Cookingham, Laurie Perry (1896–1992)


By: Ray F. Lucas

Type: Biography

Published: October 14, 2021

Updated: October 15, 2021


Laurie Perry “L. P.” Cookingham, professional city manager, son of Joseph Fitch Cookingham and Ella Emilia (Gordonier) Cookingham, was born on October 6, 1896, in Chicago, Illinois. His family moved to Danville, Illinois, when he was eight years old. Cookingham, the younger of two sons, learned about professional city management while attending Danville High School and decided that he wanted to be a city manager. He worked for a railroad in Danville after his graduation in 1917. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology, followed by a master of science from the same college in 1938. In 1918, during World War I, he enlisted in the U. S. Army and served in the Signal Corps. After his discharge in 1919, he returned to work for the railroad in Danville, then worked as a bookkeeper in Flint, Michigan, and then worked as an office engineer in Flint’s engineering department. In 1927 the village of Clawson, Michigan, hired Cookingham as its first city manager. He was also appointed as the chief of police and health officer. At the 1930 meeting of the Michigan City Managers Association, Cookingham was elected president of the association. By 1931 he had become the city manager of Plymouth, Michigan. In 1933 and 1934 Cookingham served as the deputy administrator of the Wayne County Emergency Relief Administration. He was also the director of the work division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Wayne County. In January 1936 Cookingham became the first city manager of Saginaw, Michigan. Active in professional organizations, he was named first vice-president of the International City Managers Association in 1937 and was elected its president in 1939.

In 1940 the newly-elected Citizen’s Association-led city council of Kansas City, Missouri, hired him as city manager. He was recruited to help reform the city’s administration after fourteen years of Jackson County Democratic party chair T. J. Pendergast’s machine rule. Cookingham quickly instituted a merit system for most municipal employees, which protected employees from being removed for personal or political reasons; purged 2,000 political patronage jobs within his first six months; eliminated the city’s budget deficit, which totaled more than twenty million dollars; and raised the city’s credit rating to AA within eight years. He encouraged the city to annex additional territory, including land for an airport, which became Kansas City International Airport, and helped lay out the city’s original highway system. In 1950 the National Civic League honored Kansas City with an All-American City Award. By the time of his retirement in 1959, Kansas City had expanded from sixty to 130 square miles and imposed some of the lowest municipal taxes in the country, having no municipal income tax while maintaining the third lowest property taxes for any city of similar size. In his nineteen years as city manager, Cookingham could also boast of removing slums, improving traffic infrastructure, and leading downtown redevelopment efforts He also helped set up urban renewal programs in Baltimore in 1956 and in Rochester in 1957.

Despite his clear record of success, Cookingham upset some in the city. In the Kansas City municipal elections of 1959, a new city government controlled by the Democratic party came to power and pushed Cookingham, whose position was not protected by the merit system, to resign. Cookingham tendered his resignation on April 16, 1959, to become effective June 30, 1959. He spent the intervening period on terminal leave and the city appointed an interim manager. At the time of his resignation, he had been the longest serving city manager in any major city in the United States.

Cookingham’s vast experience in municipal management encouraged the city of Fort Worth to recruit him, and he served as city manager from 1959 to 1963. Cookingham helped streamline Fort Worth city government and laid the groundwork for major freeway developments, including the completion of Interstate Highway 820. He also ended racially discriminatory hiring practices for city jobs. Cookingham instituted several reforms in city government such as publishing a monthly newsletter and a monthly financial summary, including easy-to-understand statistical breakdowns in annual budget reports, and launching a speaking program directed to local civic groups. He also initiated a program to offer free safety inspections of homes in the city. Retiring in 1963, he left a long shadow with two of his protégées, Jerry L. Brownlee and Howard D. McMahan, serving successively as Fort Worth city managers from 1963 to 1967 and from 1967 to 1971, respectively. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram rated the “Kansas era” as beneficial for Fort Worth.

After he resigned his position in Fort Worth, Cookingham returned to Kansas City and served as the executive director of People to People International, which had moved its headquarters to Kansas City in 1961, from 1963 to 1967. Later, Cookingham served as a member, then president, of the Board of Kansas City Parks and Recreation Commission and spent three years as a consultant for the city’s Downton Redevelopment Corporation. He was also an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Cookingham was a founding member of the Saddle & Sirloin Club of Kansas City; sat on the board of directors of the American Municipal Association, the National Municipal League, and the Tax Institute of Princeton; and served as president of the American Society of Planning Officials and the Starlight Theater Association in Kansas City.

Over his long public career, Cookingham garnered many honors. In 1951 he was the first person to receive the LaGuardia Memorial Award for achievement in municipal administration. A section of Missouri Route 291 leading to Kansas City International Airport was named Cookingham Drive. He earned the moniker “Dean of City Managers” for his influence on and mentoring of others in the profession. The L.P. Cookingham Institute of Urban Affairs at the University of Missouri-Kansas City was named in his honor.

Cookingham and his wife, Harriette L. (West) Cookingham, married on January 2, 1921, in Flint. He credited his wife with much of his success. The couple had no children. Harriette died in 1987. L. P. Cookingham died on July 22, 1992, in Kansas City. He was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.

Lawrence O. Christensen, Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999). L. Perry Cookingham Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Missouri-Kansas City (https://library.umkc.edu/archival-collections/cookingham), accessed October 8, 2021. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 4, 1971; July 25, 1992. Bill Gilbert, This City, This Man: The Cookingham Era in Kansas City (Washington, D.C.: International City Management Association, 1978). Kansas City Star, April 16, 1959; July 23, 1992. Kansas City Times, March 26, 1959; April 18, 1959; March 30, 1985. “L.P. Cookingham,” The Pendergast Years: Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression, Kansas City Public Library, (https://pendergastkc.org/article/biography/l-p-cookingham), accessed on December 1, 2020. “L. Perry Cookingham Diary,” Missouri Over There, Cookingham, L. Perry Collection (https://missourioverthere.org/explore/collections/cookingham-l-perry-collection/l-perry-cookingham-diary-november-22-1918/), accessed October 8, 2021.

Categories:
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
  • Urbanization
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ray F. Lucas, “Cookingham, Laurie Perry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/cookingham-laurie-perry.

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October 14, 2021
October 15, 2021

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