Keith Nelson grew up in the hills above the north bank of the Missouri River, overlooking the fertile Belgian Bottoms located south of what is now Missouri Highway 9 in Riverside. His parents were “truck farmers” who raised vegetable for sale at the city market.
He graduated from Park Hill High School in 1963, attended trade school, then went on to a nearly 40- year career with TWA as a mechanic (a history not lost on the Kansas City officials that recently honored the longtime Northland activist.)
Nelson was a leader on the job, serving in various union executive roles, and outside of work, where he spearheaded many projects for the North Bennington neighborhood that he and his wife, Dana, have called home for 50 years.
Now 75 years old and long retired from TWA, Nelson has had more time to indulge his love of local history, including that of Francois Chouteau, the fur trader who may well rank as Kansas City’s first entrepreneur. He set up a trading post in 1821 that was not far from Nelson’s present-day neighborhood.
“We don’t do enough to celebrate our history that we have,” Nelson said. “You go back East. You don’t have to go very far and there is a historical marker. We have just as rich a history here because this was the frontier.”
And it was against the backdrop of the François Chouteau & Native American Heritage Fountain, located along Chouteau Parkway near Northeast Parvin Road, that Kansas City Councilwoman Heather Hall and her Northland colleagues Kevin O’Neill and Dan Fowler presented Nelson with a proclamation recognizing his contributions to the city.
Also present at the Aug. 27 event were representatives from Kansas City Parks and Recreation and Dick Davis, a former city councilman who serves with Nelson as the chair of the fundraising organization for the Chouteau heritage site.
The committee has already raised about $1 million through a mix of city and philanthropic funds, which has funded the first phase of the project, but Nelson estimated they need to raise about $800,000 more to complete the full marker. The hope is to have the project complete in time for next summer’s bicentennial celebration of Missouri’s entry into the Unites States.
Organizers celebrated a milestone in April when a bronze statue of Chouteau was placed on a concrete recreation of a bluff. Chouteau is clutching a long rifle in his left hand while holding up two fingers as he faces two other bronze sculptures, an Osage Native American man, who is holding up one finger, and an Osage woman who is holding a pot of the trading goods.
Completion of this first phase was important, said KC Parks Director Terry Rynard, because it gives the community at large a sense of what the monument will be. “Keith always could visualize it,” she said, “but now people can actually visualize it.”
As shown in the video here, the fully built out site is planned to include a water feature paying homage to Chouteau’s trading site, with water cascading from a creek into a pool that simulates the Missouri River. Also included in the final design is a bronze sculpture of a member of the Kansa tribe stalking a beaver alongside the river; that sculpture is underway in the foundry.
Nelson is also excited about the educational opportunities for students, with the design calling for an interpretive area that will include a dugout canoe for kids to climb on. A section on the south side of the monument will be a recreation of the trading post, where an instructor can be up front talking to students sitting on boulders set up as seating.
Boosters of the project also laud its site as another jewel along the revamped Chouteau Parkway. And with its water features, Northland advocates said the Chouteau heritage site helps all of Kansas City lay claim to being the City of Fountains – not just areas south of the river.
The project has been about 10 years in the making, and as Nelson noted in his remarks at the Aug. 27 event, “we have stumbled a few times.” The COVID-19 pandemic has hampered fundraising efforts.
But as speakers at the proclamation event made clear, Nelson does not know the meaning of the word “quit,” even if it means bending the ears of elected officials.
“I have known Keith a long time, and for most of that time he has been a pain in the rear,” Fowler joshed in presenting the proclamation. “But it has always been for a good cause, and I have always appreciated that, appreciated his forthrightness, his candor, his ability to keep moving things both for his neighborhood and his city.”
Nelson said his zeal really comes from wanting to help the little guy, whether that was as a union leader or a champion of underserved neighborhoods. And if that means, speaking loud and long, so be it.
“If they give me a forum to talk, I will,” Nelson said. “That is the whole thing, I guess.”
Story by Mike Sherry