'Billionaire you can trust': John and Marny Sherman build legacy through education, philanthropy

Posted: 1:42 AM, Mar 30, 2024
Updated: 2024-03-30 11:07:26-04
John and Marny Sherman Kansas City Royals

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before John Sherman was approved as the Kansas City Royals’ new owner in November 2019, I’d heard little about the natural-gas magnate and his wife, Marny.

I knew a wealthy Kansas City-area businessman had acquired a stake in Cleveland’s MLB franchise and that he was handpicked by former owner David Glass to assume stewardship of the Royals, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

But during the last few years, after Sherman announced plans to abandon Kauffman Stadium and build a new downtown baseball stadium, I’ve had numerous conversations with civic leaders — city, county and state officials along with other stakeholders — and learned a lot more about the Royals’ chairman and CEO as well as his wife, Marny.

A theme began to emerge from those conversations: If ever there was a billionaire Kansas Citians could trust to keep his promises about making a major project benefit the community, it was John Sherman.

Naturally, I wanted to know why. What was it about the Shermans — who met while working at Southwestern Bell, went to a Royals game for their first date. built a business that would become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise from scratch, and founded the Sherman Family Foundation in 2006 long before becoming MLB owners — that prompted such faith?

Here’s what I learned:

Focus on education

Collectively, John and Marny Sherman have eight siblings, several of whom spent their careers in the education field.

Education, Marny said, is “the greatest equalizer of people, so what we're hoping to do with our foundation is help equalize all kinds of people. We can't be everything for everybody, but we've tried to do what we can in that sphere, and particularly as it impacts the Kansas City community.”

It’s not a panacea, but education, the Shermans believe, is the foundation on which lives of substance are built.

“Education levels the playing field,” John said. “... It doesn't solve everything, but if you think about it, where you end up — this is what I think drives us, and I think about it a lot — where you end up should not be dictated by where you start.”

That’s the root of their philanthropic focus on filling educational gaps in underserved communities across the Kansas City area.

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve their potential and, when more people have the opportunity to achieve their potential, we all benefit,” John said. “Some of this is about changing predictable outcomes.”

The Shermans also take a data-driven approach and seek out programs — from preschool through college — with a track record of success or innovation to improve literacy, improve instruction and enhance the classroom experience.

“Not everybody gets to see the level of commitment that they have to the youth, to education, to making sure that everybody has a fair shot and everybody has barriers removed from their educational path,” Claudia Meyer, the president and CEO of Cristo Rey Kansas City, said. “I commend them, and I admire them, and I appreciate them. I'm inspired by them.”

Importance of early-childhood education

Operation Breakthrough Sherman Philanthropy
The path toward a bright future begins early, but that path can be harder to find for some children. That's one reason John and Marny Sherman, who own the Kansas City Royals, have donated time, money and resources to benefit Operation Breakthrough and its mission to help educate children in poverty and their families.

The path toward a bright future begins early, but that path can be harder to find for some children.

That’s where the kindergarten-readiness emphasis at places like Operation Breakthrough, which provides education and wraparound services — including medical, mental health and dental care — for children growing up in poverty and their families, becomes critical.

“If you cannot read by the third grade, there are overwhelming probabilities, 80%, that you will live in poverty — not just through school, not just through your next job, your first job, your second job, but for the rest of your life,” Karen Daniel said.

Daniel is a member of the Royals’ ownership group. She’s also a Southeast High School graduate, former CFO at Black and Veatch, and board president for the Royals Foundation.

Nationally, more than half of children who grow up in poverty enter school lagging behind from an educational standpoint.

Even accounting for learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years, nearly 90% of children at Operation Breakthrough crush their kindergarten-readiness benchmarks.

“That is really moving the needle,” John said. “My simplistic mind is: Let's take Operation Breakthrough and let's duplicate it and let's put it all over the country. There are others — Early Start (KC), Emmanuel (Family & Child Development) — but I would say that Operation Breakthrough, and under (CEO) Mary (Esselman’s) leadership, has really become a standard for that early childhood (education) and really getting kids from families of high economic needs to getting them to where they needed to be to have a chance at success.”

Decades ago, Marny and one of Operation Breakthrough’s co-founders, the late Sister Berta Sailer, bonded over a shared passion to help children growing up in poverty.

Soon after, the Shermans began to support Operation Breakthrough financially, but the relationship didn’t begin and end with a check. They’ve chaired the nonprofit’s annual events and directed proceeds from the Royals Foundation golf tournament to Operation Breakthrough.

