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  The Quotable Oleander

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on June 4, 2014:

Oleander on Fossils as new State Symbols

            Folks, when I heard they were looking for a new State Symbol to recognize fossil life in Kansas, I was excited.  In fact, old fossil that I am, I thought I might be in the running. Then I found out Kansas lawmakers were thinking Cretaceous.  More specifically, the Tylosauras and the Pteranodon.
            The Tylosaurus, a mosasaur, was an air-breathing reptilian swimmer in the ocean that covered Kansas 85 million years ago.  The Pteranodon was a reptilian flier that cruised the Inland Sea and nested along the Kansas coastline. I’m sure the Kansas State Reptile, the Ornate Box Turtle (our only concession to fashion), welcomes these new reptiles, even if they move so differently than the trudging turtle:  one in the sea, the other in the air.  Both new state symbols would have been impressive to encounter.  The Pteranodon could have a wing span of up to 26 feet, with a hatchet-like head nearly 10-feet long, but with a body no bigger than an ordinary housecat.  The Tylosaurus was the largest of the mosasaurs, and could reach 40 feet in length.  A dangerous predator, the Tylosaurus swallowed its prey whole.  Even though a reptile, the Tylosaurus probably gave live birth to young.  The Pteranodon laid eggs in rookeries along the great shores of Kansas.
            Folks, I’m happy we finally have state fossils, even if I’m not one of them.  I remember, and not too fondly, the State Board of Education hearings about evolution and creationism and intelligent design back in 2005.  A change in state science standards de-emphasized the teaching of evolution in the classroom.  But now, we have tipped our hats to the Cretaceous, a period between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, give or take a few years, when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  We’re certainly beyond “Biblical” time.  And, we’re featuring one of our most unique connections to Kansas prehistory.
            Folks, I’ve been to Monument Rocks, those Kansas pyramids.  In 1968, the site was one of the first National Natural Landmarks to be selected by the National Park Service.  Huge chalk formations, they tower up to 70 feet above the Kansas Plains, and yet they were once the sea floor.  They are what is left standing after water and wind eroded those deposits of organic materials, and they are full of fossils.  This is where the great Sternberg, of museum fame, worked.  And the Bonner family of Keystone Gallery fame.  These pyramids, with their towers and arches, are certainly monuments.  They were not built to honor a king, nor to house the dead, though they contain the mighty and the dead, all made of the same elements, the same stuff as the air, the earth, and even our own bodies.
            Folks, when we make state symbols from creatures of the Cretaceous, of the Great Inland sea of Kansas, we expand the Kansas story, we trumpet our part in the long history of the earth, we contemplate our moments in eternity.  Just as some of us old fossils do around the Here, Kansas, Co-op on starry nights.

Listen to this commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on May 6, 2014:

Oleander on Taxes

            Well, folks, April turned out to be the cruelest month.  You see, I visited my tax man.  And I paid for it.  Paid him a reasonable fee, then I cleared out my bank account paying the state of Kansas an exorbitant amount.  “What’s up this year?” I asked my tax man.
            ““Brownback’s Kanas tax plan has kicked in,” he answered.  “Since you don’t itemize, and that’s not to your advantage anyway, you lost your mortgage interest deduction,” he said.  “Remember, you refinanced the place you bought for your grandson, and you borrowed on your house,” he reminded me.  “Used to be we’d deduct that.  Not anymore.”
            “I’d heard about that change,” I said, “but I didn’t think it would make me dig this deep into my pockets.”
            “Well, you lost your losses, too,” my tax man continued.
            “What do you mean?” I asked.
“This tax plan was designed to attract business, and it helps them by not taxing their profits.  But it also means that businesses can’t deduct their losses.”
            “So I’m not the only farmer in here wondering how in the heck to scrape up cash for a tax bill?”
            “Some farmers sold cattle because of the drought.  They did great.  And the Federal government?  They’re used to your losses.  Sympathetic, even.  Your Federal return will help you pay your Kansas return, the way they subsidize you farmers.”
            Federal return aside, my tax man explained that some folks like me, out in rural Kansas, will really feel this tax plan.  Agriculture isn’t used to profit, he said.  “You live off loss, deductions, depreciation, and Federal subsidies.
            I told him the old joke about the Kansas farmer who wins the lottery.  “What are you going to do with the money?” all his friends ask him.  “I expect I’ll just keep farming until it runs out,” he answers. 
           Such is farming.  Such are the difficulties raising crops and livestock in the face of spring freezes, and floods, and fire, and hail, and drought, and a reduced water table that makes irrigation more and more expensive.  And now, a Kansas tax system designed to reward profit and turn those with losses into even bigger losers.  “Not smart for an agricultural state,” I told my tax man.  “I don’t usually say this, but thank goodness for the Federal Government.”
            “Well,” said my tax man, “if you want to thank goodness for State Government, you’ll have to take it up with your state rep and senator.”
            Folks, I intend to.  Once I get through another tough summer, I’ll be chomping at the bit for November.  I just finished signing my name to a tough check.   I’m looking forward to signing my name again when I vote.

Listen to this commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 6, 2014:

Oleander on Here, Kansas, Winter Olympics        

            Folks, Here, Kansas, has had a tough winter.  Nothing like the great blizzard of 1886, though, when the temperatures dropped to 40 below.  When snowdrifts covered houses.  When folks had to force their doors open a crack and begin tunneling to their barns, if they could find them.  When people burned their furniture to stay alive.  When cattle huddled together, froze into a bovine icicle, and rotted instead of thawed.  February has been tough, but not Kansas tough.
            Now, we’re spending all our time at the Co-op watching the Winter Olympic Games on the television.  “Why, we should give out medals ourselves,” said Iola Humboldt.  ”For our own homegrown Winter Games.”  Folks, here are the winners:
The Gold for Ice Dancing went to Mabel Beemer.  When she started to fall in her driveway, managed to outstretch her arms, spin twice, land skillfully and slide on her knees to her mailbox.  She replaced bewilderment with balance. Only Elmer Peterson saw the performance, but he sounded like an Olympic commentator, happily noting Mabel’s grace, her slow swivel, her elegant slide.
            Claude Anderson took Gold in Snow Blowing.  “All summer I push a mower,” he said.  “And why?  To keep in shape for pushing that dang blower up and down what’s left of Here, Kansas.  People need gasoline,” he continued.
            “And that’s the week all my seed catalogues came,” said Mabel Beemer.
Claude was cited for endurance, record time, the flawless start and sputtering finish of his blower.
            Barney Barnhill took Gold for Jump Starts.  How that man can jump.  Out of his old International Harvester, cables in hand, releasing trunk lids with a flick so quick you’d need slow motion film to study it.  Then the quick lock onto the battery posts, the revving engines, the coughing to life of what might have been a half a dozen cars frozen for the winter.
            I took the Gold for Shoveling, known as I am for my deep push, my strong-wristed release of snow, always so the wind takes it away from the sidewalk.  “He doesn’t come up for air,” said Iola Humboldt. “He’s out there, head down, clearing that path, turning the corners without coming to a full stand, and not back in the house until his beard is frosted with ice.”
            The Co-op dog, named Curl, because that’s his normal position, took his usual Gold for Curling.  Enough said.
            I hear the Kansas Legislature is playing their usual Winter Games.  Their signature event?  Skating on Thin Ice.  The House, all bundled up in their religious freedom outfits, skated right, literally, onto the ice with an anti-gay bill.  The ice broke in the Senate, drowning House Bill No. 2453.  Spank me ten times with an open palm, and leave a bruise if you must, but I have the feeling their games have just begun.
            Folks, in Here, Kansas, we congratulate each other for our Winter Games.  Across the nation, the Kansas legislature is ridiculed for its games.  Seems there’s no gold medal for cold hearts.
             

Listen to this commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on January 31, 2014:

Oleander on Keeping in Touch via InstaTweetSnapGram

            Folks, even though I’m up there in years, I’m not too old for New Year’s resolutions.  One of them this year:  stay in better touch with the younger folks in my family.  So, for the first several weeks in January I re-activated my e-mail account and started writing.  Nothing important, just, “Thinking of you,” and “Heard from your mother that baby Paula was sick—hope she’s all better.”  Two e-mails a day.
            Such chit-chat received nothing in return.  I know the kids are busy these days, their lives wrung out with child care and carpooling, with working more than one job, with some of them in school.  I was philosophical about the silence, and, I thought, persistent.  I re-activated my Facebook account, friended all of them again, and posted little squibs about the seed catalogues arriving in the mail, about the temperature highs and lows, about Mabel Beemer’s cat and Claude Anderson’s dog.  A couple of my family members “liked” my posts.  I Facebook messaged them, with nothing important. 
            And that meant nothing back.  Every morning I’d turn on that computer, check my e-mails, scroll through Facebook, and find nothing personal.  Facebook was mostly gags:  those pictures like the one titled “Arizona Winter Storm,” showing an overturned lawn chair, with the words, “We will rebuild.”  Or short videos meant to inspire me, or make me laugh, or shake my head about the human condition, or increase my admiration for babies, cats, or dogs.  In short, the posts exaggerated the cute, the sentimental, the ridiculous, the inspirational, the cynical.  Everything from the phrase:  “Happiness is . . . carrying so many books home from the library that your arms hurt,” which is not my idea of happiness, to the riddle, “Which U.S. State has the smallest soft drinks?  Mini-soda.”
            E-mail was worse.  More of nothing, from all those who have my e-mail address.  Humorous forwards, inspirational forwards to make me renew my faith in Humanity or God or Science or Common Sense.  Some made me lose faith in all those things.  One forward was a diatribe against Obama (Things they didn’t tell you about Obamacare).  Another about Jane Fonda (Yes, people are still mad at her for visiting Hanoi).  Oh, and bad jokes about Muslims (Yes, racism thrives—only the targets change).  Or warnings about computer viruses that don’t exist except as e-mail forwards, which are a kind of virus in themselves.
            Folks, in my resolution to connect, I learned two things:  first, that younger folks are not using Facebook or e-mail.  In my only Facebook reply, my great-granddaughter clued me in:  “Gramps,” she wrote, “we do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.”  I didn’t ask her what those were, or how they worked.  I can’t even say InstaTweetSnapGram.  Second, I learned to hate forwards.  As I told Iola Humboldt, anything that comes as a forward is likely backward.

