as city manager of Kansas City on April 17, 1959. That July Cookingham took office as city manager of Fort Worth, Texas, remaining until February 1963 when he retired from public service, ending a 36-year career in city management.
Following his retirement, Cookingham returned to Kansas City to live. He was appointed Executive Director of People-to-People International, a program developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to advance tolerance and world peace. Cookingham held this post until he resigned in October 1966 to pursue his desire to travel and do some writing. Despite his attempt to retire into private life, Cookingham continued to perform in many capacities. After three years as consultant for the Downtown Redevelopment Corporation, Cookingham was approached by the large engineering firm of Howard-Needles-Tammen & Bergendoff, where he performed in a public relations capacity for the next seven years. He was also President of the Starlight Theatre Association, adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, President of the Board of Parks and Recreation, and was in great demand as a public speaker.
Too numerous to mention, honors and accolades bestowed upon L.P. Cookingham include 1st recipient of the La Guardia Award; establishment of the L.P. Cookingham Institute of Public Affairs; L.P. Cookingham Alumni Society; and the distinction, Dean of City Managers. In 1978 the main expressway to Kansas City International Airport was renamed Cookingham Drive.
L. Perry Cookingham dedicated his life to serving Kansas City and its people until his death on July 22, 1992, at the age of 95.
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Stuart Hinds, Director of Special Collections