Gary Kremer’s essay on the occasion of Missouri’s bicentennial on Aug. 10, “This place of promise: The 200-year history of Missouri is one of hope and opportunity,” describes a land of hope and opportunity that attracted Missouri settlers to cross the Mississippi River to form the 24th state. His focusing question, “Why did people come to Missouri to begin with?” got me thinking, “Why did I come to Missouri?"
The short answer is simple, typical, but rather thin. I came to Missouri because of a job at the University of Missouri. I was not born here; I had no family roots here, but for several reasons I was always more interested in Missouri than in other states. I came here voluntarily, and I’m glad I did. It’s been a place of hope and opportunity. Missouri presents a clear vantage point to understand where our nation has been and where it is going.
I remember learning about Missouri in sixth grade when I was required to make a large paper mache map for geography class. Being from a small town outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we all knew that the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers formed the Ohio River at “the Point” or “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh. But making about a 2-by-4-foot paper mache map allowed me to paint a blue river down the Ohio River to south of St. Louis and the Mississippi River. Later, I heard about Tom Sawyer and his river rafts and dreamt of how much more exciting Hannibal must be than Butler, Pennsylvania. When I learned that Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals was really from Donora, Pennsylvania, I adopted the Cardinals, whom I could pick up on KMOX at night, as my second-favorite team.
I was always fascinated by Missouri’s location on the map — right there in the middle of the country. For a long time, Missouri was a microcosm of American politics, an election bellwether, a purple state, as we would now call it. Neither my siblings nor my classmates had similar interest in Missouri, occasionally referring to the Midwest as “flyover country.”
In graduate school I had my eye on two universities as potential employers, Missouri and Kentucky, because of their proximity to their state capitals near “stand alone” medium-size college towns. I figured they were more open, more easily observable, than state Capitols located in larger cities. I interviewed at Mizzou the week of the I-70 World Series in 1985 between the Royals and the Cardinals. I was fortunate to get a job offer and was thrilled to come here August 1986.
Before I came to Missouri, I knew of the Dred Scott decision, the Missouri Compromise and Scott Joplin, and the train station that was the busiest during World War II. Like most Americans, I had heard “Meet me in St. Louis” and “Going to Kansas City.” Additionally, one of my professors researched the governmental fragmentation in St. Louis County, viewing it more positively than I expected. I had less of a sense of Kansas City, knowing about the stockyards and the Pony Express and the Chiefs and Royals, but unclear about its role in state politics. I’m still not sure President Harry Truman is “really” from Missouri.
Coming to Missouri made a large portion of American history more real to me than if I lived on one of the coasts. In Pennsylvania, slavery was practically just an academic subject, but in central Missouri, along the river more than 20% of the population were slaves. Coming to Missouri gave me an opportunity to learn of George Caleb Bingham’s paintings of both citizenship and the atrocities of war. Coming to Missouri made the farm crisis of the 1980s real. I suspect I would not have paid much attention to Lewis and Clark’s bicentennial in 2004 had I remained in Eastern states.
U.S. News and World Reports ranks Missouri as the 28th-best state — right about the middle — but 43rd in health care, 30th in education and 45th in crime and criminal justice — all public policy areas that we can affect. We receive a high rank of fourth for “opportunity” (e.g., housing costs) and 21st for natural environment.
Missouri’s population has grown from 5 million in 1985 to a little more than 6 million in 2020, but it has lost U.S. House seats, declining from 10 in 1990 to the present eight members. In 1960, Missouri had 13 House members. Missouri's population has consistently grown, but more slowly than the national average.
Missouri’s national leadership and political influence has declined. In 1986, when I came to Mizzou, the U.S. senators were Tom Eagleton (D) and Jack Danforth (R). The governor was John Ashcroft (R). Congressman Dick Gephardt (D) was on his way to becoming the U.S. House majority leader. Former Gov. Kit Bond (R) was elected to the U.S. Senate that year. Whether I agreed with them or not, they were well-qualified and well-prepared to be political leaders. It’s hard to see that the next decade will give us elected officials of equal stature. Being a solid red state means that presidential campaigns are unlikely to give Missouri much attention.
The largest surprise and disappointment for me is the decline of St. Louis, described well by Walter Johnson in “The Broken Heart of America.” Compared with 1904, when St. Louis hosted both the World’s Fair and the Olympics, a city that once was the equal of New York and Chicago has been left behind. Missouri’s approach to governing is at least partly to blame. St. Louis city has all the urban problems, and St. Louis County has all the suburban resources. A great state would have solved that political and governing challenge long ago.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.