Pioneer, patriot, matriarch and titan of philanthropy. That was Joplin’s Ethelmae Humphreys, whose passing is every bit as diminishing even a year after her Dec. 27, 2021 death at 94.
Like the fictional George Bailey in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, Humphreys might have dreamed of seeing the world after her foreign language-infused education at the University of Kansas. But like George, the only child of E.L. and Mary Ethel Craig dutifully came home to take over her father’s roofing business established in 1944, now known as TAMKO Building Products LLC, when his health started to fail in the late 1940s.
In her early 20s, and setting out into a man’s industry in a particularly man’s era, Humphreys learned the business from the ground up – even sacking nails in a Kansas City shingle plant during high school – and in 1950 began managing the company’s daily operations as executive vice president following her father’s stroke.
With her husband John Pershing “Jay” Humphreys stepping in at TAMKO in 1956, Ethelmae returned to raising their three children – David, Sarah and John. Yet, she went on to become chairman in 1972, a full-time worker again in 1985 and then CEO in 1993 after J.P.’s death. Their son David took over as president and CEO the next year.
Starting as a local shingle manufacturer with one plant in Joplin, TAMKO grew under the Humphreys’ guidance to one of the nation’s largest privately-owned roofing manufacturers, now boasting more than a dozen facilities across the country. In a 2018 economic study, the company, now nearly 80 years old, was projected to benefit the Missouri economy by $4 billion over its next 25 years.
She was known as the matriarch of the nation’s asphalt roofing business, and often said the TAMKO office was where she felt closest to both her father and husband. In all, Ethelmae Humphreys gave an astounding 73 years to the company, the last as chairman emerita.
But she gave even more to her community, her industry and humanity.
Her and her husband’s fervent beliefs in America’s founding principles of freedom and free markets led to her holding positions on the boards of such prestigious national organizations as the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
These groups mourned her passing in December 2021 – less than two weeks from her milestone 95th birthday – nearly as much as her vast TAMKO family has.
In an extensive and moving tribute, the Cato Institute called Humphreys “the grande dame of the libertarian movement.” Indeed, when she stepped down from its board in 2017 after 35 years, she was the institute’s longest-serving director. She was, Cato wrote, a unique combination “of grace and determination.”
Humphreys unfailingly and generously supported organizations advancing individual liberty and free enterprise, as well as education and civic projects – such as when she and her family contributed financially to help her hometown of Joplin rebuild after the devastating 2011 tornado.
All the while she led her two charitable foundations – named after her father E.L. Craig and her husband J.P. Humphreys – in endlessly promoting the organizations and causes she cared so deeply about. Cato President and CEO Peter Goettler called her “an example of the extraordinariness that’s within each of us ordinary people.”
“Ethelmae Humphreys was a respected and successful female leader in a male-dominated industry,” the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association said of her in a remarkable resolution after her death.
“She embodied the best of the American spirit – a creator of wealth and a manager of business who was devoted to her God, family and country,” wrote Lawrence W. Reed, FEE president emeritus and, notably, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow. Reed had taken to calling her “my Missouri Mom” – MO Mom, for short.
Noting that not only did Jay and Ethelmae Humphreys serve on the board of trustees for FEE, but their son David and daughter Sarah have as well, Reed wrote that “the FEE board without a Humphreys on it would seem like a Thanksgiving dinner without the cranberries.”
In 2019, the year she stepped down as TAMKO chairman in favor of her son David, she was named a “Pathfinder” by J Mag, a publication of the Joplin Globe, for her contributions to the Four State Area, an area where Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma meet.
David C. Humphreys, TAMKO chairman and CEO, said his mother was a shining example of the family values she held so dear.
“She was universally loved and revered by her family, employees and in the communities and circles of influence where she lived and worked,” he said.
In the end, even after helping preserve and grow her father’s company, Ethelmae Humphreys did fulfill George Bailey’s dream of seeing the world – having visited all seven continents and traveling on the Queen Elizabeth and the Concorde.
Hers was a wonderful life indeed.