Seated at a table, Jim Chappell opens a book of poetry and begins to read in a deep baritone. His finger scans the lines like a narrow spotlight illuminating the page. His voice warms to the words and revels in the rhythm and alliteration. The periphery of the room melts away, the banter of voices and drone of a television fade, and Chappell’s table transforms into a stage.
Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping,
suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping at my chamber door.
”Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”
Chappell’s impromptu recitation breathes vigor into Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, The Raven, which was published over 150 years ago. “Isn’t that a great line?” he asks, referring to the opening. He marvels at Poe’s choice of words with the delight of a scholar, then leans back in his chair.
The presence of the room seeps into the moment, filled with football helmets, pennants, trophies, and sports memorabilia collected over many years. At Chappell’s Restaurant in North Kansas City, guests dine on classic American fare, discuss politics and sports, or mind the television as it broadcasts a football game. Named after the owner, Chappell’s celebrated its twentieth anniversary on November 24, 2006. Both owner and restaurant have received ample recognition for the voluminous collection of sports memorabilia that covers the walls and ceiling. The Kansas City Star, USA Today, Sport Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and many other publications have written articles or bestowed awards on Chappell’s as one of the best sports bars in America. Or sports museum, as Chappell prefers to call his establishment. In fact, guests won’t encounter glaring wide screen televisions, a limited menu of cheap fried bar food, and numerous guys in T-shirts found in most sports bars. Chappell’s is an uncommon place that is easily miscast, much like the owner. While he has been heralded for this popular repository of sports artifacts and his vast knowledge of its contents, few people know about the other side of Jim Chappell.
A Remarkable Mind
Born in Keokuk, Iowa, Chappell lived there during his young life until he left to attend college at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri and earned a degree in art. The young man grew up in a house filled with 5,000 books, supplying Chappell’s inquisitive mind with ample material to read every night as he still does today. His father, Charles, often strolled around the house and read poetry and literature aloud. “My dad would recite The Raven. I recited Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigrade for my grandmother,” he says.
Even today, Chappell demonstrates the ability to recall a wide range of poetry, facts, and stories drawn from his extensive reading and travels. His library at home contains 2,500 books. He recently read Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. Chappell re-reads classic works of literature on a regular basis, but also consumes biographies and art books on figures in literature, art, politics, and history. He displays a fascination with people and places such as Dorothy Parker, the famed Algonquin Round Table, Gertrude Stein, and the ex-patriots that lived in Europe.
“How would you like to be in Gertrude Stein’s living room with all these people from the Twenties? The Lost Generation of Fitzgerald, Pound, Woolf, Eliot, Hemingway…Stein named them ‘The Lost Generation’ after World War I and the Depression. These people were kind of lost and saw the horrors of war,” says Chappell.
As he speaks, Chappell looks like a tall, rugged scholar with close-cropped gray hair in casual attire. He pauses frequently to greet or bid goodbye to guests and local characters passing by the bar. A gold ring adorns his left hand as a symbol of his forty-year marriage to his wife Gina. They have two married daughters, Christina and Michelle.
A commemorative ring from Super Bowl IV in 1970, when the Kansas City Chiefs prevailed over the Minnesota Vikings, sparkles on Chappell’s right hand. It is the only obvious reference to sports that he wears regularly. The restaurant itself serves as a visual embodiment of sports in all shapes and forms. Chappell is a life-long collector and curator of knowledge, objects, and anecdotes. The museum, which he decorated himself, is a testament to sports acquisitions, purchases, and donations assembled over two decades. Naturally, he selects his customers as his favorite “thing” about the place.
As an icebreaker, Chappell will sometimes ask a visitor where he or she went to school. If the college or university has a sports team, then Chappell can usually point at a piece of related memorabilia in the restaurant. Thousands of collegiate and professional football helmets hang from the ceiling. A quick glance at the rafters uncovers old boxing gloves, wooden golf clubs above the bar, a photo of Chappell with Joe Montana, historic images of Babe Ruth, and baseball jerseys for the New York Yankees, former St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators, and Philadelphia Athletics, a team that moved to Kansas City in 1955 and headed to Oakland thirteen years later. The late, great Buck O’Neil signed a panoramic photograph of the Kansas City Monarchs Negro League Baseball team displayed in the back dining room. The list of notable sports achievers, well-known and obscure, goes on––photos of Hank Aaron, Royal third baseman George Brett, and KC Monarch Alfred “Slick” Surratt. Another signed photo depicts All-Star Alice ”Lefty” Hohlmeyer, who pitched and played first base for the Kenosha Comets from 1946-51, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, and was one of the many women who inspired the Hollywood film, A League of Their Own.
Even for non-sports enthusiasts, the establishment is an authentic slice of Americana that could never be reproduced like the faux historic hodge-podge décor of chain restaurants found across the metropolitan area. Chappell’s represents a history that lives beyond sheer statistics, controversies like drug use in sports, and the merchandising machine of the NFL, NBA, and MLB. If you don’t know or don’t care what those acronyms mean, it’s okay.
