Last Of The Original County Legislators
SEPTEMBER 25, 2014 - jacksongov.org
He looks out a window and points a knotted finger at a lush fairway on the par 3 golf course -- the vibrant emerald green grass a stark contrast to the drab gray clouds overhead.
"I can remember when that was just an empty field out there," he says. "Me and two or three guys from the Parks Department — maintenance men, mechanics, a couple of rangers — we'd come out here and bale the hay.
"A lot has changed."
Sitting in the clubhouse at the Fred Arbanas Golf Course, Fred Arbanas reflects on how much Jackson County has evolved over the last 42 years. He is proud of the role he has played in the county's growth since he first took office as a Jackson County Legislator in 1973 — when the Legislature was first formed three years after voters approved a new County Charter.
He is the last of the original County Legislators.
"I didn't think I'd live to be this old, let alone still be in county government," says the former Kansas City Chiefs standout. "But I have enjoyed being a County Legislator so much, meeting people, working with people, working to make things better in our community."
Stepping Down At Year's End
Injuries forced Arbanas to retire as a Chief in 1970. Forty-four years later, the lingering effects of 17 surgeries, including multiple joint replacements (both shoulders, both hips and his right knee), are prompting him to step down as a County Legislator when 2014 draws to a close. He chose earlier this year not to seek re-election for a 12th term.
"If I could do it over again," he says, "I would have studied harder in high school and become an orthopedic surgeon."
While moving about is now a daily struggle for the 75-year-old, Arbanas is grateful to have had "no head issues" like many former football players.
"I've been fortunate."
He adds, "I said during my last election I would know when it's time to move aside. It's time."
Eager To Be Active In His Community
When his football career ended — the same year voters approved the Charter establishing a new form of county government with a County Executive and County Legislature — Arbanas considered Kansas City not just where he played, but where he lived. This was his new hometown.
He had already been active in local politics, campaigning for various city council and mayoral candidates.
"When the voters decided to change the county government, I got to thinking I ought to run for office," he says. "I wanted to see what I could do to help the community."
The timing coincided with the Army Corps of Engineers' unveiling plans to create Longview Lake and Blue Springs Lake as part of a broader initiative to protect the Little Blue Valley in eastern Jackson County from flooding. Arbanas, upon taking office, was appointed to the new Little Blue Valley Sewer District board, which was tasked with developing a sewer system that would stretch from the Missouri River out through eastern Jackson County to Grandview.
"When the Corps put in the lakes, the county had an agreement with them to develop the park land around the lakes," says Arbanas. "At the same time, we had put in the new sewer district. All this flood protection, the lakes, the sewer system, the parks... That all just made parts of Independence and all of Lee's Summit, Raytown, Blue Springs, Grandview explode in population growth and development.
"That was one of the best things that ever happened to Jackson County and this entire part of the state."
Expansive Parks System
Having minored in Recreation at Michigan State University, Arbanas took a keen interest in expanding Jackson County's parks system.
"You want to see the mark Fred Arbanas made on Jackson County just look at our parks," stresses County Executive Mike Sanders. "Fred was out front, leading the way for the marinas, the beaches, the ball fields, the biking and hiking trails."
Arbanas suggested transforming the empty field he used to bale for hay into the golf course that now bears his named.
"I was just lucky to be in county government," he says, "when the county was ripe for all this development."
Nearly all County Legislators and the County Executives supported the wide-ranging expansion of amenities in the parks throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Today, Jackson County has the third largest county parks system in the nation.
Fred Arbanas (above) waves during the grand reopening of the Fred Arbanas Golf Course following the completion of renovations in 2009.
New Jail & Smoother Roads
While the parks were growing, the need for a new facility to house county inmates became apparent.
"The jail was on top of the courthouse in Kansas City, and it was a total mess all the time," Arbanas says. "The Legislature put a bond issue out there for voters to approve and we got that mess clean up with the Detention Center."
Arbanas credits the county's first two Executives, George Lehr and Mike White, for addressing what he considered an unacceptable problem he soon learned about upon becoming a Legislator: "They worked with the Legislature to get our county employees health insurance coverage and a pension plan. We got that done."
White also pledged to hard-top all the dirt and gravel roads in unincorporated Jackson County. "And we got that done, too," states Arbanas.
Getting The Job Done
During Arbanas' long tenure, 65 other men and women have served on the County Legislature. Sanders is the seventh County Executive with whom Arbanas has worked. One near constant has been Arbanas' legislative aide, Karen Conrad, always at his side for County meetings and other government functions. He and Conrad have known one another for more than 40 years, and, except for a brief period during which she worked for Delta Air Lines, she has been his aide throughout his County Legislative career.
