A 'Life So Well Lived': Art Collector And Trucking Industry Magnate Jerry Nerman Dies At 97

Feb 28, 2017

Businessman, philanthropist and art collector Jerry Nerman has died. He was 97.
Credit courtesy Truck Center of America

Philanthropist, trucking industry magnate, and art collector Jerry Nerman died Tuesday morning at the age of 97 after a bout with pneumonia. As his son Lewis Nerman wrote in an email, his was "a life so well lived." 

In 2003, Jerry, and his wife, Margaret, contributed the lead gift of $1.5 million for a contemporary art museum to be built on the Johnson County Community College campus in Overland Park, Kansas. The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (NMOCA) opened in October 2007, and showcases the museum's permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions.

"He's going to be greatly missed," said the Nerman Museum's executive director Bruce Hartman. "Jerry was one of those rare individuals that never changed. He always treated everyone the same, he was always down-to-earth. He was always quick to joke around."

Nerman got his start in the trucking industry.

In 1950, Nerman and his business partner, the late Melvin Spitcaufsky, co-founded Arrow Truck Sales, Inc. with an initial investment of $8,000. One used-truck lot in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, expanded to about 20 retail stores across the United States and in Canada to become the largest retailer of used trucks in the country. 

Arrow was eventually acquired by the Volvo Trucks North America, Inc., with a 50 percent stake in 1998, and 100 percent by 2001. 

Nerman also founded Truck Center of America, which provides pre-owned vehicles to customers. Based in Leawood, Kansas, TCA remains a family operated business. And he served for decades as chairman of the board of Central Bank of Kansas City. 

"He built a legacy within the industry ... based on his philosophy of offering superior value and quality to its customers," said Bill Johnson, executive director of the American Truck Historical Society, when Nerman received an achievement award in 2009.

Collecting contemporary art runs in the Nerman family. (Pictured, right to left): Jerry and Margaret Nerman, with their daughter-in-law, Sue, and son, Lewis.
Credit courtesy Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Nerman's passion for art cemented his other legacy.

He and Margaret were avid collectors. Nerman described their approach as "the three s's": search, secure and share. 

According to 435 Magazine, "The Nermans’ love for collecting began with a few inexpensive prints sent home from Paris by then-soldier Jerry Nerman during World War II, and blossomed from there." 

The Nermans collected French and Russian bronzes in the 1950s, and then focused their attention on collecting the work of artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella. It's a tradition they passed on to their son, Lewis, who collects artwork with his wife, Sue. The Nermans are considered among the area's most prominent collectors of contemporary art.

The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art opened in October 2007 on the JCCC campus in Overland Park, Kansas.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

"It's a challenge," Nerman told the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. "If you make up your mind that you want to buy a painting by such-and-such painter because you like his type of work, you start searching the auctions, you start searching the dealers and try to buy the best you can for the money you want to spend."

The Nermans' art-focused philanthropy has extended beyond collecting.

Most recently, in 2016, Jerry and Margaret Nerman, and Lewis and Sue Nerman, who serves on the Kansas City Art Institute's board of trustees, funded a permanent endowment for the president's position.

Tony Jones, the Nerman Family President of the Kansas City Art Institute, said the Nerman family has a long connection to the four-year college.

"He was an extraordinary person. In your lifetime, you meet people who just stand out as being very special, very different, very unique, and he was one," Jones said of Jerry Nerman.

"I think he was really a giant, a giant twice," Jones added. "A giant in the transport trucking industry, but in the world of art and design, Jerry and Margaret's collection is known as a world-class collection of late modern and contemporary art. And that tradition with them has carried forward to Lewis and Sue who have built a contemporary collection quite different, but equally a world-class collection."

"It's always an enormous loss when somebody so passionate about something passes," said the Nerman Museum's Bruce Hartman, "and Jerry was nothing if not passionate about art."  

The Nermans have also provided support for other area arts institutions, such as The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Jerry Nerman served on the selection committee), the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

A funeral service is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Friday, March 3, at Kehilath Israel Synagogue, 10501 Conser, in Overland Park, Kansas, with the burial at Mt. Carmel Cemetery. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the Nerman Museum and with information about services. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.