When you hear people speak of him, their reverent tone softens every word. The admiration for a man, whom sadly many never got to meet, is still deeply felt almost 60 years after his passing. Reminders of his legacy are still found throughout the state of Kansas for his innovation and leadership. Though his life was tragically cut short, his time on Earth provided a better way of life to not only to everyone he touched, but to people in the agricultural world.
Herb Clutter was a man who thoroughly earned the recognition he receives to this day. He and his family were decent, hardworking people who deserve to be remembered for much more than the controversial book written about their deaths. While 2016 marks the 50th year of its publication in book form, people who knew the Clutters do not turn to In Cold Blood to remember the influential family. Instead, they recall memories of a family steadfast in community, agriculture, faith and goodwill. Truman Capote may have chosen to focus on the way the family unfortunately left this world, but he missed the heart of the story. And Herb and his family were nothing but heart.
Herb the man
Herb Clutter was born May 24, 1911, in Grey County, Kansas. After growing up on a farm near Larned, he went on to Kansas State College (now Kansas State University) and graduated with a bachelor of agriculture degree in 1933. Not long after, he moved to the Garden City area after marrying Bonnie Fox in 1934. Starting out in farming in 1939, he and Bonnie moved to Holcomb, and it was there the couple began their lives together.
The couple had four children, two of whom were living at home at the time of their deaths in 1959: Nancy Mae, 16, and Kenyon Neal, 15. Herb believed in education and supported his children in their school and extracurricular activities. He and his family were so involved in their community, they became a cornerstone of the Holcomb/Garden City area.
Connie Penick, who grew up southwest Kansas, recalls the family and their active participation in the community.
“They were not a pretentious family. They were a down-to-earth, good, wholesome Kansas family,” said Penick. “Herb was very active in the community, helping wherever he could. I remember we would have school events and he would be there being very supportive.”
She also remembers how Clutter appeared to her.
“Mr. Clutter seemed like the grandfather type to me. Glasses, older man…kind of like my dad,” said Penick. “He was very fatherly. I knew him as a kind, older man. And quick to smile.”
Clutter’s smile is something John McClelland, general manager of the Garden City Co-op, says you can’t help but notice.
“Every picture you see of him, he’s got a big, captivating smile,” said McClelland. “You just never see a picture of him when he doesn’t have that smile. It’s a smile that he’s obviously just right on the throes of breaking out into a belly laugh. Whatever it is that he was doing during those pictures, it just seems like there was pure joy.”
Even though he never got to meet the family, McClelland has seen and heard how important the Clutters were to the small town community since moving to Holcomb from Burlington, Colorado.
“The Clutter family is certainly part of the tradition of Holcomb. They were such great leaders in the community,” said McClelland. “So many things around that area, and the Garden City Co-op and all over town, are things Herb Clutter left his mark on. The building I work in is dedicated to the memory of Herb Clutter. In the Methodist church, there’s a huge stained glass window that was a project of Herb’s, and that was dedicated to Herb and his family. So I knew of Mr. Clutter.”
According to former High Plains Journal publisher Joe Berkely, having any photos of Herb to begin with is a surprise.
“He didn’t like to have pictures taken of him,” said Berkely. “That was one of the funny parts—he never wanted to be up front. He just wanted to get the job done.”
In his 48 years of living, Clutter certainly got countless jobs done.
Herb the businessman
Berkely met Clutter when he was 27 years old. After serving in World War II as a pilot, Berkely had moved to Dodge City and was looking for his next endeavor. Though he “honestly hardly knew the difference between the front end of a cow and the back,” Berkely and a partner purchased a publication that would later become High Plains Journal. The county agent in Ford County introduced him to Clutter, who at the time was the county agent in Garden City. Clutter insisted Berkely start some agricultural roots of his own.
“Herb Clutter said in his opinion—and he had a lot of opinions—you couldn’t be a publisher of a paper unless you were involved in farming at all,” said Berkely. “So he proposed he buy a small ranch and we share it 50/50. I told him I couldn’t afford to pay for a small ranch, or hardly half at that time, but he insisted on it. And what he was going to do was, he was going to put cattle on it and treat me to half a dozen cattle. If they grew and the herds grew, why I would develop a herd of cattle on a ranch I owned 50/50 with him.”
Berkely said this willing spirit was something Clutter possessed and shared with everyone.
