The Schlegel family does Dallas, Canadian-style

An Ontario family with Mennonite values, became the toast of Texas society, even naming one son J.R.

Kimberly Whitman

Some months ago, back on the Fourth of July, a sunny, ever-so-slightly Southern-twanged brunette cheerfully walked viewers of the Today show through the travails of setting up a festive, patriotic, red-white-and-blue table—at the very last minute (the secret: use rope, paper bags and alcohol). It was a jingoistic spread, the star-spangled arrangement made complete with individual goblets full of red velvet berry cobbler—a Southern dessert staple. Entertainment guru Kimberly Schlegel Whitman adroitly concluded the segment with a snappy little drink. “You want to greet your guests with something refreshing,” she chirped, “so we put Popsicles in wine glasses and poured Prosecco over it!”

Her turn on Today was just the latest in a string of television appearances for the wealthy 36-year-old Dallas socialite, who’d signed with a branding expert in L.A. in an effort to land a TV deal. The exposure did not always go as planned. Late last year, when she and her sister Kari were featured on Top Chef: Texas, hosting the competing cooks in their sumptuous homes, professional foodies took to their blogs and blasted them. “Kim hates cilantro, bell peppers, grease and things she has never tried,” wrote the Baltimore Sun. The Los Angeles Times asked if “any more proof was needed that money can’t buy you taste . . . ” At no time did Kim and Kari look more out of touch than the moment when, tucking into their appetizers, they began discussing their weddings: Kari said 800 guests had attended her nuptials (“you’re joking,” blinked one Top Chef judge), then Kim told everyone she’d had 1,200 at hers.

Despite the jibes, Kim’s TV hustle appears to have paid off: this month she began co-hosting a new talk show, Texas Living, on Dallas’s KTXD, a gig that will allow her to expand on her role as, in Dallas Morning News writer Alan Peppard’s words, “the Martha Stewart of the Southwest.”

Given all those red-white-and-blue bona fides, it’s easy to forget that Whitman is the daughter of Bob and Myrna Schlegel, who moved to Dallas from southern Ontario with their children in the mid-1980s in search of a larger market for the retirement and nursing homes they’d been running in Canada with much success. The Schlegel’s story is one of an old Kitchener-Waterloo family, steeped in the Mennonite values of simplicity, modesty and frugality, that relocated to flashy, opulent Dallas and ended up doing Texas bigger than the Texans do. And what do you think Kim, who moved to Dallas in the fourth grade and remains a Canadian citizen, calls her four-year-old son James Robert? It’s J.R. for short.

The Schlegels, who recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, looked into Florida and California, but liked the Lone Star State’s anti-union, pro-business environment. “Unions don’t belong in health care facilities,” Myrna, a registered nurse, avows. “The big joke here is, ‘I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could,’ ” Bob says.

In Dallas, the Schlegels prospered, selling their nursing home business in 1994 for a reported US$62 million. Bob’s second business, Pavestone, became the largest manufacturer and distributor of paving stones in the U.S. It earned big money—an estimated $348 million in 2009—and Bob went on to sell it for an undisclosed amount (very likely north of $300 million, news reports say).

Kim and Kari and the other Schlegel offspring, Kirby and Krystal, have lived accordingly. Kim’s 2005 wedding to Justin Whitman “set a new benchmark for ‘Dallas lavish,’ ” according to the city’s D Magazine. It was written up in Vanity Fair by Dominick Dunne, an old friend of the groom’s family, who gushed: “The Dallas Symphony Orchestra played and the symphony chorus sang as the beautiful bride, Texas heiress Kimberly Jayne Schlegel, preceded by 12 bridesmaids, walked down the aisle in a dress made in Paris with a 20-foot train.”

