Questions linger about Mo. hotel magnate's welfare

AP News
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Posted: Mar 26, 2011 4:41 PM
Questions linger about Mo. hotel magnate's welfare

The view from the 22nd-floor dining club of Hammons Tower provides ample evidence of the cast-in-concrete legacy of the 92-year-old hotel magnate whose family name graces seemingly every sizable building in town.

There's JQH Arena, a new campus basketball palace at Missouri State University. Hammons Field is home to the local minor-league baseball team. The federal courthouse his company built sits across the street from the tower, the city's tallest building. Both are located on John Q. Hammons Parkway in the southwest Missouri city comedian Bob Hope once joked should change its name to "Hammonsville."

But the businessman and philanthropist himself, whom locals simply call John Q., hasn't been seen for more than six months, shuttered away in a Springfield nursing home amid reports of deteriorating health.

His closest friends say they are barred from visiting him _ or even talking to Hammons on the phone _ under orders from a former administrative assistant who in October 2010 took over control of his privately held company, John Q. Hammons Hotel and Resorts, and purged most of its top officials. This month, the friends filed a lawsuit asking Greene County probate court to appoint a public guardian for Hammons, who several years ago estimated his personal wealth at nearly $1 billion.

"We just want to be able to see him to make sure he's all right," said longtime friend Bill Rowe, a former Missouri State athletic director who is not among the eight court petitioners but is listed as a possible witness. "We were just suddenly cut off."

A procedural hearing was held Friday, but a trial date has not yet been set.

The long silence and now the lawsuit have created a sense of mystery around a man who has been one of Springfield's most visible.

Jacqueline Dowdy, whom Hammons gave power of attorney nearly three years ago, has said she is simply following doctors' orders in enforcing his isolation. Juanita Hammons, the hotel developer's wife of more than 60 years, suffers from Alzheimer's disease and lives in a long-term care facility. The couple had no children, and John Hammons' will is in a closely held private trust.

The eight friends and their supporters say their only interest is Hammons' well-being, not his sizable wealth.

"Look at the petitioners," said Scott Tarwater, a former company executive who was fired by Dowdy after what he called more than two decades "riding shotgun" alongside Hammons. "Not a one of them needs a nickel of Mr. Hammons' money."

The petitioners include the local Chamber of Commerce president, a former state senator and two broadcast company executives.

Dowdy, 67, has worked for Hammons for nearly 30 years. She rose through the company ranks to become a trusted adviser and was a member of the company's board of directors when it was a publicly traded corporation from 1994 through 2005.

Dowdy has not publicly spoken about the lawsuit and through a spokesman refused an interview request. Hammons Hotels general counsel Justin Harris said company officials are staying silent out of respect for Hammons' wishes.

"That's not really company business," he said. "It's a private matter."

The lawsuit threatened to make public the most intimate details of Hammons' health and wealth. But on March 18, little more than one week after the complaint was filed, a Greene County probate administrator agreed to seal the court file and all subsequent hearings. The request came from both Dowdy and the Hammons' friends.

Hammons was born in 1919 in rural Fairview, Mo., to a dairy farmer who lost the 200-acre family farm. As a teen, he trapped rabbits and sold their pelts for a nickel apiece to help make ends meet.

"I swore I would never be poor," Hammons told a biographer in 2002.

A graduate of Southwest Missouri State Teachers College, which is now Missouri State, Hammons spent two years teaching junior high science and history and coaching basketball before going to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway. A lifelong love affair with the construction business followed. He returned to southwest Missouri and began building subdivisions in the late 1940s and early '50s. Along with a plumber partner, he purchased 10 Holiday Inn franchises in 1958 from company founder Kemmons Wilson.

With no children at home and a tireless work ethic, Hammons built his company and several spin-off ventures into one of the industry's most successful, with properties in more than 40 states. He eschewed big-city locations in favor of properties in college towns and state capitals.

The company owns hotels next to the University of Arizona and the University of Phoenix Stadium, a Colorado Springs Renaissance adjacent to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Embassy Suites properties in college towns in Nebraska, New Mexico and Florida.

"He would say, 'The kids will always go to school, and you can't fire the damn politicians,'" Tarwater said.

Hammons continued to broker deals, drive bargains with local politicians and preside over ribbon cuttings well into his 80s, sometimes wielding two telephones in his office _ one for each ear _ and taking few holidays or vacations.

Friends say they last talked to Hammons in early September 2010, the day before a follow-up exam at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where he underwent the 2008 heart surgery that led to Dowdy's appointment as his legal caretaker. After they were refused access to him, the friends complained to the state.

An investigation by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, the state's advocate for seniors, stalled after two of Hammons' doctors assured him that their patient was being properly cared for. But Kinder said he too was stymied in his attempts to speak with or visit Hammons.

"I kind of got the sense I was being stonewalled," Kinder said. "I was suspicious and concerned enough to talk to the prosecutors' office. . . .There is reason to be suspicious about what is going on."

Tarwater, who describes himself as Hammons' "closest confidant" and speaks reverently about his former boss, said there's still time to restore decorum to Hammons' life.

"This is no way to treat a gentleman who has given so much," he said. "I have to trust the system. As long as Mr. Hammons is afforded the dignity he deserves in the sunset of his career."