Taking office in 1973 — in the midst of the unfolding Watergate scandal that would eventually prompt Richard Nixon to resign the Presidency — Arbanas thought he knew what to expect when he got directly involved in politics.
"I was pretty much the type of person who thought everyone in public office was on the take," he says candidly.
"Those first couple of years I was in public office I watched and I studied people. I came to find almost everyone in public office was there to do what they thought was the best thing for the community."
He believes political leaders in the state capitol and in Washington, D.C. should be following the lead set by many local governments. He says he has witnessed almost no partisan wrangling in the Jackson County Legislative Chamber during his 40-plus years in office.
A Democrat, Arbanas counts among his closest friends several of the Republicans he has served with, including current 6th District Legislator Bob Spence.
"People think Bob's a rough, rough old man," Arbanas says. "He's actually as sweet as can be. Yes, he is a tough old CPA. I've always relied on his accounting skills, his ability to add up the numbers. If he'd make a mistake, which is rare, I'd be sure to let him know about it.
"But he's a good man. I love the guy.
"In county government, it's never been about being a Democrat or Republican. It's been about getting the job done."
Fred Arbanas played in some of football's most historic games. Here he turns up field after catching a pass in Super Bowl I against the Green Bay Packers.
No Where Else He Would Rather Be
1970 started with Fred Arbanas standing 10-feet tall. Or at least he felt that way after the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl IV on January 12 — two days before his 31st birthday. The Chiefs tight end intended to keep on playing and keep on winning.
Then the year took a downward turn. A botched knee surgery made just standing difficult. Arbanas retired, ending a stellar football career that included playing in some of the sport's most historically significant games.
"They went in my knee from the wrong side during that surgery and messed things up," he says. "Today, with lawsuits, I'd be a zillionaire after all that. Back then, I decided I wasn't ready for training camp, so the heck with it. I retired and moved on."
Moving on meant staying put in the Kansas City area.
Arbanas didn't just play football here. He and his wife, Sharon, made their home here.
"Guys who played in my era, they didn't make enough money to have chateaus all over the world like the players today," he notes. "A lot of us who played for the Chiefs back then also had full-time jobs. If you didn't have a full-time job, you had a part-time job. You couldn't afford to live on just your player's salary alone.
"A lot of us who played for the Chiefs stayed here in Kansas City when our playing careers were over. We had jobs, started business. We were established in the community. We were a part of the community."
Arbanas estimates that the great Chief teams of the 1960s, players and coaches, "in our heyday," had a combined payroll of $1 million.
"Coach Stram was a father figure to me. If you gave him 100 percent, there's nothing he wouldn't do for you."
"Back then we had four coaches total. Hank Stram was the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator and the special teams coach. Our front office maybe had three people in it. Our first team doctor was — and I'm not kidding — a proctologist."
During his playing career, Arbanas' multiple "side jobs," included managing a concrete company, working as an area public relations director for Coca-Cola (promoting the product in grocery stores not starring in TV commercials) and starting his own advertising agency.
He was well-equipped to adjust to life after football.
"Coach Stram only kept us a couple hours a day for practice in season. He knew we had jobs to get to. He wanted us to have something to fall back on if we got injured. He didn't just think about taking care of his family. He thought about us and taking care of our families.
"He was a father figure to me. If you gave him 100 percent, there's nothing he wouldn't do for you."
A Michigan Native
Arbanas was born and raised in Detroit, where his father served as a police officer for 34 years. He would go back there for visits in the summer throughout his football career, catching up with old friends at a neighborhood barber shop his cousin owned.
"Everyone hung out there," Arbanas remembers. "People would see me and ask, 'What are you doing now?' They had no idea I was playing pro football. I always thought that was funny. Then I'd come back with the Chiefs and beat the Lions' fanny in a exhibition game in Detroit."
Arbanas calls the Dallas Texans' move to Kansas City in 1963 and the rebirth of the team as the Chiefs one of the best things that ever happened to him.
He and Sharon — they met at Michigan State University — have been married 54 years. They raised four children in Jackson County and now have eight grandchildren.
"I made a lot of friends here, got active in the community, started a business, raised my family," Arbanas says. "Kansas City and Jackson County have been good to me."
Being drafted as both a linebacker and a tight end
Having to decide between the NFL and the upstart AFL
Playing in two Super Bowls
One score he'll never forget and it's from an exhibition game
His reflections on the heated rivalry with the Oakland Raiders
Fred Arbanas & Bob Spence