After Ethelmae Humphreys—who once described herself as the only foreign language major ever to run a major shingles company—died two days after Christmas last year, she was remembered both as a philanthropist and as a “gracious and extraordinary lady.” Mrs. Humphreys was just two weeks short of her 95th birthday.

Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) recalled that he knew Mrs. Humphreys as “my Missouri mom”—or just “Mo Mom”—for forty years. “The Humphreys family and FEE have been philosophically joined at the hip for well more than half a century,” Lawrence Reed recalled in a remembrance of the 95-year-old grande dame of the liberty movement.

Mrs. Humphreys and her late husband, J.P. (Jay) Humphreys, met Leonard Reed, founder of FEE, one of the earliest free-market think tanks, and author of the classic “I, Pencil” essay that explains how markets work, and realized that Reed’s ideas represented what they had always believed. Over the years, the Humphreys family became major supporters of FEE and many organizations that promote liberty and civil institutions over government regulation. 

“Ethelmae’s philanthropy reflects her belief in the power of individuals and civil society—rather than government—to provide for the critical needs of oneself, each other, and our communities,” Cato Institute CEO Peter Goetler wrote in a commemoration of Mrs. Humphreys. “Her very life story is an embodiment of her philosophy in action. For while I can’t stop thinking of her as a truly extraordinary individual, it’s more likely she’s an example of the extraordinariness that’s within each of us ordinary people. And liberty is the oxygen that gives life to such potential, providing each of us the ability to, like Ethelmae, leave our mark on the world.” Known as “the matriarch of the roofing industry,” Mrs. Humphreys also left her mark on the business world. 

Ethelmae Craig Humphreys was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 9, 1927, the only child of two remarkable people. E. L. Craig, Ethelmae’s father, had an eighth-grade education, coupled with ambition, a belief in education, and tremendous entrepreneurial vision. He had created and sold a number of companies by the time he founded a roofing company in an old streetcar barn in Joplin, Missouri, in 1944. Craig was 69 years old at the time. Craig’s most trusted adviser and confidante, according to an official biography, was his wife, Mary Ethel Craig. She came up with a name for the roofing company—TAMKO, for the first letter of the states the Craigs saw as sales territory—Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Mrs. Craig would eventually assume leadership of the company in 1954, as her husband’s health began to fail.

The Humphreys were willing to invest in organizations that promoted free-market and civil society ideas.

Ethelmae attended public schools, graduating from Westport High School in Kansas City, Missouri before moving with her parents to Joplin. She went to Monticello College in Godfrey, Illinois and then transferred to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. It was at the University of Kansas that she majored in foreign languages. She also took shorthand because her father believed it was an essential skill. 

Mrs. Humphreys had not planned on a career in the roofing business but when her father’s health declined, she was realistic about her future, enrolling in Joplin Business College to prepare. She did not start at the top at TAMKO. She held a number of positions in the company: stacking nails, payroll clerk, bookkeeper and her father’s secretary. She was 23 when her father suffered a stroke and she was appointed executive vice president of TAMKO, with responsibility for the day-to-day operations. She directed TAMKO throughout the 1950s, becoming chairman of the board in 1972. She was in an industry that was, to say the least, not dominated by women. 

“Despite leading the company,” a memory of Mrs. Humphreys in a roofing trade magazine recalled, “she was sometimes treated as the receptionist by others and some men wouldn’t even discuss their business dealings in front of her. She got a kick out of offering to get coffee for customers and suppliers, and then later in the meeting revealing that she was the CEO or Chairman. She knew who she was, even if others assumed differently or doubted her abilities because she was a woman. Eventually, everyone would come to see that she knew her business and could hold her own with anyone. And through it all, she took on the assumed role of receptionist, secretary, or her actual role as Chairman with a pleasant smile and warm personality.”

She always had a powerful personality, flavored by graciousness, and a concern for others. 

She always had a powerful personality, flavored by graciousness, and a concern for others. She engaged in tense labor negotiations with the Teamsters up until almost the last minute when she was pregnant with the couple’s first child, David Craig Humphreys. The Humphreys would go to a movie to unwind after a day of heated debate, stay half an hour and return home to rest up for a repeat of the grueling process the next day. They went to bed one night, not knowing that a vote was being held, and got up in the morning to find that the union vote had failed. Jay Humphreys, who believed it was up to the individual employee whether to support joining a union, was from 1981 until his death in 1993, a board member of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Ethelmae’s main objection to unions was that she did not believe somebody should have to pay, in the form of union dues, for the right to go to work.  

Ethelmae and John Pershing—Jay—Humphreys married in 1955. Like E. L. Craig, Jay Humphreys, who served as president of TAMKO from 1960 until his death, was a man of entrepreneurial talent and vision. Under Humphreys TAMKO grew and became a major national company. The Humphreys were idea-people, who devoured books by such thinkers as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Meeting Leonard Reed of FEE was important for Jay Humphreys. “I think, as Dad would say, ‘I knew what was right but I didn’t have the solid foundation until I met Leonard and learned a lot at FEE.’” Both Ethelmae and Jay were animated by ideas, and she even started a free-market discussion club in Joplin to explore philosophy and political paradigms.

She wasn’t afraid to promote others whose talent she spotted. “Once at a reception in her honor,” Roofers Coffee Shop recalled, “she took every handshake and request for a media interview as an opportunity to introduce a young woman, a TAMKO employee, who had accompanied her: ‘Ah yes, thank you, but have you met my friend yet?’” She was good at friendship—she kept up with a high school friend through the years and they had lively but cordial conversations, even though politically they were polar opposites. “Mom,” joked daughter Sarah of the friendship, “you are not good at persuasion.”     

In the late 1950s Mrs. Humphreys stepped away from day-to-day operations of TAMKO to raise the couple’s three children, David Craig, Sarah Jane, and John Patrick. At one point, she moved with the children to Wichita, Kansas for several years so they could attend the Wichita Collegiate School (it would later serve as a model for Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School in Joplin, founded by David Humphreys, his wife Debra, and several others). “Both my parents had high expectations for us,” recalls daughter Sara Atkins. “We were allowed to make mistakes. There was a lot of Socratic teaching. We would be asked, ‘Do you think that is the right thing to do?’”

The Humphreys were willing to invest in organizations that promoted free-market and civil society ideas. Cato’s Peter Goetler recalled in a memorial piece, “When she stepped down from Cato’s board of directors in 2017, Ethelmae’s 35 years of stewardship made her the longest‐​serving director in the Institute’s history. During that time, her leadership and generosity helped Cato grow more than thirty‐​fold: from an organization with a small budget and a handful of scholars to a leading policy institution whose ideas, influence, and impact reach millions of people worldwide. Her steadfast dedication to liberty and individual dignity are reflected in the reputation for integrity and adherence to principle Cato earned during her tenure as a director and continues to safeguard.”

The E. L. Craig Foundation was established in 1961, and the J. P. Humphreys Foundation came later. Through these foundations, more than $50 million has been given over the years to support organizations that advance free exercise, individual rights, job training, and civic and community development endeavors. The scope of the philanthropic projects supported by TAMKO and members of the Humphreys family is nothing short of astonishing. They have done everything from helping rebuild hospitals to supporting schools. While the family is famous for its support of free-market ideas, their incredible generosity reaches far beyond the libertarian movement.  

“TAMKO is like my home and I love my home,” she was once quoted saying. “The office is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I was the closest to my father, and then the closest to my husband Jay. It’s been a major part of my life. I get the feeling of family closeness here and I’m proud of the organization and amazed by its growth and success.” She observed her 70th anniversary with the company in 2018. As Mrs. Humphreys aged, she did not lose her enthusiasm for ideas. “She continued to learn and read, always looking for better explanations,” Sarah Atkins recalled.

“A testament to a life well-lived is when a person can live to be nearly 95 years old and the world still thinks you were gone too soon,” observed the roofers publication. Such a person was Ethelmae Craig Humphreys.