(Graphic by Shannon Cay Bowers/ Photo by Dean Curtis)

OPINION |

When someone is honored with a “Key to the City,” what do they actually get?

Is it like a journalism award? A plaque to hang on the wall? Does it symbolize entry into a respected club of professionals — the Missouri Nose and Throat Specialists Hall of Fame?

Or do you actually get a key that unlocks something?

If so, what does it unlock?

Mayor Ken McClure decides who gets a key

The city of Springfield in September gave such key to William H. Darr, 91 — a Korean War veteran, humanitarian, philanthropist, entrepreneur and namesake of Missouri State University’s Darr College of Agriculture.

In recent years, the city — specifically Mayor Ken McClure — has given three others:

  • March 29, 2022: Johnny Morris, entrepreneur, conservationist and founder of Bass Pro Shops.
  • April 19, 2021: Mary Lilly Smith, former director of City of Springfield planning and development.
  • Feb. 10, 2020: Robert Spence, president emeritus of Evangel University. (Spence died nine days later at 84.)

I’m sure there have been many other recipients.

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In fact, while searching for a news story on the award to Johnny Morris — which I don’t remember reading about — I came across a June 25, 1970 story in the News-Leader in which retiring fire chief Bill Morris was given a key to the city.

The story states: “The men of the fire department presented their retiring chief with a gift they said they hoped he would make good use of during his retirement, a trawling motor.”

Now we’re talking!

But don’t get your hopes up.

A key to the city doesn’t unlock anything

Actually, it’s a replica key. And this replica key is on a plaque. I can’t think of too many things you can unlock with a plaque.

So it doesn’t really open the door to City Hall, start the secret supersonic MayorMobile kept in Springfield Underground, or open the lockbox with the names of the Springfield Illuminati and their specific tunnel route to the Pensmore Mansion.

Pensmore in Highlandville, Missouri. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

Of course, before the mayor bestows the plaque, he first says wonderful things about you.

Just so you know, the key is not like the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t travel. Recipients get to keep their replica key forever.

Key to the city had medieval roots

Springfield is not alone in awarding keys to the city.

Sam F. Hamra, an attorney named Springfieldian of the Year in 2018, received a key to Nixa in 2018. He was Nixa’s city attorney from 1965 to 1970 and played a big role in creating the city’s own electric utility.

According to the city of Springfield’s website, the “key to the city” is a medieval tradition meant to confer trust and honor. It goes back to the time of our first gated communities — walled cities with gates guarded by day and locked at night.

The key symbolized the freedom of the recipient to enter and leave the city at will, as a trusted friend. The actual key to the city, according to the website, would function to open city gates.

Today it’s a symbol of civic recognition and gratitude for those whose public service rises to the highest level.

Does a key help with a speeding ticket?

As long as I’ve been a journalist (since 1975), the cities I’ve covered have been awarding keys. I’d always assumed it was something more than what it really is.

I had hoped it was something that might get you out of a ticket when caught doing 65 mph in a 40 zone.

“Oh, sorry officer, but I think I just accidentally dropped my KEY TO THE CITY.”

And if you are worthy enough to receive a key to the city for Springfield, Missouri, my advice would be to chisel off the “Missouri” part.

After all, there are 33 other Springfields in this great nation.

This is Pokin Around column No. 62.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin