A tale of a mural and a priest

With some steadying hands, Father Charles Jones climbed a ladder and re-signed his name on his mural painted 62 years ago. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Kansas Citians drive past the old Westport Middle School on 39th Street without paying much attention to it. After all, it’s been a vacant, deteriorating building for nearly a decade, or rather, it was. The old building was purchased in 2016 for restoration and re-designing to house a co-working facility. The new owners on a tour with architect, Bob Berkebile of BNIM discovered something under the dust, dirt, detritus and cobwebs of the building’s 4th floor, something unique, worth preserving and highlighting. A mural covering the tops of three walls of a 60-sq. ft. room. A mural, painted in 1948, divided into 15 sections, each depicting the history of Kansas City from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, and each section signed by its artist.

Curious to learn more, Berkebile and a team of artists and conservators, started researching the artist’s names. Of the 15 artists, they found one, Father Charles F. Jones.

When Father Jones was a youth, what we knew as Westport Middle School was Kansas City Junior College, which he attended. He enjoyed drawing and painting, so the art class, Design II, was a favorite. He liked Miss Mary Moulton, the art teacher, who may or may not have known artist Thomas Hart Benton, but was influenced by his works.

Early in the 1948 spring term, Miss Moulton called together 15 of her students and told them of a project she was assigning them, a mural covering the tops of their classroom walls. The mural would, as an April 1, 1948 notice in The Collegian, the school newspaper, states: “depict Kansas City in the days of the early traders, in the 1840s and as it is today.”

Beginning with a buffalo hunt, the mural was painted so that different eras merged “with each other in orderly sequence” around three walls of “Room 402.” The pictorial history continues around the walls with Indians, traders, a fort, settlers clearing land for farming, buffalo, covered wagons pulled by oxen, stagecoaches and steamboats landing or pulling away from the river dock. Scenes of the Liberty Memorial, Union Station and what is probably Municipal Auditorium, with smoke from industry swirling overhead comprise the “today” of 1948.
The Benton influence is reflected in the muscular men, the movement in the buffalo hunt, and the how the “orderly sequence of the eras” causes the eye to pause at each section, peruse it carefully then move on to the next sequence.

Each artist signed the section he or she painted, printing their name and ‘48. The students assigned to the mural included: Gene Farber, Carolyn Shoush, Thomas Atkin, Harold Hall, Gloria Jeanne Crane, Arnold Gilmore, Olive South, Edward Chambon, Carol Grayson, Charles Jones, Beverly Lee Katz, Jo Ann Gaulke, Shirley McDonald, Edward Trujillo, and William Umstattd.

After Kansas City Junior College became part of the Metropolitan Community College system in 1964, the name changed to Metropolitan Junior College. In 1969, it moved to the brand-new Penn Valley Community College campus; the building with its mural was returned to the Kansas City Public School District and soon became home to Westport Middle School.

When the middle school was closed and the building vacated in 2010, the mural painted 62 years earlier was forgotten. Until last year, when the building was purchased by Gerald Smith and the Sustainable Partners of Kansas City. Smith, founder of PlexPlod co-working facilities, his partners and Bob Berkebile began the project of revitalizing and revamping the historic building into the world’s largest co-working facility. They found halls lined with lockers, original hardwood flooring, lots of windows and, the mural.

Father Charles Jones

Mary Moulton had devised an unusual recipe for the paint used in the mural: pure oil paints with a varnish and turpentine mixture to glaze it. “The Collegian” article said, “The method is Miss Moulton’s and gives a brilliant color, which is gay and brightens the classroom.”
The brightness and gaiety could still be seen, although much of the paint was peeling and the white walls behind it were clearly visible in several sections.

Local artist and muralist Kerry J. Stucky, a member of the conservation team that restored the mural, was given sections depicting the Santa Fe Trail and the early settlers. She noticed the signature Charles Jones, ’48, beneath the images, and was amazed that the image of the covered wagon drawn by two muscular oxen was almost as clear as when he painted it. Another man walked beside the wagon, a bag swung over his shoulder, leading a donkey. With the next section, a church and village, Stuckey had to make a decision. There was a large area of completely peeled-off paint. Several young, bonneted girls stood next to the church, a horse-drawn cart moved next to it and a woman with a small girl watched a boy following the cart. Considering the other figures in the section, it seemed fitting to paint a woman carrying a live chicken in a basket, shading herself with a parasol, to fill in the blank space.

Fr. Jones, who enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia after junior college, continued studying painting. Then, in the mid-1950s he answered a call he had been hearing and entered Conception Seminary. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1963, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Kansas City. He served as assistant pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel (1963-65), Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph (1965-72), St. Therese, Parkville (1972-73) and St. Gregory Barbarigo, Maryville, (1973-81). He was in residence at St. Peter’s (1981-83), then pastor of St. Cyril’s in Sugar Creek (1983-87), St. Mary’s-St. Joseph (1987-1992) and lastly, St. Mary’s-Independence. He also served as Catholic chaplain at several hospitals and colleges in Kansas City and St. Joseph. He is retired.

Now 87, he is the sole survivor of the 15 students who painted the mural. When asked what the purpose of the mural was, he said, “Mary Moulton, our teacher, had the idea and we thought it would be a good thing to do.”

Now the mural, Mary Moulton and her art students are part of Kansas City history. His matter-of-fact reaction to that? “For better or worse, yeah.”

Father Jones attended the Oct. 11 ribbon cutting ceremony at Westport Commons, rolling through the familiar hallways in his wheelchair, pointing out classrooms, the library, the cafeteria, recalling little details including where he sat to eat lunch, to Tonya Huey, his caregiver. He talked about the wooden scaffolding he and the other students sat on to paint the mural, and recalled how happy he was to finish his section.

Although it saddened him to realize he is the only one left, or at least the only one found, it was exciting to see the restoration of the building and the mural. The artistic team brought it back to life, he said. “I’d kind of forgotten about it. What a great job they did!”

He was also pleasantly surprised that the room was full of people, artists and art lovers. “I didn’t think people would care!”

When he stood to climb the step ladder to re-sign his art, Kerry Stucky, her daughter, also an artist, and several others stepped forward to help support Fr. Jones as he climbed. When he sat back down, his smile lit up the room.

Huey, whom Fr. Jones baptized as an adult, later said, “Even sitting in his chair, on oxygen and tired from old age, he is my hero. He’s giving it all he’s got … enjoying the little/big moments like the reconstruction and restoration of the mural he once painted.”

Fr. Jones hopes the room will be viewable by all who want to see it.




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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph