Sidney Willens

Sid Willens, it has been said, has influenced more institutional changes in Kansas City than anyone in our town. Sid is a man without fear. He steps forward and takes up causes time and time again– and to be sure, he has done so with no political aspirations or the desire for power or wealth. As Sid self-describes, “I’m just a concerned citizen.” 

In the 1960’s, Sid’s hell-raising pushed the Kansas City Police Department to create the Office of Citizen Complaints, a model for the nation. In 1970, when Jackson County voters approved a “home rule” charter form of government, an ombudsman-type human relations office provision was included, written and championed by Sid. In 1978, Sid got fed up with blighted properties wreaking havoc in the Marlborough Heights area. He persuaded Municipal Court judges to create a Housing Court, the first of its kind. In the 1980’s, crime victims needed a friend and Sid was just the man for the job. Sid wrote Missouri’s first crime victims compensation law and lobbied it through the legislature. Today, every person convicted of a misdemeanor or felony is required to pay up to $68 to a fund set up to help compensate crime victims for their unpaid medical and counseling bills and lost wages resulting from crime-related injuries.

Sid pursued and won for the Kansas City Police Department a $l.6 million three-year federal grant that established police-social worker teams inside the Kansas City Police Department, the purpose of which was to address and work with at-risk children in an effort to help them avoid a life of crime. He led the effort to win a $259,000 federal grant for a pilot program to create monthly maintenance reserves for home repairs among low income people to keep neighborhoods from deteriorating.

When Sid saw victims of crime mingling with criminal defendants on the 7th floor of the courthouse, he raised hell with the prosecutor to find a separate room for victims. He persuaded a magistrate judge to allow a special secretary to work out of the court’s offices so crime victims would be notified in advance not to show up in court when a criminal defense lawyer intended to continue the case. When Sid and others became stuck in a courthouse elevator without an emergency phone, he raised so much hell that Jackson County installed emergency phones in all elevators.

The causes Sid have championed range from large to small. When he felt that his daughter and son-in- law should not have to pay sales tax of $32.28 on a $500 new car rebate, he took the case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. During oral argument before the justices, Sid caused several of the justices to chuckle when he told them that if he won, his fee would be 1/3 rd of the $32.38 in tax saved for his daughter. Although Sid lost the battle before the Supreme Court, he did win the war. The Missouri legislature changed the law. Today in Missouri you don’t pay sales tax on rebates.

In the 1960’s federal judge John Oliver appointed Sid to represent a 25-year-old airman who had been convicted of murder and already spent seven years in the penitentiary after a military psychiatrist was persuaded to change his original judgment that the airman lacked legal capacity to commit the crime and testify at trial that the airman had, in fact, such legal capacity. Sid’s investigation and legal advocacy prompted the military psychiatrist to later admit that he had misunderstood and improperly applied the legal standards involved. As a result of Sid’s efforts, the airman’s murder conviction and dishonorable discharge were reversed and he was thereafter admitted into a VA hospital for care and treatment and the United States Air Force Manual was changed to better clarify the roles, responsibilities and standards for military psychiatrists who examine and testify about the mental capacity of service members charged with a crime.

Sid is the author of several handbooks. His Ombudsman Handbook, one of the first of its kind in the country, has circulated worldwide as the ombudsman concept has spread. Another, the Observer Handbook, grew out of the 1976 Republican National Convention when Sid and the late Walt Bodine, of equal fame, recruited and organized 450 volunteers to observe and record the behavior and interactions of police and protesters in Kansas City. The presence of these volunteer observers stationed around the city and around the clock contributed to the lack of violence and riots that marred the 1968 Republican Convention in Chicago.

Sid has also authored Watch Over Witnesses, a guide for citizen court-watching programs with the goal of providing more transparency into the justice system. For several years, he taught the Law & Society Class at UMKC using a textbook that he not only authored but typed himself. Sid and Walt Bodine also teamed up for 12 years on a monthly public radio show called the Hell-Raisers where he dispensed his practical wisdom to callers aggrieved by governmental and business agencies.

For 20 years Sid reviewed books on the law and court system for the Kansas City Star. Many of those reviews became springboards for his civic causes and crusades. Sid has been very active with Boy Scouts of America since his youth. He obtained the rank of Eagle Scout and, at age 17, became one of the youngest Warriors in the Tribe of Mic-O- Say to achieve the rank of Sachem. Continuing his support and love of the organization into adulthood, Sid wrote the Handbook of Negotiations for use by professional Scouters and was invited by the National Council to lecture on the topic around the country. He led the fund-raising effort in 1989 that established the H. Roe Bartle Memorabilia Exhibit located in Bartle Hall.

Sid has received so many awards that they are too numerous to mention. His professional colleagues have honored him with the Missouri Bar President’s Award, UMKC’s law school alumni award, and UMKC’s Practitioner of the Year award. A Kansas City native, Sid says his proudest achievements are his 52-year marriage to his late wife, Lorraine, and the three children they reared. Today, Sid is the proud grandfather of seven and the great-grandfather of one. When you have that kind of luck and support, Sid says, hell-raising is heavenly.