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John Hammons, 94; constructed real estate empire

John Q. Hammons was photographed in 2004 after his 8,000-seat baseball stadium opened in Springfield, Mo.

John S. Stewart/Associated Press/file

John Q. Hammons was photographed in 2004 after his 8,000-seat baseball stadium opened in Springfield, Mo.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — John Q. Hammons’s first business went bust, saddling him with debt. Yet the son of a poor Missouri dairy farmer paid it off within two years and turned his sights to hotels, the cornerstone of what would become a national real estate empire.

Along the way, he opened his wallet to his home state, donating millions to hospitals, public television, and colleges in Springfield. It is a town where his name graces so many buildings and streets — from Missouri State University’s basketball arena, for which he pledged $30 million alone, to the city’s tallest building — that comedian Bob Hope once joked it should rename itself ‘‘Hammonsville.’’

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Among the businessman’s secrets: He avoided big-city locations in favor of properties in college towns and state capitals.

‘‘He would say, ‘The kids will always go to school, and you can’t fire the damn politicians,’ ’’ former company executive Scott Tarwater once said.

Mr. Hammons, who died Sunday at age 94 in a Springfield nursing home, built more than 200 hotels nationwide, including Embassy Suites, Marriotts, Radissons, and Holiday Inns. He also developed an expansive real estate portfolio of golf courses, restaurants, convention centers, a casino ,and riverboat gambling. And he actively led the company well into his 80s.

Mr. Hammons’s first business — a company that sold mortarless bricks — went bust in the late 1940s, saddling him with debt. He recovered to build housing subdivisions in southwest Missouri over the next decade before purchasing 10 Holiday Inn franchises with a partner in 1958 from the company’s founder.

He regularly appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans and estimated his personal wealth several years ago at $1 billion. He took his company public in 1994 before returning it to private ownership a decade later. During his career, according to the company, Mr. Hammons developed 210 hotel properties in 40 states.

‘‘He has made such a major, significant difference to this community,’’ Jim Anderson, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a 2007 interview. ‘‘Some people may not see the way he has put us on the map.’’

But Mr. Hammons’s recent years were shrouded in secrecy and controversy. In March 2011, a group of friends asked Greene County probate court to appoint Mr. Hammons a public guardian.

The friends’ lawsuit said they were not being allowed to visit him at a Springfield nursing home or even talk to him on the phone after Jacqueline Dowdy, whom Mr. Hammons gave power of attorney several years ago, took control of the John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts in October 2010, purged most of its top officials, and placed Mr. Hammons in ‘‘involuntary seclusion.’’

The court appointed a Springfield doctor in May 2011 to serve as Mr. Hammons’s temporary guardian. The doctor allowed supervised visits with Mr. Hammons, though that didn’t alleviate the feud. Dowdy, a former administrative assistant and accountant, became chief executive after nearly 40 years of working alongside Mr. Hammons.

The hotel magnate was born James Quentin Hammons in 1919 in rural Fairview, about 60 miles southwest of Springfield, to a dairy farmer who lost the 200-acre family farm during the Depression. As a teen, he trapped rabbits and sold their pelts for a nickel apiece to survive.

‘‘I swore I would never be poor,’’ he told a biographer in 2002.

A graduate of Southwest Missouri State Teachers College, which is now Missouri State University, Mr. Hammons spent two years teaching science and history and coaching junior high basketball before going to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway. He married the former Juanita Baxter, a Springfield elementary school teacher and also a Southwest Missouri graduate, in September 1949. The couple, who met at a hotel dance, had no children.

Mr. Hammons’s legacy is on full display in his adopted hometown of Springfield. His office in the John Q. Hammons Building is across from the federal courthouse his company built and the 22-story Hammons Tower, the city’s tallest building.

Nearby are a 270-room hotel and convention center he developed and Hammons Field, which he built for $32 million to lure the minor league Springfield Cardinals to town. All sit on John Q. Hammons Parkway.

Other buildings in town, including at Missouri State University, have his name. Mr. Hammons also gave a grant that started public television station KOZK.

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