“He started helping me, and who the hell was I at the time? We didn’t have much of anything going for us then,” said Berkely. “He was willing to help anybody and everybody who needed it that he could. I never met a man like that before or since.”
One of Berkely’s favorite stories of Clutter showcases his helpful spirit. “He was a very unusual business partner,” said Berkely of the story. Berkely recalls how he and Clutter were in an airplane heading to Nebraska. They were discussing needing about a 100 head of cattle for their shared ranch, and Berkely asked Clutter where they were going to get them. A man across the aisle heard their discussion and informed Clutter he had 100 yearlings he would be glad to sell to them. Clutter asked the man to describe them, and after he heard a description, Clutter then asked how much the man wanted to sell them for. After being told how much, Clutter told the man, “Okay, it’s a deal. Send them on up to the ranch, and I’ll send you a check.”
“They shook hands on it and that was the end of it,” recalled Berkely. “I said, ‘Herb, you don’t know anything about this man and you’re sending him a check. You haven’t even got the cattle. How can you?’ Herb said, ‘Well, he told me what he had and he’s a cattleman, so I know it’s all right. He’ll send the cattle.’”
Berkely remembers asking Clutter later if he had received the cattle.
“Oh sure,’ he said,’ they came right on schedule.’ I almost died [when he did it], but it worked. And he never had trouble with those things before,” said Berkely. “If you want to know what kind of businessman he was, that sort of answers it.”
Berkely also saw how Clutter served the farmers of Kansas and the nation as Clutter began the Kansas Wheat Growers Association and then the National Association of Wheat Growers. While establishing the NAWG, the organization was actually housed in High Plains Journal’s offices for a time. This donation of space aided both parties, as Berkely, the appointed executive secretary of the organization, and his employees worked to write the press releases and other tasks while Clutter helped sell subscriptions for the Journal, including at the Garden City Co-op.
“He was telling everybody what a fine paper the Journal was. He asked who wanted to subscribe, and few raised their hands. So he said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll send the Journal to everybody here at the co-op and charge it to your account at the co-op and you can pay the co-op and I’ll pay the Journal,’” said Berkely. “So all of a sudden our circulation jumped to about 200 overnight.”
Selling subscriptions to the same Journal that brought them together helped Berkely when he was suspected of having a hand in his friend’s untimely death. Because of the ranching arrangement, Berkely had a lot to gain if Clutter wasn’t around anymore, a fact police did not overlook. Authorities questioned him but because of his alibi of flying a National Guard airplane to Chicago to sell subscriptions with a witness, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Still, the emotional impact was there.
“I suppose distraught would be a good word for that. Because one, here was a man I was going to be a partner with and make some money on the side and be a better publisher. Secondly, he was a good friend and helping us sell subscriptions to the Journal. And thirdly, I was considered as a suspect and a murderer,” said Berkely.
Despite this unfortunate suspicion, Berkely was glad to know Clutter through their commercial projects.
“Herb Clutter and I were very good personal friends as well as working together. He was a man with extreme goodwill. Who was trying to develop his profession among with all the other farmers as well as himself,” said Berkely.
Developing his and other farmers’ profession was something very evident in Clutter’s life. In Kansas, the Farm and Wheat Division of the Western Kansas Development Association was developed in 1947 to help “wheat growers to organize as a strong, unified voice.” After the success of the division, the need for an independent wheat organization was apparent. As a result, in 1951, the name of the division was changed to the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. Clutter was appointed as its first president.
During his time with the division, Clutter began thinking how such an association would benefit farmers nationwide. In 1948, the NAWG was formed. Berkely was privy to seeing Clutter’s motives.
“Herb saw what the other associations did and how they worked together to get the price of their commodity up, and he decided in his own mind that it would be a good idea to do for wheat growers, who didn’t have any kind of association at that time,” explained Berkely. “So he got the Kansas association, with two or three other wheat farmers, started, and that was working well. He thought, ‘Well, if we can do that with Kansas, we can do that with the rest of the wheat growers in the United States.’ They were doing it for themselves.”
Because he was so instrumental in the forming of their organization, the NAWG elected him as their first president. As described in the organization’s history, Clutter was elected because “he was highly regarded by many as one who truly believed that ‘people are as good as their word’ and that creed was essential in building the strong organization of individual wheat producers throughout the wheat producing states.” Clutter was also instrumental in the passing of legislation that helped created the Kansas Wheat Commission. The commission was then created in 1957. All these organizations are flourishing and having an impact still today because of their solid foundation Clutter helped to establish.