“Most recently, (they) also were the chairs of our capital campaign for the big expansion with the bridge that almost tripled the number of school-aged children we were able to serve,” Esselman said.

It’s more than a tax break or an ego trip for the Shermans.

“What's uncommon about John and Marny is the fact that they're just not giving financial support, but they believe in the mission and they can articulate it,” Esselman said.

It’s not uncommon for Operation Breakthrough’s children to come from single-parent families or poverty, to have witnessed violence or had a parent incarcerated — sometimes a mix of multiple traumas.

“Research shows that if there isn't something that mitigates that, typically that becomes generational, and I think the work that they (the Shermans) help us do makes sure that we have a way to break that cycle,” Esselman said.

Indeed, those are the “predictable outcomes” John and Marny hope to change, at least for a handful of children and families.

Commitment to Cristo Rey, workforce preparation

Cristo Rey Kansas City
Cristo Rey Kansas City occupies a unique place in Kansas City.

Cristo Rey Kansas City occupies a unique place in Kansas City.

It opened 18 years ago in the heart of the Broadway Gilham neighborhood to provide an option for a “Catholic college-and-career-prep education for underserved students in our community,” Cristo Rey President and CEO Claudia Meyer said.

Another unique aspect is that Cristo Rey’s high-school students work outside of school at least one day a week to pay for their tuition, providing real-life skills and opportunities — exactly the kind of innovative approach the Shermans appreciate.

“There are moments that change the way a young person looks at the world,” John said.

To that end, Marny, who was a founding member of Cristo Rey’s board, had the idea to partner the Sherman family’s various businesses, including the Royals, with the school’s work-study program.

“We may have a student who sometimes never gets the opportunity of leaving their own neighborhood,” Meyer said. “When they get to a job like the Royals, they get to walk into a beautiful stadium and learn things that they would not otherwise learn if they were pursuing a job on their own.”

The school is 100% privately funded — raising money through donations, including from the Sherman Family Foundation, and events in addition to the work-study program.

“They see the benefits, they attend our events, they attend our school meet-and-greets, they are always making sure that they are looking out for the best interests of Cristo Rey,” Meyer said. “The impact that they've had, not only in our school, but in the lives of the kids that have gone through Cristo Rey is significant.”

Royals outfielder Dairon Blanco giddily greeted students at Cristo Rey to kick off last school year and John has been the keynote speaker at school events.

“At the end of our CEO breakfast last year, he stayed, he took pictures with every kid, he took pictures with everyone that was there — he made the time,” Meyer said. “He makes the time for the things that really matter and Marny is, I have referred to her as my angel sometimes.”

But you likely won’t hear about their good deeds from the Shermans without prodding. In fact, they’ve been known to ask donors not to name things after them or shower them with honors.

“They're not the type of people who shout from the rooftops what they're doing,” Meyer said. “They're very quiet — quietly, highly engaged — and I've never one moment felt that they wanted recognition for any of that. I think that they deserved all the recognition in the world. I think that the impact that they're making in our city and our school and our kids’ lives, once again, is so significant that I would like to stand on the rooftops and say something about them.”

More than merely benefactors, Meyer said the Shermans have mentored her, encouraged her and served as a sounding board for her.

“I stand behind John and Marny Sherman 100%, because they have stood by me and I see the impact that they make every single day in a very quiet way to make this world a better place,” Meyer said.

UMKC’s innovative approach to teacher creation, retention

George Carver teacher Tanya Martinez
George Carver Dual Language School first-grade teacher Tanya Martinez teaches class in March 2024.

The idea is elegantly simple: Identify Kansas City-area students from underserved schools — often first-generation college-bound boys and girls — who want to become teachers, provide them a scholarship and training in urban school environments where the need for teachers is greatest, then support them after graduation.

In exchange, UMKC’s Institute for Urban Education requires those students to teach in some of the city’s most-needy public school districts — Kansas City Public Schools, Hickman Mills and the KCK School District — for at least four years through its “Grow Your Own” initiative.

“The retention rate of those teachers five years after they're in is way above the norm,” John said. “I think that's one of the best investments that we make at the foundation, because those are teachers that are impacting students' lives.”

The program has a 100% job-placement rate and 90% teacher-retention rate after five years, including 100% for graduates of color, according to UMKC.

“It took a while for the Institute for Urban Education, took them years to scale that thing, and now they're scaling it,” John said. “Again, that is paying off and we need to do that more and more. Just like Operation Breakthrough — when something works, let's run up the score and keep it going.”

