High-energy mom and businesswoman has a vision of a better Independence.
Cindy McClain aspired to only one career as a child.
“It really seemed weird then and kind of dysfunctional, but now it makes total sense,” Cindy says of her aspirations. “I wanted to be an architect. I built everything you can think of out of Legos. I wanted to be an interior designer. In trying to get myself to go to sleep at night, I would take school buses’ interiors, in my mind, and redecorate them.”
At age 4, Cindy’s family moved from Florida to Boulder, Colo., closer to her mother’s family. She attended elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse, and her fondest childhood memories revolve around the outdoors.
More than four decades later, she’s expanded her role as a stay-at-home mother of six children to a mother of 11 businesses, customers and products.
From ‘hiding in the mountains’ to Independence
As Cindy’s family moved to Colorado from Florida, snow was falling and a young Cindy was left puzzled.
“My only experience was white sand, and I could not figure out for the life of me why sand was falling from the sky,” she says. “I remember asking my parents that; it was just such a strange thing to me.”
Her parents both owned and operated an antique store and coffee shop. Some of Cindy’s earliest memories include waking up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays and helping her mother roll out the dough for her famous pies. The family was always hiking – synonymous with walking, Cindy says – and walking through streams.
“I was hiding in the mountains growing up – it was great. We just had to run to the town, and the horses ran wild in the town,” she says. “In the winter, it was a town of 50 people, and in the summer, it was a town of about 200 people.”
In spring 1976, 17-year-old Cindy Carpenter traveled to Independence and attended the RLDS World Conference. One afternoon, she walked the Lower Auditorium and saw an attractive young man working in the bookstore.
From there, their stories vary, Cindy says.
“He was cute – that’s what it was about for me. I was 17, and the thing to do when you’re a teenager at World Conference is to walk the ramps and look at the guys and flirt,” Cindy says. “His story is way better than mine. I was just a teenager, flirting.”
Then 19, Ken remembers seeing her across the room, and he knew instantly.
“I knew that she was the girl that I would marry,” he says. “I just knew it. I looked across, and it was love at first sight. She kept coming into the room and looking around at the books. I thought that she wanted to talk to me. I think I asked her if she was interested in buying any books. She, of course, wasn’t interested in any of the books.”
Their first date was one night at Taco Bell on Noland Road, after Ken’s bookstore shift had ended. After a five-year long-distance relationship, Cindy completed her college education in graphic arts at Eastern Michigan University where Ken attended law school. They married and moved to Independence in the early 1990s.
She jokes that they thought they’d have a traditional two-child family, but instead, the family grew every two years – Chelsea, 26; Colin, 24; Lauren, 22; Maddie, 19; Claire, 17; and Shelby, 15.
The three oldest children painted Maddie’s room when Cindy was pregnant.
“I put sheets on the ground, ran water in the bathtub and put pie plates of paint all over the floor and had them put their handprints and their footprints as the border in her nursery,” Cindy recalls. “It was a mess, but it was fun.”
She was completely satisfied with her role as a stay-at-home mother, until a certain TV image inspired her and Ken.
‘Independence deserved to have nice things’: The McClains raise the bar
On Labor Day 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton chose Independence as the backdrop for his fall U.S. presidency campaign opening. Huddled with about 3,000 people near the Harry S. Truman statue at the Jackson County Courthouse, Cindy and Ken McClain – and their five children – watched Clinton say that President George H.W. Bush was threatening the middle class that Truman had helped create.
That evening, the McClain family scrambled home, anxious to watch the speech on CNN. Instead, they were left with feelings of frustration.
“We were just horrified by how boarded up the Square looked on TV,” Cindy says, drawing out the syllables of “horrified.” “You don’t think about it as much when you’re in it, but when you see it from that perspective – they’d pan up every once in awhile to the Secret Service on the roof, and everything was dilapidated.”
Ken McClain had already established himself as a reputable attorney with Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, an Independence Square-based firm that specializes in occupational industry claims. He turned to his wife and said, “This is how I want to spend my income.”
A photograph of Bill Clinton between Ken and Cindy McClain sits on an end table in Ken’s office. “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” by Fleetwood Mac served as the 1992 moment’s theme song.
“Here we were with our children, standing on the Square, and all of the buildings were boarded up,” Ken says. “So, here we are, ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,’ and it didn’t look like this place had a tomorrow. It only look like it had a past.”
The McClains purchased the former Katz Pharmacy building – boarded up and covered in decades-old campaign signs – and opened Ophelia’s Restaurant at 206 N. Main St. in 1998. Ken, the visionary man, walked the building with Cindy, the detail-oriented creative force, and thought about it.
They immediately knew a restaurant would be best, Cindy says, “because people will drive to eat.”
“It just made sense because we knew we had to make this as a destination. We do think about the type of person that needed to come up here in order to save the Square,” Cindy says. “We could not put a dollar store up here and save the Square. It just would not work.”
In 2007, the McClains received the city of Independence’s honor with the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. Despite their optimism for the Square’s revitalization, critics questioned the McClains’ actions, Cindy says.