For a time Kari, a real estate agent, and Kirby, a sports team owner who recently sold both the Tacoma Rainiers baseball team and the Texas Tornado Hockey Club, lived together in a 12,200-sq.-foot penthouse atop the exclusive W Dallas Victory Hotel & Residences. Their separate living quarters, individually decorated, met in the middle at a grand salon reserved for entertaining. “I gotta quit showing up to places where members of the Schlegel family live,” wrote Andrea Grimes of the Dallas Observer last year. “It makes me question whether my hard-working, up-by-their-bootstraps parents couldn’t have just put in a couple extra hours at the office and bought me a 29th-floor penthouse.”

Perhaps predictably, the Schlegels aren’t very well-liked in some parts of Dallas, at least if snarky headlines are any indication: “Inside the Schlegel family dynasty,” “Inside the swanky penthouse of Kari and Kirby Schlegel,” “Kim Schlegel throws a high-society dog party,” “SCHLEGEL, SCHLEGEL EVERYWHERE,” and “Does Robert Schlegel think he’s better than me?”

An event planner and entertainment maven, Kim has written several books, the first of which, The Pleasure of Your Company: Entertaining in High Style, she began writing at 24. She has since followed up with 2008’s Tablescapes: Setting the Table with Style, which includes instructions on how to seat 36 at one table, and Dog Parties: Entertaining Your Party Animals, in 2006. She’s also known for presentations like “Set a Southern Table,” as part of her job as editor-at-large for Southern Living magazine.

She began in the hospitality biz while still in her early 20s, shortly after Idlewild, the oldest gentleman’s social club in Texas, invited her to be a debutante at its annual ball. Idlewild debs and their families must also organize their own spectacular coming-out affairs, with some 400 invited, but in Dallas, Kim and her mother could find no suitable knickknacks for rent that would give the bash that oh-so-crucial pizzazz. “Kim has really good taste and really great style and none of the companies had any of the things she wanted,” says Myrna. “So we went out and bought them.” Later, Myrna’s friends began asking if they might borrow the Limoges china and Baccarat crystal they’d picked up for the Schlegel ball. “I remember so well, very sarcastically, my mother saying, ‘Oh, we should be charging for this!’ And it was this aha moment for me—I was like, ‘We should!’ So I started a party-rental business.”

The Schlegels of old would no doubt look askance at this conspicuous consumption. Both Bob and Myrna, who grew up just south of Kitchener, come from Mennonite, and ultimately Amish, stock, two religious groups known for strict austerity. (“By the way,” says Myrna, “we’re Methodists now.”) “My mother, growing up, wore a head covering to church—very, very different from her lifestyle now,” says Kim. “My grandmother did not have a wedding ring until she went to the hospital to give birth to their fifth child and basically said, ‘I don’t want the nurses thinking I’m not married’—so she got her first wedding ring.”

Bob grew up on his father’s dairy and poultry farm, where he took his share of knocks. At 5, he broke his neck and spent a year in a body cast. At 7, he was mauled by two Great Danes. Around the same time the Schlegel homestead burned down. Yet Bob was entrepreneurial and peddled knives and first-aid kits to neighbours, and later installed a Pepsi machine at the local garage. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” is his Mennonite motto and the Schlegel family creed. Noted philanthropists in Dallas, they also have a building—the Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship—named after them at Wilfrid Laurier University, Bob’s alma mater.

More than anything, the Schlegels like to party. “They don’t slow down,” says Brent Gingerich, a cousin and owner of peopleCare, the business the family left behind in Ontario. “They like to throw parties, and when they throw parties they throw big parties.”

That’s Dallas hospitality. For her part, Kim sees nothing paradoxical about her roots in quiet Canada and her current role keeping Dallas loud and shiny. “I think one of the reasons I felt so at home in Texas at such a young age is that Southerners are so friendly and warm, and I find that Canadians are the same way,” she says. Maybe that’s why she’s allowed her mother’s nickname for James Robert Maxwell Elam Schlegel Whitman, her four-year-old son, to stick. “Now we have a J.R. in Dallas with some good Canadian blood in him,” Kim laughs. On the other hand, it may not last. “My mother loves the new revival of the show Dallas but she was very upset that J.R. is still the villain—she thought by now he should be the good guy.”

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