The Legacy of John Q. Hammons
By Ettie Berneking
Note: This story originally ran in the January 2019 issue of Biz 417.
The man, the myth, the legend. John Q. Hammons was one of Springfield’s greatest developers, and many Springfield attractions still bear his name.
There are a few things you should know about John Q. Hammons. His name was not John, and his birthday did not fall on Presidents Day as he liked to say. Hammons—known better as John Q.—was actually born James Quentin Hammons. For nearly 24 years, John Q.’s executive assistant, Jan Robbins, watched her boss fib about his name, age and birthday. She watched him send dozens of cards out on Mother’s Day and poinsettias on Christmas. She got calls when he ran through stop signs, and she brought him his one cup of coffee each day. She watched as Hammons’ name popped up not only in Springfield but around the country.
By the time he died on May 26, 2013, at the age of 94, Hammons had built 210 hotels in 40 states and was responsible for some of Springfield’s best-known buildings including Hammons Tower, Highland Springs, Hammons Field, University Plaza and Convention Center, Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
Becoming John Q.
During the prime of his career, around 1987, John Q.’s estimated wealth was $300 million. He was listed in Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest people in the United States. But John Q. was not born wealthy. There were no silver spoons, no trust funds. Instead, there were dairy cows and debt. John Q. was born in Fairview, Missouri, in 1919. His family owned and operated a dairy farm until the Great Depression tightened its grip, and the family lost the farm.
Poverty knocked at John Q.’s door for the first quarter of his life. His first job teaching science, history and physical education at Cassville Junior High brought in just $40 a month. His first business venture—mortarless bricks—went bust after two years, and John Q. lost $60,000. As John Q. told it, his first success came when he married Juanita K. Baxter in 1949. For the entirety of their 64-year marriage, John Q. referred to Juanita as Mrs. Hammons, and even in their early days, he warned Mrs. Hammons that business would be at the center of his life. “I didn’t have anything,” he wrote. “But I told her that I was going to be successful in business.”
To dig his way out from under the debt he had accumulated when his mortarless bricks business went belly up, John Q. started developing rental properties. World War II had just ended, and veterans were returning home to find few housing options available to them. The market had a need, and John Q. had a vision. By the time he was 38, he had accumulated enough land to begin development of his newest project yet: Southern Hills.
By the late ’50s, John Q. teamed up with contractor Roy Winegardner with plans to enter the hotel industry. Swankier hotels at the time like Holiday Inn were taking up a larger chunk of the market, and John Q. and Winegardner wanted a piece of that pie. So they approached Charles Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn, and asked about buying into the franchise. As the story goes, Wilson gave John Q. and Winegardner 90 days to find 10 locations for their hotels. “Each one was $10,000,” says Debra Shantz Hart, the previous senior vice president and general counsel at John Q. Hammons Hotels. “So Hammons and Roy did it. The duo optioned 10 pieces of property, and they say the rest is history.” Winegardner and Hammons eventually opened 67 Holiday Inn hotels. Then in 1969, John Q. founded John Q. Hammons Hotels as a 50th birthday present to himself.
According to his biography, four years later, John Q. had 35 hotels under his belt.
By the end of his career, John Q. could look out over one slice of his empire from his office on the top floor of John Q. Hammons Office Building. From his bird’s-eye view, he could see: Hammons Field, the John Q. Hammons Enterprise Center—the new home to the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center, Hammons Tower and Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. By 1983, Hammons was busy doing business on both coasts, and as his business and name recognition grew, John Q. showed no signs of slowing down.
Location was everything for John Q., and markets like Dallas; Frisco, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Springfield gave him the chance to fill a niche in a growing community. Once a city was picked out, John Q. would draw maps of the highway system to understand where traffic was headed. Then, he would charter helicopters and planes to fly him over the area at night. Once they spotted large clusters of lights, he’d drop a pin in his maps.
Attracting the RedBirds
For the business titan, athletics were a release. John Q. played basketball throughout high school and college and worked as a basketball coach during his early years teaching. His love of sports was one of his few interests outside of development. And Bill Rowe—MSU Athletic Director from 1982 through 2009—was along for the ride. “He always said, ‘If you get tickets someplace, remember I have the airplane.’” For years, Rowe and John Q. flew to Cincinnati to watch the Reds during spring training, and the two attended final four basketball games.
It was Rowe who first approached John Q. about helping get the Missouri State Bears baseball team a new stadium. The bears had been playing in city parks since 1964, and building a new stadium excited John Q. He also saw the chance to bring a minor league team to Springfield, and he knew which minor league team should be the main tenants—The Cardinals Double-A team. John Q. headed to St. Louis with his architects and contractor Bill Killian to meet with the Cardinals. At the end of the meeting, John Q. stood up and shook hands. “They told him if he built the stadium he was showing them, they would try to move the Cardinals franchise to Springfield,”
When Hammons Field opened in 2004, the MSU Bears were given their own locker room and batting cages, and in 2005 the Springfield Cardinals Minor League baseball team moved to Springfield. Rowe says more than 9,000 people crammed into the stadium for the Bear’s opening game against Southern Illinois University. “They were on the berm and on the grass, and all 350 members of the marching band were on the field,” he says. John Q. threw out the first pitch, and Bill Rowe was on the receiving end behind home plate.
If Hammons Field was a home run for John Q., then the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame had him just one swing away from striking out. Before opening in 1994, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame was little more than a collection of plaques tacked to the walls of a conference room in Jefferson City. When John Q. was approached about developing an actual building for the hall of fame, he didn’t hesitate. He even knew where he wanted to build it. He already owned land in Springfield at the entrance of Highland Springs Country Club, and it checked all of his boxes: great highway systems,a state college, an emerging market and name recognition. To operate the center, John Q. hired Jerald Andrews in 1995.
When Andrews showed up, only two volunteers were keeping the lights on, and not all of the lights even worked. That first day, Andrews bought 66 light bulbs at Lowes. The following January, Andrews sold tickets to the hall of fame’s annual enshrinement event. “It grossed $60,000,” he says. After that, Andrews launched a series of ticketed events from luncheons with guest speakers and golf tournaments to off-site enshrinement galas and even a sporting clay shoot. When finances got tight, John Q. was there. He loaned the hall of fame $10,000 one time so Andrews could finish payroll. “We paid him back three days later,” Andrews says. Over time, the beefed-up events calendar worked, and the hall of fame was covering all of its expenses and hired full-time staff.
Winds of Change
John Q. never retired, but his health forced him to slow down. At 89, he underwent a heart procedure at the Cleveland Clinic, and his remaining years were spent in his penthouse at the Mansion at Elfindale. Then on May 26, 2013, John Q. died at the age of 94.
Years after his death, John Q.’s legacy lives on. “Our whole community would be different if Hammons didn’t invest in us,” says Brent Dunn, vice-president/university advancement and executive director of the Missouri State University Foundation. By the time he died, John Q. had donated more than $30 million to Missouri State University.
John Q. donated an undisclosed amount to the creation of the Mercy Hospital Springfield Hammons Heart Institute, which opened in 1972. Around the same time, he purchased two rescue helicopters for the hospital to the tune of $1.2 million. He developed Highland Springs Country Club and golf course. He’s credited as the founder of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, which has donated more than $15 million to area children through its annual golf tournament. It seems that almost everywhere you look, John Q. has left a little something behind to remember him by.
This article is part of the Chamber's special Centennial publication. Click here to return to the main page.