“We received a lot of negativity in the beginning when we put a fine dining restaurant here. People said, ‘Forget it. It’s not going to work. Why would you do that? Why would you throw your money away?’” she says. “We knew in the back of our minds that it was the right thing to do. Independence deserved to have nice things and to stay home and not have to drive to Kansas City or to Overland Park.”
Skeptics spoke, but Cindy says she knew Ken wanted the revitalization – and she knew she could help somehow.
Cindy didn’t want Ken reaching for his aspiration single handedly.
“Also, once you’re in it, and you’re doing this, Independence deserves this. It is Harry Truman’s town – one of the most famous, respected presidents – and it looked terrible. Terrible. Like nobody cared. We did raise the bar high, and we tried to keep the bar fairly high, even though it didn’t make sense and sometimes still doesn’t make sense.”
They truly believe it will make sense, though.
The summer that never was
Cindy refers to summer 1998 as “the summer that never was.”
For more than a decade, her world revolved around the children, with the freedom of spending time at Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City and the Learning Exchange; playing in the fountains at Crown Center; visiting with Santa Claus.
Then, 11 years ago, the McClains’ business partner left Ophelia’s just six weeks after its opening. Cindy awoke at 7 a.m. while her children still slept. She visited the children mid-day, but she’d hurry back for the dinner rush. Closing up was her responsibility, and she made it home after midnight. By August, the McClains had hired Harry Blasco, their director of operations.
“My life got somewhat normal, but I was still thrown into a 60-hour week from being at home all of the time. It was a hard, hard adjustment for both the kids and I.”
Cindy still feels guilty about the obligations she left with the oldest child, Chelsea, then 15.
“She had to take on responsibilities that I never wanted to shift on her,” Cindy says.
As anyone would expect, it’s not an easy task, Ken says of Cindy’s balance with children and the businesses.
“There have been frustrations that she has had in terms of is she fulfilling all of the needs of the children,” he says. “They, from time to time, have expressed the desire that she spend more time with them, but on balance, the children have become very involved in the businesses as active participants with her.”
She rattles them off effortlessly. Eleven businesses in 11 years. Ophelia’s Restaurant, Clinton’s Soda Fountain, Courthouse Exchange, Primary Colors Gallery, BeHereNow, Square Pizza, Gilbert Whitney, Café Verona, Diamond Bowl, Studio on Main and Uptown Boutique. And now Main Street Coffee House, which reopened June 26, and soon, Wild About Harry, a men’s gifts, accessories and souvenirs shop.
Her Zen is working out. Five days a week, Cindy exercises, though usually not until 8 or 9 p.m. At Studio on Main, she enjoys the elliptical and Pilates.
“It just gives me a chance to shut down all the voices in my head, which there is 11 of them, plus kids. Plus, it’s my time to watch some stupid show that has nothing, no relevance, to me or the world; it’s just TV,” Cindy says. “Nobody, for the most part, calls me during my workout time, so it’s quiet.”
A fixer at heart
Some time ago, Cindy read “Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities,” a 1996 criminology and urban sociology book that discusses reducing crime in urban neighborhoods. She often thinks of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s charge for “zero tolerance” and “quality of life measures.”
“A broken window is a symptom for a disease,” Cindy says. “When you see a broken window in a business, you know that the business owner doesn’t care or something’s just not right. A city that has a blighted town center – what does that say to the world?”
She devotes between 60 and 80 hours each week to McClain Enterprise, depending on what events are scheduled. Cindy describes herself as Linda Blair in “The Exorcist,” her head spinning all of the time.
“It just becomes a passion. Maybe I’m a fixer at heart; I don’t know,” she says. “It just becomes this obsessive goal, almost.”
People often tell Cindy that she should invest in a pair of roller skates, an accessory that would help her glide from store to store – twice – each day.
“I’d really like a golf cart,” she says. “That’d be really fun, but I don’t think the other cars would appreciate it.”
A milestone day in her life is just a few weeks away. Cindy laughs when asked about her celebration plans for July 24, her 50th birthday.
“It’s like right between two events that we have to put on, so my thought of going to Tuscany, Italy, and renting a villa with a private cook and my own Tuscan cooking is gone,” she says.
"That’s OK", she whispers.
She’s her own worst critic, Cindy admits, and she advises other career-aspiring mothers to allow themselves freedom from perfection.
“It just doesn’t exist,” she says. “Try not to be too hard on yourself because you can’t do everything. Allow yourself to constantly search for that balance because it changes with every turn.”
Ken says Cindy’s message is patience.
“Take care of first things first and that there are opportunities after your children have been established to lead you where your heart desires you to go,” he says. “For 15 years, she sacrificed in that way and it was tremendously valuable for the children, but she’s now had a challenging career that’s brought her notoriety and fame, to some extent, as well as a very rewarding career.”
Above all, Independence is lucky to have her, Ken says of his wife.
“She’s an incredibly creative, hardworking person who always says ‘Yes,’ and because of that, all of this has been possible,” he says. “She’s also still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. In many ways, she’s more beautiful today than when I first met her.”