UMKC’s Institute for Urban Education also has a “Grow Your Own” program, which begins as a dual-credit program at area high schools and prepares them to return to those districts after graduation. Work remains, but the IUE is making a dent by churning out resilient and dedicated teachers.

“The program has been a runaway success,” UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal said.” We beat, big time, the retention rates for these teachers once they enter the workforce. Usually, lots of new teachers leave by year five these days, and these students — actually, I shouldn’t call them students, graduates — stay on in the jobs even at the 10-year mark. So, this is a program that's very successful, and the Shermans have been a big part of making it happen.”

Humble and giving

John and Marny Sherman
Marny (left) and John Sherman made a fortune in the natural-gas industry and bought the Kansas City Royals in 2019.

Without fanfare or attention, and for decades now, John and Marny Sherman have demonstrated devotion to supporting education in Kansas City.

“They're very sharp, very intelligent people,” Agrawal said. “They know where the pressure points are in this community. That's what they're doing, supporting those, so that we can move all of Kansas City forward. So, I do believe that they truly, truly care for this community.”

The effort started long before they owned the Royals — back when they were merely millionaires several times over and not yet billionaires — and long before the baseball team announced plans to build a new stadium, which faces a contentious vote Tuesday in Jackson County.

“They lead with humility,” Agrawal said. “When you meet them, you will never know that you're talking to billionaires.”

Maybe it’s because the Shermans became uber-wealthy later in life, but those who know them insist that John and Marny remain grounded and humble.

“They were over for dinner one night at our house — this is my wife and I and Marny and John — and at the end of the meal, they were carrying dishes into the kitchen, just like any other friends would,” Agrawal said.

It’s a small thing, basic courtesy for most folks from Kansas City, but that’s the point.

“We’re just normal people,” Marny said. “I grew up at 33rd and Southwest Trafficway. John had a similar upbringing. We just feel like we’re normal people; we got lucky in life, and we’re just trying to help other people be lucky, too.”

The Sherman Family Foundation annually gives millions in grants — including more than $5.5 million in 2022, the last tax year for which records are available via ProPublica’s database — and 100% of those grants stay in the Kansas City area.

Marny’s sister, Beth, and her husband, Joe Allen, who are both retired educators, handle the foundation’s day-to-day operations. Some funds also go to “nonprofits like shelters, hospitals, food banks, museums and the arts,” according to a Royals spokesperson.

Carrying Kauffmans’ legacy forward

Ewing Kauffman
In this October 1977 file photo, Kansas City Royals president Ewing Kauffman waves to fans at Yankee Stadium after the Royals defeated the New York Yankees 7-2 in an American League baseball playoff game in New York. Kauffman will be on the ballot in December 2009 when the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee votes.

When the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world in 2020, four months after MLB owners approved Sherman as the team’s new principal owner, the club created the Royals Response Fund.

As part of that effort, the Royals converted the Urban Youth Academy into a makeshift community center that supported more than 500,000 meals, created an educational space for kids to participate remotely in school and funded 17 nonprofits that were assisting the surrounding community.

The club won the 2021 Allan H. Selig Award for Philanthropic Excellence for its response and was a finalist for the award again last year for its Shut Out the Stigma initiative.

John has great admiration for Royals founder and revered Kansas City icon Ewing Kauffman, who brought baseball back to Kansas City after the A’s left town. He previously served on the Kauffman Foundation Board of Trustees.

“Ewing’s a great role model,” John said. “He built a great business, did a lot for employees, he built a great culture, and giving back to the community was a big part of that.”

The Shermans don’t take that for granted, on or off the baseball field.

“I take seriously the legacy as it relates to ownership of the Royals,” he said. “... When David Glass called me and told me we were his first choice, that call was in the spirit of Ewing Kauffman, so I take that part of it very, very seriously.”

He also genuinely enjoys it, which is why the Shermans have built a reputation as billionaires that Kansas City can trust.

“There is a spark when you're in the room with John, when you're talking about what's possible,” said Karen Daniel, a member of the Royals’ ownership group and board president for the Royals Foundation. “If you think about his alignment with Mr. K, in terms of how he feels about our city and the community, yes, he gets very excited about the prospects of using the foundation to really change people's lives.

She added, “When you see the smile come over his face, when he is so proud of something that Royals or he and Marny, the Sherman Foundation, have been able to do or when he can look across at some of the underserved beneficiaries of these activities, you can see the smile on his face, you can see the pride in his heart and, yes, he does light up.”

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