UPDATED — Maura McEnaney was a young journalist who had moved to Nevada in 1979 when she first encountered Wichita’s Garvey family at their ranch there. That included late patriarch Willard Garvey.
“I remember him just like spouting off all these things that he had been involved in, and I sort of didn’t really believe it,” McEnaney says. “I thought he was telling some tall tales, truly.”
More recently ,McEnaney spent five years researching the businessman’s life for a book about him. Interviews with people such as Craig Miner, the late historian, architect Sid Platt and Misco Industries chairman Bud Beren set her straight about what Garvey did and accomplished.
“That was kind of the fun thing about writing the book,” McEnaney says. “Everything he was talking about was true.”
LibertyTree is part of the California-based Independent Institute, a public policy research and education foundation. Garvey’s son-in-law, David Theroux, is president of the institute.
Though Garvey’s story is a personal one, Theroux says Garvey’s life is intertwined with the development of modern American life.
“It’s a huge slice of that history.”
McEnaney says Garvey was something of a more sophisticated Forrest Gump, who regularly found himself part of local, national and international history.
“Willard is very much that kind of a person … in a far more prestigious role,” she says.
There’s the 16-year-old Garvey who rode the rails to California without his mother knowing to pick fruit during the Great Depression.
There’s Garvey the soldier on the RMS Queen Mary when the United State was moving troops to Europe. McEnaney found Garvey’s notes telling of a big wave hitting the ship then matched it with dates of a famous rogue wave hitting the vessel.
“I was like, oh my god, I can’t believe he was on the ship, and he was telling the truth,” she says. “The thing nearly capsized.”
According to Garvey’s notes, McEnaney says, “He just decided to roll over and go back to sleep.”
The book tells of how Garvey was one of a trio of officers who were the first to enter Berlin after its fall, and he later attended the Potsdam Conference following the conclusion of World War II.
Mary Theroux, Garvey’s youngest child, tells of her father standing feet from Joseph Stalin at Potsdam “where he could have pulled out his gun and shot him and changed world history.”
In addition to building Wichita homes and buildings, such as the Epic Center, Garvey built homes in 27 countries. With his family, he helped amass one of the largest grain empires in the world and had numerous other businesses across a range of fields. He met with presidents and other leaders, but Garvey also was known for eagerly engaging anyone he encountered.
“He’d interview everybody he met to learn all he could about them,” Mary Theroux says.
Though the Garvey family commissioned McEnaney to write the book, Mary Theroux says McEnaney had complete freedom.
“We didn’t do any editorial work on it at all,” Mary Theroux says.
McEnaney says before she met Garvey, “I had this … vision of him as a big guy in a hat and very imposing.”
She says he wasn’t intimidating at all, nor was he the polished executive some might expect.
“I talk about him being like a hummingbird, sort of buzzing all around.”
McEnaney says that comes through with her interviews with Jean Garvey, Willard Garvey’s wife, who died in 2012.
“It’s charming to hear some of her descriptions of things … and her life with this very busy whirlwind of a guy,” McEnaney says.
David Theroux says Willard Garvey “cared about accomplishing things that were worth doing” and inspired countless people. Theroux says he hopes the book will now resonate with broad audiences, particularly those looking for insights or new directions.
“An Epic Life,” he says, “is a whole number of books put together.”
“It really is an epic story.”