A Story of Family: The Regnier Family
By Kathy Feist
Recently, south Kansas City’s newest addition, Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City, proudly gave the Regnier Family top billing on its marquee and extended name.
At the same time, south Kansas City residents watch as farmland owned by the Regnier family at 135th and State Line, stretching to Mission Rd, transforms into multi-purpose housing developments, should the Leawood City Council give approval.
The Regnier Family Foundation, chaired by siblings Bob, Cathy and Victor Regnier Jr., has made a mark throughout the Kansas City region, supplementing endowments at Kansas State University, University of Kansas, University of Missouri- Kansas City, and Johnson County Community College.
But what has brought the family to this level and into our south Kansas City story, is not one that derives from a haughty silver spoon, but rather a humble steel shovel.
Victor Regnier, crouching far left, and his construction crew circa 1950. Victor wears his signature hat. Photo courtesy Johnson County Museum.
Victor L. Regnier
The youngest of four, Victor L. Regnier was born in 1917 to Dennis Regnier, a carpenter, and Katie Wendel Regnier, a nurse, in Wyandotte County. The family struggled during the Depression as carpentry work dried up.
“He had a pretty hardscrabble environment when he was a kid,” says Bob. “They moved 12 times when he was 15 years old just to stay ahead of the rent.”
Victor graduated from Wyandotte High School and attended Kansas City KS Community College but never graduated. Working two jobs got in the way. “For the rest of his life, he lamented the fact that he never got a degree even though he did quite well without it,” said Bob.
Victor was an industrious, smart man. At his first job as an electrician for a neon sign company, he invented a trap in a sink that captured mercury that had to be drained out of the old neon tubes, allowing him to sell the used mercury to other companies.
Victor later enlisted in the Navy where, thanks to his background in electronics, he taught the concepts of sonar and radar. While stationed in Gulfport, MS, he met a young librarian from upstate New York. Helen Benning had recently been widowed when her husband died during the D-Day Invasion along Normandy Beach in France in 1944. Victor and Helen eventually married and moved back to Kansas City.
Build, Build, Build
Eager to start a family, Victor began building a house in the Westwood area during the post WWII housing boom. Always the enterprising thinker, Victor borrowed money from his father-in-law, a farmer. Cathy recalls stories of her grandfather saying “That’s good money going down the drain.” But he was wrong.
Victor, with the help of his wife and father, purchased lots and started building houses for sale between Rainbow Blvd and State Line Rd. His first subdivision was Missiondale in Wyandotte County around 44th Terrace and Mission Rd. where he won an award for post WWII housing. After that he started moving down Mission Rd, buying strips of land and building homes in Reinhardt Estates, Leawood Hills West, Cherry Hills Estates, and finally Greenbrier of Leawood. “He really believed in the future of Johnson County,” says Bob. He was aggressive about buying farmland, including 500 to 600 acres along 135 St from Antioch to State Line Rd.
Ranch Mart Shopping Center circa 1960. Photo courtesy Johnson County Museum.
Ranch Mart Shopping Center
Victor is best known for starting the Ranch Mart Shopping Development at 95th and Mission. According to Bob, he believed a grocery store was necessary to draw buyers to his newly built homes in the area. In 1958, a shopping center complete with a Safeway grocery store, hardware store, bank and other retail spaces was erected on the north side of 95th Street. Ten years later, the south side of 95th Street was developed into a matching shopping center.
Victor took over operation of the Ranch Mart Hardware store in 1960 after the owner defaulted on a loan. Vic Regnier Builders began officeing out of the store.
Ranch Mart became a community hub. An annual “County Fair” was celebrated every summer featuring turtle races, frog jumping contests, and slippery pole climbing contests. A train provided free rides through the parking lot.
A Driven Father
By all accounts, Vic had an affinity for children. But he expected an all-hands-on-deck approach when it came to his own family. His wife helped paint walls and keep the books. During the Ranch Mart County Fair, it was his boys who drove the train and greased up the slippery telephone pole. They snow plowed the parking lot during the winter. Later they helped build houses, dig ditches and even weld. “Not working was not an option,” says Bob. “We learned all kinds of skills to build houses.” Cathy helped run Ranch Mart.
“He had an incredible work ethic,” says Bob. His only day off was Christmas. But by Christmas afternoon, the family was working together on home repairs. “There was no watching football,” Bob recalls. “There was a project every Christmas.”
All three children graduated from college. Victor Jr. graduated from K-State with a degree in architecture. He now lives in California where he is a professor of architecture and gerontology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is considered a leading authority on the design and development of senior housing. Bob also graduated from K-State with a degree in Economics. Displeased with digging ditches, he became a banker with Boatmen’s Bank and eventually started Bank of Blue Valley where he is president and CEO. He has become an prominent member within the Kansas City’ and Johnson County community and a spokesperson for the Foundation. Cathy graduated from KU with a degree in foreign languages and now oversees marketing for Ranch Mart ACE Hardware.
Having an interest in science, Victor helped fund the Research and Development Forum in 1969 for the Shawnee Mission School District. Participants submitted science projects with the hope of winning a $2500 to $5000 college scholarship, underwritten by Victor. Later he provided free passes to Science City.
In 1998, Victor purchased the former Flint Elementary School at 5700 King St., in Shawnee, KS, on behalf of Wonderscope Children’s Museum where it operated until its recent move in October to Red Bridge Shopping Center.
When Victor passed away from brain cancer in 2000, the family was left to decide how to disperse the inheritance. Victor had already formed a small private Regnier Family Foundation. But with his passing, and no will or trust, the children decided to forego their inheritance and placed it into a newer Regnier Family Foundations. The Foundations further promotes higher education, children’s programs and libraries, primarily in the Kansas City area. Their philanthropy includes numerous gifts for Science City at Union Station, Wonderscope Children’s Museum, Kansas State University, Shawnee Mission School District Research and Development Forum, Blue Valley Wilderness Science Center, DeAnna Rose Farmstead and Johnson County Community College.
Having grown out of its space at the old elementary building, Wonderscope formed a search committee to find a new location for the children’s museum. One of the locations was at Red Bridge Shopping Center, newly purchased by Lane4 Property Group. Lane4 offered to donate the land and soon a $15 million capital campaign was launched. The Regnier Family Foundation matched funds, but the campaign came up short. The Foundation compensated the short fall. “We thought, this is one thing that would not have been around if it had not been for our dad,” says Bob.
“He loved children. He felt strongly about the Foundation. So much of what he supported related to education,” he said.
As a result, the Regnier Family name will forever grace the Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City.