Charles Hostetler, an insurance and banking executive, political power-broker, civic leader and irreverent, off-the-cuff humorist without peer for decades in Manhattan, died Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 75.
Hostetler, who was born and raised in Manhattan and graduated from both high school and college here, achieved statewide distinction.
He was only the third person from Riley County ever named to the state Board of Regents. That’s the board that runs the university system in the state. Gov. Mike Hayden appointed him in 1989, and Hostetler served a 4-year term.
Hostetler owned and operated the Charlson-Wilson Insurance Agency. His family also owned what was First National Bank until its sale to Landmark National Bank in 2005.
Hostetler served as chairman of First National Bank in a turbulent period in the 1980s.
He played a prominent role here in a variety of other ways: Chairman of the Riley County Republican Party for a decade, starting in 1994; president of the board of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce in 1981; president of the Rotary Club; head of the United Way campaign; president of Downtown Manhattan, Inc., and many state and national positions in insurance industry groups. He remained active in business, political and civic affairs to the end.
Hostetler mostly operated behind-the-scenes, never running for elective office. But he exerted a strong influence on political life here, helping candidates that he backed, generally of a traditional Republican bent.
More than anything, though, those who knew him recall him as a quick wit, willing to needle even his best friends when he thought they were doing something wrong.
“He was unafraid to say anything,” said longtime friend Charlie Hughes. “He just didn’t have that governor on him that kept him from saying what might be politically incorrect.”
Irreverent humor was the calling card.
Said Hughes: “It was always off-the-cuff. When he went to give a talk, you never knew what he was going to say. He never knew what he was going to say, either.”
When he checked into Homecare and Hospice’s facility last week for his final days as the cancer advanced, family members said he paraphrased W.C. Fields: “Well, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
“He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” said former Kansas State University President Jon Wefald.
As a community leader, he could play the role of “devil’s advocate,” Hughes said. “You had to prove your case to Charlie. I think that was very useful for the community.”
Hostetler was the son of Alvin and Ruth Hostetler; Alvin was chairman of First National Bank in an era when there were only a few banks in town.
Charles – known universally as Charlie—graduated from Manhattan High in 1956. He was an outstanding golfer at MHS and went on to compete for Kansas State University, where he graduated in 1960. He got a law degree from the University of Kansas law school in 1963.
During those years he worked as a part-time sports writer at The Manhattan Mercury. He maintained a strong lifelong interest in sports. He won the club golf championship at the Manhattan Country Club in 1973 and 1974.
He returned to Manhattan after law school and began working at Charlson-Wilson, which at the time was one entity in both the insurance and title-abstract business. He bought the insurance side of it from J. Robert Wilson and Barbara Wilson in 1980, and the two entities split although they retained the same name.
Meanwhile, Charlie and his father in 1975 had obtained voting control of the majority of the stock in First National Bank.
Charlie became chairman in 1979, replacing his father, who retired. He converted the bank to a savings and loan in the 1980s. He left his position on the board in the midst of regulatory problems during the savings and loan crisis in that decade.
He and his father were important supporters of the city’s effort to redevelop the downtown and build the Manhattan Town Center mall, among other things.
In politics, Charlie chaired the Riley County Republican Party during a period of internal struggle. He aligned with the “moderate” or “traditional” side of the party, as opposed to the more “conservative” wing, particularly on social issues. He actively recruited and helped candidates at the local, state and national levels. It was often nuts-and-bolts work.
“Very few people of true talent, substance and abilities are willing to engage at that level of the political process,” said Kent Glasscock, a former Speaker of the House from Manhattan. “Charlie set himself apart from other community leaders in that regard.”
Hostetler’s involvement didn’t stem from a passionate ideological or partisan bent, Glasscock said, but rather from “a commitment to good governance…and politics is part of the price we pay for sound governance.”
Glasscock said Hostetler would always “tell you the good, the bad and the ugly. He’d get nose-to-nose if he needed to…but he never stopped being your friend.”
Hostetler served as a delegate at national Republican conventions, including one in Kansas City in 1976 when he met with President Ford.
He was a strong supporter of Kansas State University, serving as the head of the President’s Club, a group of the heaviest financial backers of the KSU Foundation. He taught classes at K-State on business law and insurance. He was heavily involved as an alum with the K-State chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity; and he was integral in recent years in the effort to keep the local chapter alive. It recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
When Wefald became K-State’s president in 1986, he said Hostetler told him he needed to do two things: Boost enrollment and fix the football program.
Wefald said nobody else even raised the issue of football with him in those days, since the general belief was that it was hopeless. And Hostetler kept talking about it. He was “unwavering, undeniable, and unrelenting,” Wefald said.
In addition to his strong K-State ties, he maintained a connection with the KU law school. Each spring for many years, he hosted an alumni/admissions recruiting event for prospective KU law students from K-State and the surrounding area. He served on the law school’s board of governors.
He was honored this past year with the Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor given by the KU Law School. The other recipient with him that year was former Gov. Mark Parkinson.
He is also going to be honored with inclusion on Manhattan High School’s “Wall of Fame” early next year.
Survivors include his wife, Julie; daughters Cynthia and Sue; and stepson Mike Widman. An obituary with a full list of survivors and funeral information will be published later.
Through it all, as Hughes put it, “the conversation never stopped.”
“Charlie was never boring,” Hughes said. “That’s an absolute.”