Chappell’s offers more than a stroll down sports memory lane. He launched the place as a political/sports bar in 1986, but eventually emphasized the sports aspect with a casual dining concept that has proven a winner ever since. The restaurant has grown from 65 to 235 seats and features a private banquet room.
The restaurant serves hearty, quality food from prime rib to all-American hamburgers. Chappell maintains that he couldn’t stay in business as a restaurant, especially for twenty years, if the food weren’t good. “I lot of people come for the memorabilia, but come back for the food. It’s more of a restaurant than a sports bar,” he says.
Families dine here in droves, partaking of a menu diverse enough to handle hearty appetites, health-conscious diets, and the finicky taste of kids. The menu does not strive for fussy innovation or cutting edge culinary surprises. Guests can order down-home and familiar favorites like chicken Caesar salad, steak soup, charbroiled chicken or salmon, steamed vegetables, a 12-ounce Kansas City strip, London broil, burgers, tenderloins, chicken fingers, and Philly steak sandwiches, for example. Signature desserts include a Snickers bar ice cream pie, apple caramel walnut cobbler, and a classic old-fashioned root beer float.
Although his reputation for sports knowledge and memorabilia precedes him, the restaurant owner’s interest in arts and culture receives far less attention. Chappell exhibits a sense of satisfaction in mentally gathering and sharing a wealth of information about poetry, books, painters, and distant locales to people of like mind.
“People look at me and would never guess I was into poetry. I’m an artist and I can tell you how many times Stan Musial won the batting title,” states Chappell. He waits a beat. “Five.” Moments later, he lists Emily Dickinson as his favorite poet, then recites the first stanza of a beloved poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” from memory.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
Chappell’s love for literature and poetry came from his family, but he nurtured a natural interest in art. ”Art came easy for me,” he says.
Chappell graduated from college with a degree in art. He continues to read and traveled extensively to sate his appetite for learning. The classic Greek and Roman art and modern conceptual works don’t impress him much, but he admires nearly all other major art periods. He has visited fifty states and forty-five countries, exploring museums and galleries such as the Louvre in Paris and Modern Museum of Modern Art in New York. Chappell does not simply spout information about an artist or period or poet. He offers a considered opinion and interpretation with the unassuming air of a friendly historian. ”I like the Renaissance, Pop Art by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, Baroque, and the Impressionists. Everyone likes Impressionism now, but back then, no one liked it. The artist started their own salons to exhibit work,” says Chappell.
When asked what living artist or poet he would like to meet, Chappell pauses, flips pages in a book of poetry, and thinks. He muses out loud, truly contemplating the weight of his choice, and finally rationalizes an answer with keen insight. “I might be surprised by somebody, but would probably be disappointed. There are not going to be as good as their work,” says Chappell. “Dickinson was a recluse. I would like to meet her though. If I was guaranteed that they’d be like I thought they’d be, then I’d want to meet them.”
Of course, there are no such guarantees in life or death. Chappell wrestles less with the next question that he proposes. If he could pick somebody to come back from the dead to meet again, who would it be? He answers with certainty and forethought, “My dad. He saw me as a brat. He died at 54 from a heart attack. I wished he could have seen what I have become. He would have been proud of me and this place,” says Chappell.
The admission is touching when it comes from this savvy businessman, family man, sports historian, and modest intellectual. Jim Chappell sees himself through a different prism than his loyal customers and a staff that wears commemorative shirts for the anniversary. He talks about his biggest regrets even when seemingly surrounded by the trappings of success.
“I didn’t take more chances. When I took a big chance like opening this place, I succeeded,” says Chappell, gauging one measure of his life. “I’ve always taken the safe route. It’s a fear of failure. I still have it when I think about doing something else. It’s kind of odd because everyone sees me as successful. The truth is, no one sees himself as successful. I’ve done a lot, I guess.”
This last remark is an understatement, depending on how one looks at life. He jokes about his marriage of forty years being an accomplishment for his wife. Chappell is proud of his two daughters. He has served as chairman or member of numerous boards and commissions in politics, arts, and banking. He can rattle off a list of celebrities that he has met in this line of work––sports greats like George Brett, Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Brooks Robinson; the artist Leroy Nieman; country music star Vince Gill; and countless state and local politicians that come through and shake hands with customers.
Chappell’s is the kind of place where athletes and aesthetes and politicians can cross paths with everyday folk. The restaurant owner still enjoys giving young kids a piece of memorabilia, like a signed foam baseball, to take home, only to see them come back as a grown adult, introduce themselves, and say, “I remember when…”
Statistics and signed baseballs tell only part of the story in sports. Similarly, the living legacy of Jim Chappell is not easy to distill based on the colorful confines of his famous restaurant, the rankings as one of the top sports bars in the country, or the collective memories of his friends and patrons.
Chappell cites a poem by John Donne, Death Be Not Proud, as another one of his favorites that discusses how not to be afraid of death. The selection seems to reflect an important characteristic about this man. Despite his self-portrayal as someone that didn’t take more chances, a more fitting emphasis is his willingness to seek opportunities – in art, literature, travel, sport, politics, business, and family – as a champion of life.
Originally published in Present Magazine.