Spencer, Helen

Foresman Spencer
Year Inducted: 
Helen Spencer
  • One of nation’s greatest philanthropists and collectors
  • Namesake of KU Art Museum, and donor for Kenneth A Spencer Research Library
  • Dispensed more than $18 million to universities, museums, and art groups in the Midwest
  • Major benefactress of the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City
  • 1968: received Distinguished Service Citation, highest honor awarded by KU
  • 1976: received Fred Ellsworth Medallion, highest honor from KU Alumni Association
  • 1977: winner of the Higher Education Leadership Award 

Helen Foresman Spencer, 1902-1982, was known as “one of nation’s greatest philanthropists and collectors and the University’s most generous benefactress.”  The graduate of KU’s Class of 1926, she was an avid supporter of education, libraries, youth, science, medicine, religious programs, and particularly the arts.  The Kansas City Star lauded her for “her desire that her gifts be made available immediately to students and a general public ‘who need and can take advantage of them today’.”

In 1949, she and her husband Kenneth of the Kansas City-based Spencer Chemical Company, founded the Kenneth A and Helen Foresman Spencer Foundation.  In its 30 years of existence, it dispensed more than $18 million to universities, museums, and art groups in the Midwest.  After her husband died in 1960, it was she who completely oversaw the distribution of the Foundation’s funds.  “My late husband and I were very proud to live in the Middle West,” she once explained, although she never granted interviews, “and hoped to do all we possibly could to enrich this area by the development of its cultural, educational, and scientific institutions.”

For the University of Kansas, their Foundation made possible the funding of $2.5 million for the Kenneth A Spencer Research Library in 1968, the Memorial Chapel at the Medical Center, Memorial lectures, and, most notably, a $5million contribution in 1977 to build the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art on the Lawrence campus.  Helen, a stickler for details, was hugely involved in the building of the art museum.  “She was concerned about every color, accessory, piece of furniture,” one collaborator remembered, relating the tale of how one weekend she went into the Museum’s kitchen to install a paper towel rack and paper towels she had searched all over Kansas City for because they matched the décor in that room perfectly.  She also donated her Mission Hills home for the benefit of the Executive Vice Chancellor of the KU Medical Center.

Helen did much to improve the Kansas City community as well.  She was a major benefactress of the Nelson Art Gallery, including the purchase of 11 pieces in the prestigious Chinese furniture collection there.  At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she provided $2 million for the Helen Foresman Spencer Theatre, and also founded the Kenneth A Spencer Chemistry Building and their library’s rare book vault.  She funded the building of the Junior Achievement headquarters for the Kansas City chapter, the Center for Education at St. Luke’s Hospital, numerous projects for her church, and a school fund for the Kansas City Art Institute.  She was a member of the Boards of Directors for both the Friends of Art and the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City, as well as a Trustee of the Kansas City Philharmonic Association.  “What she has meant to the last decade in Kansas City cannot be summarized,” Dr. McIlrath, a founder of the UMKC Theater, declared.

The Kansas City Star applauded her “almost uncanny ability to meet needs and critical problems” for the community.  She was honored with the coveted Distinguished Service Citation in 1968 and the Fred Ellsworth Medallion in 1976 for her unique and significant service to the University of Kansas.  In 1977, she was named the winner of the Higher Education Leadership Award.  She also received the Chancellor’s Medal from UMKC and the Citizen of the Year Award from Baker University, to whom she had funded a wing in their library.

Helen died at home of an apparent heart attack in 1982 at the age of 79.  Her will provided an additional $3.1million in bequests, including $1million to the Spencer Museum of Art and $500,000 to the Spencer Research Library, as well as her personal papers and books for the Library’s collection.  Her greatest hope was that her example will inspire others to give so that everyone will benefit.               

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