Clutter was also involved on a national level when he was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Federal Farm Credit Board in 1953. Clutter declined reappointment a few years later. This may be because of how many other important roles in various organizations he was a part of, along with his own farm and ranch. By the time of his death, Clutter had been involved with over 20 organizations, both nationwide and locally.
McClelland said it was “extraordinary” how Clutter’s dedicated his time to all the various organizations.
“The family and the farm is enough to do all day long. Yet he was involved in all these other things. And some of that involvement included international aid and helping develop co-ops around the globe so farmers could help improve their own businesses and leaders in national organizations. Pretty amazing,” said McClelland.
Though he was heavily involved with nationwide responsibilities, Clutter never stopped giving back to the local co-op and community he was a part of. Along with being the county agent for Kansas State Extension, he was elected board chairman of the Garden City Co-op.
McClelland said Clutter’s leadership is still seen decades later.
“He was a huge leader here at the Garden City Co-op. We have 20 elevators, 10 of those were merged or acquired and a couple of other ones were bought in previous transactions, but of the elevators Garden City Co-op built, only one of them has been built since Mr. Clutter died,” said McClelland. “He was big on local investment. He was responsible for building hay mills and feed mills. He was just an amazing innovator and leader.”
To McClelland, innovation is particularly something Clutter excelled at.
“I think of the core values [of the Garden City Co-op] the one that speaks the loudest of Herb Clutter would be innovation. He changed everything that he touched. He was a guy who changed the way we farmed in Kansas. That changed how we bred wheat. That changed how we marketed wheat,” said McClelland. “He just made such a huge contribution in changing markets, changing technology. He certainly exemplified all of our core values and more, but the one that is the most amazing to talk about is his innovation and his commitment to bettering the lives of those people around him.”
Bettering the lives around him included his leadership in his personal life. Clutter was actively involved being a mentor in FFA and 4-H, and supported his children in their pursuits. His supportive nature was appreciated, and Clutter was very well-loved by the community in which he lived.
“I think he was so well-liked in the community that if he had ran for office, he would have been elected,” said Penick.
Clutter’s involvement with children is something McClelland has heard many stories about.
“He contributed in so many ways. His leadership in 4-H and FFA has given opportunities to many generations in Kansas to develop all kinds of skills those kinds of organizations provide: public speaking, leadership and agricultural skills. That continues on today, as 4-H kids are leaving their farms, cities and towns,” said McClelland. “The local involvement of touching children’s lives in 4-H and being a leader in his local church…it’s just hard to imagine anything in Kansas rural life that hasn’t been improved because Mr. Clutter was here.”
Remembering Herb and his family is something still felt and accomplished by the community and state that loved them. South of Junction City is Rock Springs 4-H camp. On its premises is a shelter dedicated to the honor of the family, a physical reminder of the leadership and participation the family provided. In addition, the city of Holcomb has a commemorative area and plaque in their park dedicated in the family’s memory. McClelland had the opportunity to represent the co-op during the dedication in 2009.
“I had the honor of speaking to represent the co-op. There were a lot of other people who actually knew Mr. Clutter that spoke, and I was amazed,” said McClelland of the day. “The memories of him are all based on his contributions and the kind of man he was and who his family was. The family was certainly part of Holcomb, and you get that sense when you talk to people who were here and knew him well and knew what kind of man he was and who his family was.”
Besides the stained glass window in Garden City, McClelland said memorials for Herb can be found all over the town.
“It always struck me there are memorials to Herb all over town. And some of them were dedicated to them and others are just there because he built them. Like our feed mill is now closed, but right across from my office is a feed mill that was built in 1958, state of the art, and that was all Herb Clutter’s vision,” said McClelland. “Things all across the state have been dedicated to him. And they were dedicated to him in appreciation of the leadership. You stop and think, that was almost 60 years ago. And there are just not a lot of people that are remembered by their hometown for their contribution, and across a whole industry, 60 years later. That speaks pretty highly to his accomplishments and his dedication.”
McClelland also feels the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center continues Clutter’s agricultural legacy.
