Community mourns death of Joplin philanthropist Robert Corley

W. Robert Corley, retired Joplin businessman, speaks with friend Judy Mueller of Joplin and others during a reception in honor of having the auditorium at Webster Hall named after him at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2008. Globe file

W. Robert Corley's touch can be seen all over the Joplin area.

"He had a giving heart, and he spread it a lot of places," said John Tiede, a consultant to the Missouri Southern Foundation.

Corley, a retired Joplin businessman and area philanthropist, died Friday afternoon at the age of 98. A World War II veteran and owner of a men's clothing business and gift shop on South Main Street in Joplin, Corley was well known throughout the community for distributing his wealth to local nonprofits and charitable organizations.

Among the top recipients of Corley's generosity was Missouri Southern State University, where Corley Auditorium in Webster Hall and the W. Robert Corley Dental Hygiene Clinic both bear his name.

“Mr. Corley was a faithful friend and longtime supporter of Missouri Southern State University,” President Alan Marble said in a statement. “He firmly believed that education is a fundamental element in the fabric of a civil and just society, and his numerous gifts and endowments will touch lives for many generations to come. We will miss him terribly, but we will remember him with great fondness and sincere gratitude.”

Tiede, then the director of major gifts and planned giving for Missouri Southern, said he first met Corley about 10 years ago.

"He was looking to do some charitable work, and we were able to touch base with him and tell him what we had in terms of projects," Tiede said. "He was very willing to help us over the years."

Virtually no department was untouched over the past decade by Corley, Tiede said. In addition to the gift that made the dental hygiene clinic possible, Corley also established scholarships, created endowed professorships, contributed to building renovations and gave to nearly every department, from business to the arts, he said.

"He was probably the largest benefactor we had," Tiede said. "He wasn't an alum, but he said, 'I made my money in Joplin, and I want to give back to there.'"

Corley himself echoed that sentiment in 2014, when the dental hygiene clinic was dedicated.

“I didn’t graduate from Missouri Southern, but I’ve become so involved with the university that sometimes I feel like I did,” he told the Globe at the time. “Education is important and Missouri Southern is important to the region, so I want to do my part to support it.”

Other support

Corley supported local health care providers and initiatives, including the Mercy Health Foundation and Mercy's effort to rebuild after the May 2011 tornado.

"Mercy is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Robert Corley," said Jeremy Drinkwitz, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin, in a statement. "He was a tremendous philanthropist and friend to us and to the entire Joplin community. ...The very existence of the new Mercy Hospital Joplin should serve as a reminder of the long legacy Mr. Corley leaves behind as a selfless advocate for others. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family in this difficult time."

Lafayette House, which provides services to victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and substance abuse, also was on the receiving end of Corley's financial donations and generosity, said Louise Secker, development director.

"He really wanted to see Lafayette House programs thrive and be successful, and I think that was part of a greater mission of his, which was his love of Joplin," she said. "I feel like he took great pride in Joplin and wanted to contribute to its well-being on a greater scale."

Gene Hays, a lifelong friend, first met Corley in the 1950s. The pair eventually developed a close friendship, living just minutes from one another and traveling the world — to England, Greece and China — together, he said.

Hays said Corley was "a lot of fun" and had a knack for detail, often remembering trivial things like the cost of a ticket to a Broadway show he saw years ago. He also praised Corley's generosity to causes such as Missouri Southern's International Piano Competition, for which Hays served on the board.

"It's a big loss, and a bigger loss for the community for his benevolence," Hays said. "He was a very generous person."

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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