SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — John Q. Hammons' first business went bust, saddling him with debt. Yet the son of a poor Missouri dairy farmer paid it off within two years and turned his sights to hotels, the cornerstone of what would become a national real estate empire.
Along the way, he opened his wallet to his home state, donating millions to hospitals, public television and colleges in Springfield. It's a town where his name graces so many buildings and streets — from Missouri State University's basketball arena, for which he pledged $30 million alone, to the city's tallest building — that comedian Bob Hope once joked it should rename itself "Hammonsville."
Among the businessman's secrets: He avoided big-city locations in favor of properties in college towns and state capitals.
"He would say, 'The kids will always go to school, and you can't fire the damn politicians,'" former company executive Scott Tarwater once said.
Hammons, who died Sunday at age 94 in a Springfield nursing home, built more than 200 hotels nationwide, including Embassy Suites, Marriotts, Radissons and Holiday Inns. He also developed an expansive real estate portfolio of golf courses, restaurants, convention centers, a casino and riverboat gambling. And he actively led the company well into his 80s.
"He did it the old-fashioned way: He earned it," Bill Rowe, MSU's former athletic director, said Monday shortly after learning about his friend's death. "His eyes were always on the next target. He loved getting things done, then he was thinking about what to do next."
"He was a die-hard fan of our university," Rowe said, adding with a laugh: "And the St. Louis Cardinals."
After Hammons' first business — a company that sold mortar-less bricks — went bust in the late 1940s, he recovered to build subdivisions in southwest Missouri over the next decade. He then purchased 10 Holiday Inn franchises with a partner in 1958 from the company's founder.
Hammons eventually became a regular on Forbes magazine's list of the wealthiest Americans, and his estimated personal wealth several years ago was $1 billion. He took his company public in 1994 before returning it to private ownership a decade later.
"He has made such a major, significant difference to this community," Jim Anderson, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a 2007 interview. "Some people may not see the way he has put us on the map."
The hotel magnate was born James Quentin Hammons in 1919 in rural Fairview, about 60 miles southwest of Springfield, to a dairy farmer who lost the 200-acre family farm during the Depression. As a teen, he trapped rabbits and sold their pelts for a nickel apiece.
"I swore I would never be poor," he told a biographer in 2002.
A graduate of Southwest Missouri State Teachers College, which is now Missouri State University, Hammons spent two years teaching science and history and coaching junior high basketball before going to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway. He married the former Juanita Baxter, a Springfield elementary school teacher and also a Southwest Missouri graduate, in September 1949. The couple had no children.
Hammons' legacy is on full display in Springfield. His office in the John Q. Hammons Building was across from the federal courthouse that his company built and the 22-story Hammons Tower, the city's tallest building. Nearby are a 270-room hotel and convention center he developed, as well as and the $32 million Hammons Field, which he built to lure the St. Louis Cardinals' Double-A minor league team to town. All sit on John Q. Hammons Parkway.
Other buildings bear his name, and he also gave a grant that started public television station KOZK.
"Whenever you can be successful in a community, it can't be without cooperation, without support," Hammons said in a 1992 interview. "So I think it behooves everybody to register that sincerity and try to return a little bit."
Hammons was unfailingly modest about his wealth and his success. An avid sports fan, he faithfully attended spring training and the NCAA Final Four annually for decades until his health faltered. His later years, however, were shrouded in secrecy and controversy.
In March 2011, a group of friends asked Greene County probate court to appoint Hammons a public guardian. The lawsuit said they weren't being allowed to visit him at a Springfield nursing home or talk to him on the phone after Jacqueline Dowdy, whom Hammons gave power of attorney several years ago, took control of the John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts in October 2010, purged most of its top officials and placed Hammons in "involuntary seclusion."
The court appointed a Springfield doctor in May 2011 to serve as Hammons' temporary guardian. The doctor allowed supervised visits with Hammons, but it didn't alleviate the feud. Dowdy, a former administrative assistant and accountant, became CEO after nearly 40 years of working alongside Hammons.
On Monday, Dowdy said in a company statement that Hammons was her mentor and a giant in the hospitality industry who "was unwavering in his commitment to exceptional quality and service and to giving back to the community."
"He was a great mentor and friend and will be missed by all who came to know him, but his legacy will live on forever," she said.
Associated Press writer Erin Gartner contributed to this report from Chicago.