“Kansas State University has the most incredible research and development facility. It remembers Herb Clutter because without him, there wouldn’t have been a Kansas and National Wheat Growers Association. That’s not only improved farming practices across the United States, but it’s also been the voice for farmers to make sure their needs were heard,” said McClelland.
At the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, a plaque honoring Clutter is on display in the front lobby. Clutter’s dedication to education, development and improvement continues on by the Kansas Wheat organization. His importance is still felt by those with the association today, said Jordan Hildebrand, program assistant at Kansas Wheat.
“Herb was a huge figure in the wheat industry. For Kansas Wheat in particular, he was a very important person. His influence in the wheat industry has been huge, and he’s been able to leave a legacy that still stands true more than 50 years after his death,” said Hildebrand.
To continue his legacy, the association created a scholarship in Herb Clutter’s name in 2009, with the first recipient being selected in 2010. The scholarship is one time at $500, and they look for a student with a passion for agriculture, invested time in their community, well-rounded with both academics and extracurriculars as well as heading to a two- or four-year Kansas institution with an agricultural focus in mind. According to Hildebrand, the scholarship has been “well-received,” and past recipients include one studying at K-State with another currently studying law at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
Giving back to Kansas in Clutter’s name is something Kansas Wheat feels strongly about.
“We wanted to invest in the future of the Kansas wheat industry. Obviously, we believe Herb Clutter was a great man who invested heavily in an industry he was passionate about as well as the community he called home,” said Hildebrand. “We would like to invest in young folks who stand for the same values and ideals. I think over the last couple of years we’ve been able to reach a lot of well-deserving young Kansans, and that’s something we’re proud of.”
Penick feels Clutter would be honored to have such an educational opportunity in his name.
“I think he would be very pleased there is a scholarship fund that has been maintained that someone can further their education based on what he was able to start. I bet he would be proud of that. But he still wouldn’t want you to make a big fuss over him,” said Penick.
Hildebrand said she does hope Clutter is proud of the scholarship as well as the organization today.
“I hope he would feel proud. To be able to see institutions he was able to help build give back to the Kansas community at large. I would hope he would feel pride in that. And that there are still folks who think of him on a fairly regular basis even 57 years after his passing,” said Hildebrand.
Hildebrand said she also wonders what could have happened if Clutter hadn’t been taken from the world when he was.
“I think it’s important to remember folks who have had a positive impact on just about anything. He was a very influential person for us. Who knows what he may have been able to accomplish if he hadn’t been taken so soon,” said Hildebrand. “Just to be able to shed a little bit of light onto Herb Clutter’s legacy, as well as his family, is something important to us.”
McClelland shared a similar sentiment about what could have been.
“I can’t imagine what he would have come up with. If you just look at the contributions he made, you’ve got to believe if he would have had many more years that there would be a track record of continued innovation and improvement,” said McClelland. “It’s just hard to imagine what we did lose when we lost Mr. Clutter. He had a vision of something fantastic. Given enough time, he would have been successful like he was at everything else.”
When asked about what he thought Clutter would want to be remembered for, Berkely voiced thoughts about the organizations Clutter helped to create.
“He never said it to me, but I think he just wanted a good strong wheat organization, which would better the lives of wheat farmers,” said Berkely. “He was an interesting man. Just a good, kind man who lived a life of trying to help everybody.”
McClelland said he thinks Clutter would be proud of the Garden City Co-op today, as well as what Clutter would want to be remembered for.
“What I know about Mr. Clutter is the business of farming was very important to him, and he obviously made huge contributions in Kansas and in the United States and around the world. I think, though, and speaking with people who knew Mr. Clutter, probably the thing he would be most proud of is that he had a wonderful family, and he was a great father and provider,” said McClelland. “In spite of all the accomplishments he made, organizations he started organizations he directed—it was a resume like you rarely find in agriculture and a lot of it was done on a volunteer basis—I believe probably just the local kids he got to work with on a daily basis, helping 4-H fairs and helping them with their livestock and crop projects, I’ve got to believe that’s where the greatest enjoyment and most of his pride would come through was what his leadership taught them and what they’ve been able to do. I think he would say it’s mostly about kids—that’s our future.”
McClelland also summed up what numerous people feel when it comes to Clutter.
“I wish I would have known him.”
Rachel Keeley Turner can be reached at 620-227-1887 or email@example.com.