Lou Austin’s lifelong passion for history is a gift for years to come
By Diane Euston
Louis Edward Schumacher-Austin, Jr., a pioneer of preservation in South Kansas City, passed away August 29, 2019 at the age of 71. His life wasn’t about him – that was clear when his passing was kept quiet as he had asked his family to do. He never wanted anyone to make a “big deal” out of his activism. He didn’t do it for the headlines or for the pat on the back – he did it because it was the right thing to do.
I can hear Lou’s distinctive voice with a tinge of a southern drawl in my head right now as I write this, telling me that I shouldn’t be making such a stink about his life and his legacy. But for the first time ever, I’m not going to listen to Lou–a man who taught me more than he ever could have known. I’m going to listen to my heart and expound on how Lou’s loss is a chance to reflect on what life and legacy he brought to us all.
Lou was born in Peoria, Illinois, December 30, 1947, to Louis, Sr. and Topper Price Schumacher. He was the oldest of five children, and his father’s job at Caterpillar catapulted Lou and his family to Kansas City in 1958. Anyone who knew Lou was aware of his love for his chickens, and this love started from long stints in the summertime at his grandmother’s and uncle’s house in Newville, Alabama (population: 202) where he spent time roaming around the surrounding countryside of peanut and cotton fields, creeks and ponds.
His love of history began in much the same way as my own personal journey began–we both grew up along the Santa Fe Trail. I remember talking to Lou about how we shared this in common, how the idea of these pioneers living on the land before us fascinated us to our core. I grew up in the defunct town of New Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail near State Line Road; Lou grew up at the “big red house,” as it was known, at 6200 Bannister Rd. on just shy of 30 acres of land. This 1920s homestead was on the Independence route of the Santa Fe Trail, led southwesterly to where Minor Park is today, and crossed into Indian Territory at New Santa Fe.
It’s no surprise that the Trails linked Lou and me, because Lou was one of the earliest proponents of its preservation in the South Kansas City area. As a student at Ruskin High School, Lou embraced his history classes and decided after graduation in 1965 to head to the University of Missouri and major in history. Upon graduation, Lou returned to South Kansas City and enrolled in law school at UMKC.
His brother, John, 13 years his junior, remembers Lou’s quirky personality and how his love of nature was brought indoors. During his high school and college years, Lou was a beekeeper. “He even built a glass beehive that was inside his bedroom,” John recalled. Well before YouTube instruction videos and Google searches, Lou concocted an indoor glass beehive in an upper-story bedroom that had access to the outside so bees could come and go.
In the corner of his parent’s property was an old, historic home that the family referred to as “The Bishop’s Shack.” The story went that the land was owned by the Catholic Diocese in the 1940s, and it was used as a quiet retreat for bishops and priests. When Lou entered law school, he and some friends moved into “the shack.”
Lou lived in this modified historic home up until his death, tending to his chickens that he kept meticulous records on.
While attending law school, Lou also served in the National Guard. In 1976, he graduated and after working in real estate law for a few years started a law practice in 1981 that became known as Austin Living Trust Law Firm. One of the things that always fascinated me about Lou was his last name. Lou did love Austin, Texas– and he thought that “Austin” had a nice ring to it for a law practice. But his family’s last name was Schumacher.
What many didn’t know, is that Lou had suffered from hepatitis and had a liver transplant about 25 years ago. He was part of a research program, and while in intensive care, was a test subject for new methods and new drug treatments that eradicated the virus, resulting in a successful liver transplant when this operation was in its infancy.
In 1990, the family took a part of the family lands and donated it for a park aptly named Schumacher Park off E. 93rd St. Today, one can see its connection as part of the National Historic Trails. Through his love of history and his neighborhood, Lou championed the historical trails in South Kansas City. What many knew about Lou is he never worked alone; he was able to use his wit and connections to virtually connect the pieces. Working in historic preservation is never easy, but Lou was an expert in the field.
From 2012 to 2015, Lou spearheaded the 3-Trails Village Community Improvement District to bring improvements to the 5th District while also preserving the history of the area. “Lou was a passionate and tireless advocate for educating area residents about the historical significance of the shared route of the California, Oregon and Santa Fe Trails that passed through south Kansas City and for constructing a walking and biking path along the route,” said John Sharp, former KCMO city councilman and a friend of Austin’s for over 50 years.
This pedestrian bridge, known as “The Powder Mill Bridge” along I-435 near Bannister Rd., linked the community together. Those without cars were finally able to travel in the shadow of the original Trails safely. His passion for history wasn’t one sided; he felt that history should be used to connect everyone to the past. Interpretive signs detailing the history of the Trails were added to Schumacher Park. A major transit bus station known as Schumacher Station designed and promoted by Lou gave bus patrons a chance to see the impact of the Three Trails on all ethnicities.
“He was equally passionate,” John Sharp said, “that the history of the trails accurately reflect the contributions of people of all ethnicities and genders. Lou was the driving force behind the large color mural on the 3-Trails Transit Center at 9449 Blue Ridge Blvd. depicting three African-American women who suffered through slavery, traveled the trails and went on to great prominence.”
On a cloudy autumn morning last year, Lou crawled out of his beat up pick-up truck in his distinctive second-hand thrift store clothes and met my Kansas City History students at Schumacher Station. These teenagers watched all 5’6” of Lou emerge from his truck with suspicion. What would this guy have to tell them about history? It only took a few minutes with Lou for these teens to be eating out of his hand. Lou just had a way with kids- he had the gift of showcasing history in a way that related to them.
Lou was involved with the National Park Service and Mid-America Regional Council retracement corridor project of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California National Historic Trails from Sugar Creek, Mo. to Gardner, Ks. with a particular emphasis on South Kansas City. Along the way, his efforts were acknowledged by many with the Award of Merit from The Santa Fe Trail Association and the Alvin Brooks Lifetime Service Award from the South Kansas City Alliance.
But Lou would never tell you about his awards. He would tell you how to follow your heart and find a purpose. Louis Edward Schumacher-Austin, better known to Lou in the history buff circle, was one of those guys that just made things happen.
His passing is a loss to South Kansas City, but his legacy will live on.
Per Lou’s wishes, his family quietly scattered his ashes at Schumacher Park at dusk on September 27. He is predeceased by his parents and one sister, Linda. He is survived by his siblings, Jim, Cindy and John.
A celebration of life is scheduled for October 22 from 5-7:30pm at the Trailside Center, 9901 Holmes Rd. It is time to showcase how this man transformed the Three Trails in Kansas City, and how all of us who knew him have been transformed through his spirit and legacy.
Donations in honor of Lou Austin are suggested to 3-Trails West, Inc., a non-for-profit, 5904 E. Bannister Rd., Kansas City, Mo., 64134; or donate to your favorite local historic charity in his name.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com