Arts News: Raymond T. Starzmann (1945-2019): A Local Treasure

Beloved Truman Reenactor Counted Books, Politics, Art and History Among His Passions

Ray Starzmann portrayed President Harry S. Truman as part of the Kansas City Public Library’s “Meet the Past” series in 2009. (Kansas City Public Library)

If Kansas City honored individuals considered local treasures, Raymond Starzmann would top the list. Starzmann, who died in February of complications from surgery, was not a native of KC but lived here since his days at Park College (now Park University). He loved the city and knew more about its history than any scholar — just ask some of the thousands of people he mesmerized over the years with his anecdotes of local politics, art and personalities.

Starzmann was nationally known as a historical reenactor, notably for his performances as President Harry S. Truman. He also impersonated Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and other regional figures. He enacted at many prestigious institutions, including the Truman Library and Institute, the Mount Rushmore Memorial Society, the Smithsonian Associates, the Mayo Clinic, and most recently the State Department in Washington, D.C. He appeared with Crosby Kemper III for the Kansas City Public Library’s popular “Meet the Past” series and was filmed by Kansas City Public Television.

“Ray was a good friend,” Kemper said in a recent interview. “Doing the ‘Meet the Past’ series with him was great; we had a lot of fun. He had such a wonderful personality and was always cheerful. No matter who he talked to, he was always engaged and thoughtful, with something nuanced to say to everyone. The minute Ray came through the door you smiled immediately. I’ll miss him a lot.”

After Starzmann’s death, this impromptu memorial was set up in the staff hallway of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where Starzmann worked in the bookstore for many years. (photo by Kathleen Leighton)

Starzmann attended Girard College, a boarding school in Philadelphia, from grades one to 12. He credited his third-grade teacher for turning him into a history buff, and early on began “corresponding with people who made history.” His voluminous library contains scores of letters signed by such American political figures as Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Adlai Stevenson and many others.

Starzmann moved to the Kansas City area to attend Park College, where he earned a political science degree.

He visited President Truman several times and has a signed photo of the two of them on his website.

Starzmann wore many hats, and not just Truman’s. In 1994, John Hamann, the manager of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art bookstore for 30 years, hired Ray to work in what was then a very small store.

“Ray was so smart,” Hamann recalls, “and he was such an asset. He knew all about art — he had an art gallery in his apartment — and he was friends with a lot of artists in the city. He also loved and knew Kansas City history better than anyone.

“To the dismay of some of the other clerks, I just kept Ray at the cash register. Sales really went up when he was there! Besides touting the Nelson, he would regale customers with information of historic sites in the city he thought they should see; he knew how to entertain kids with his stories, and they adored him. He respected everyone and talked to the service people at the museum the same way he talked to members of the board.”

Starzmann didn’t drive, so Hamann took him to dozens of speaking engagements over the years. “He just loved going to schools, and I was fascinated by how, at the end of his speech, everyone was totally engaged. When he went to nursing homes he invariably became Truman to some of the people there who had actually met the president. They called him ‘Mr. Truman’ and would tell him stories that Ray would later incorporate into his presentations.”

Starzmann had a renowned collection of political memorabilia and for years organized enormously popular election parties. They eventually spilled out of his small apartment into much larger venues, where it seemed like half the city came. Rebecca Ofiesh, one of Starzmann’s oldest friends, remembers dressing in red, white and blue and showing up, only to clean and hang the bunting at his celebrated political fest. “But he was so magnetic and such a light, I loved doing it,” she says.

Starzmann retired from the Nelson-Atkins in April 2018. He was so beloved that, after his death, an impromptu memorial of an empty chair with a picture of him as Truman was set in the staff hallway. It soon became full of remembrances written by dozens of people whose lives he touched over the decades in his adopted hometown.

A video tribute to Starzmann, created by his friend David Bayard of Skyboy photos, can be viewed at www.youtube.com/fU0QggLdhjc

About The Author: Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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