Skip to content
The Father Thom panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt
Panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, on loan from the NAMES Project, hang in the lobby of the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center.

A visionary’s influence is still felt today

Among the 24 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt currently on display at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center, there is one that pays tribute to a man who was devout in faith, committed to community, and deeply connected to Kansas City.

Among the 24 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt currently on display at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center, there is one that pays tribute to a man who was devout in faith and committed to community. The panels of the quilt, which are on loan from the NAMES Project, are displayed in blocks on a rotating basis at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. They serve as powerful reminders of lives lost to the AIDS pandemic, including those with ties to the Kansas City region.

AIDS Memorial Quilt Father Thom Savage | Kauffman Foundation

Rev. Thomas J. Savage, S.J. of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, died 19 years ago this month. The handmade memorial quilt hanging in this public gathering place recalls his profound impact on Kansas City and important influence on the Kauffman Foundation.

Father Thom was the youngest president among more than two dozen Jesuit colleges in the United States when, at 41, he was named president of Rockhurst College, now Rockhurst University. Trained as an urban planner, Father Thom reshaped the school’s campus and curriculum. A fun-loving extrovert, he cut a brilliant path, boosting the college’s visibility and raising funds for renovations. He was a whirlwind who talked fast and walked fast when he wasn’t zipping his bicycle around the neighborhood surrounding the Rockhurst campus just east of Troost Ave. and 53rd Street.

AIDS Memorial Quilt Father Thom Savage | Kauffman Foundation

Father Thom joined the board of the Kauffman Foundation in 1993. As a trustee, he shared his exuberance for education and dedication to improving urban life. When the Foundation settled on a 37-tract of land to build its permanent home just blocks from the Rockhurst campus, Father Thom played a key role to ease the Foundation’s way into the neighborhood.

In an essay in the Kauffman Foundation’s 1996 Annual Report, he explained the principles and practices of the Foundation’s style of engaged grantmaking. “Purpose and passion become the friends of philanthropy as partners work together to achieve shared goals and daring, worthwhile results,” he wrote. “Building a capacity for hope, even in the face of big odds and disappointments, and focusing on assets and opportunities rather than on constraints and limitations, help us change a situation and not let ‘what is’ determine ‘what can be.'”

In his eight years in Kansas City, the Boston native became known among civic leaders as an enthusiastic visionary who believed Kansas City was full of good people and good neighborhoods. His energy, vision and spiritual leadership were blessings to Kansas City.

In addition to serving on the Foundation’s board, Father Thom was co-chairman of FOCUS Kansas City, which produced an exhaustive plan for the city in 1994. On Sunday mornings, he hosted the radio program “Religion on the Line” with his friends Rabbi Michael Zedek and Rev. Robert Lee Hill. In 1992, he was awarded a citation by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for his community efforts to eliminate racial and religious prejudice and discrimination.

As a boy, Thom Savage drew elaborate plans for futuristic homes. He built an imaginary world on a piece of plywood, using cardboard to fashion his city’s buildings. As an adult, his childhood projects turned to visions of people reconciling differences to work together to realize dreams. “I want to construct spaces where people can live in dignity and the human spirit can soar,” Father Thom said.

It’s a legacy worth remembering and a vision worth pursuing.