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Religion & Liberty: Volume 32, Number 1 & 2

In the Liberal Tradition: Ethelmae Humphreys

    She knew what the most important things were in life and kept them in proper order from start to finish: God, family, freedom, country, community. She possessed the highest personal character because she understood that character was an indispensable foundation for everything else. She was a model American.

    Such a woman was Ethelmae Humphreys of Joplin, Missouri, who passed away on December 27, 2021, two weeks shy of her 95th birthday. The many freedom-loving organizations she supported over the years, including the Acton Institute, will forever appreciate her faithful and generous support.

    Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1927, she was the only child of Ernest Leroy Craig and Mary Ethel Crist.

    In 1944, Ethelmae’s parents founded a roofing company in Joplin and named it TAMKO. Each letter in the name derived from a state in which they hoped to sell the shingles they made—Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Nearly eight decades later, the company markets its products just about everywhere.

    She was only 23 when her father suffered a stroke, necessitating a new direction in Ethelmae’s remarkable career. She became executive vice president of TAMKO and assumed day-to-day control of its operations. Leading a major corporation in a male-dominated industry in her 20s, she famously joked that she was “the only foreign language major who came home to run a shingle company.”

    Over seven decades of service to TAMKO, she sacked nails, kept the books, and came to know every nook and cranny of how and where to sell the best shingles. She led by wisdom and example, revered as “the matriarch of the roofing industry.” She brought the best out of the men and women who worked for her.

    On TAMKO’s 75th anniversary, in 2019, she said:

    Over time, we’ve seen great business growth and we’ve built upon our character without sacrificing who we are. It’s special for me to think about TAMKO—a company initiated by my father, named by my mother, and run by my husband and children. However, we never would have made it without our people. For 75 years, TAMKO expected hard work, honesty, and integrity from its employees, and just as my father did from day one, our employees have demonstrated a work ethic and level of dedication that no one ever had to ask for.

    Under Ethelmae’s leadership, TAMKO became one of the largest privately owned roofing manufacturers in America and one of the top-four asphalt shingle producers in the nation. From a small operation with one plant, it grew to more than a dozen plants in nine states and a diversified array of building products.

    The philosophy of freedom and free markets was one of Ethelmae’s many passions. She not only supported that philosophy generously with her resources but also gave of her time and wisdom as a board member of groups such as the Foundation for Economic Education and the Cato Institute. But her generosity also extended to her community. After the devastating tornado that destroyed a large swath of Joplin in May 2011, she came forward with a substantial gift to rebuild a local hospital.

    Ethelmae Humphrey embodied the best of the personal qualities that made this country exceptional—she was faithful, kind, generous, entrepreneurial, and more. She was a wealth creator who never lost sight of the freedoms that make wealth creation possible. She will be missed for a long time to come.

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    Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and its Humphreys Family Senior Fellow. He blogs at