            So much for connection.  Instead, I renewed my desire to disconnect.  I went back to my seed catalogues, and my rotary telephone.  That baby’s better, by the way, and Claude’s dog has only benign tumors.  Mabel’s cat is on a Science Diet.  And the weather is … changeable.

Listen to this commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on December 3, 2013:

Restoring Beauty: A Capitol Idea

            Folks, I happened to be in Topeka the other day.  I stopped by the Capitol building, where we’ve spent a pretty penny.  Yep, 332 million dollars of pretty pennies, to be exact, which means over 33 billion actual pennies.  The new dome, rich copper, looks like someone hammered out all those pennies and pressed them into a sky suddenly landmarked with character and beauty.  The renovation project, soon to be completed, took only 15 years, less than half the 37 needed to build the Statehouse in the first place.
            From this taxpayer’s perspective, time and money were well spent.  Even in difficult economic times—and all factions of all parties in Kansas seemed to agree—we need to preserve our past.  We need to restore beauty.  We need to live with respectful elegance in this public building.  In William Allen White’s novel of Kansas, A Certain Rich Man, an impoverished Civil War Veteran suffering through the economic depression of 1893, spends some of his last dollars to buy flower seeds.  When ridiculed for his foolish waste of money, he remarks that a life without beauty, and the promise of beauty, is not worth living.
            The inside of the renovated Capitol is dazzling.  Copper shines.  Even the heating grates in the Senate Chamber are works of gleaming art.  Gold leaf shimmers from the tops of columns, from filigreed flowers, from fleur-de-lis and other designs.  Let’s not feel guilty about spending money on such gold gilt.  Everywhere, oak and walnut, rich, deeply-grained, solid, feel substantial, as does the cleaned, polished marble.  Murals have been restored.  The names of prominent Kansans like John Brown, James Lane and Charles Robinson, once painted over, again march above the windows in the Kansas House Chamber.  Light streams in, as the original architects intended.
            According to the Kansas State Historical Society, the Capitol was first designed as a symbol of our pride in overcoming the struggles that led to statehood.  We still have much to be proud of, especially the Statehouse:  we can boast one of the finest in the United States.  We should be proud of our restoration.  We should visit, and walk in nonpartisan beauty.
            We could also extend our sense of nonpartisan beauty.  We have elegant buildings all over the state, especially on college campuses.  We could proudly restore them.  We have investments to make in the students on those campuses, that our state might be more productive and thriving.  We could provide that “suitable” education for our children, restoring pretty pennies to Kansas public schools. Okay, folks, you can tell that I left the beauty of the Statehouse and hit the streets around downtown Topeka.  We can pat ourselves on the back for our Capitol, but we could also create beauty in the surrounding Kansas environment, in other state properties, and in the lives of every Kansan.  We could spend some pretty pennies and give our tarnished Kansas image some real

Listen to this commentary at the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on August 13, 2013:

“Dear Old Kansas”

            Folks, back in 1910, Carl Becker, wrote what became for years the definitive essay on the nature of Kansas.  He begins by describing his first trip to Kansas, after taking a position as history professor at the University of Kansas.  He writes:  “. . . I rode out of Kansas City and entered for the first time what I had always pictured as the land of grasshoppers, of arid drought, and barren social experimentation.”  He notes that two young women, KU students as it turned out, had been chattering ceaselessly, but as they crossed the border, they became quiet, and for fifteen minutes looked out the train window.  Finally, “with the contented sigh of a returning exile,” one of them said, “Dear Old Kansas.”  Becker spends the rest of his essay with this premise:  “To understand why people say ‘Dear Old Kansas!’ is to understand that Kansas is no mere geographical expression, but a ‘state of mind,’ a religion, and a philosophy in one.”
            Of course he speaks of Kansas idealism, writing that Kansans “have always thrived on the impossible, and the field of many failures offers a challenge not to be resisted.”
He writes about the Kansas sense of the future, remarking that Kansans don’t live in the present, but in “the idealized Kansas of some day . . .”
           And he writes of our love of individualism, but not at the expense of others:  “The welfare of society is thought to be always superior to that of the individual, and yet no one doubts that perfect liberty is the birthright of every man.”
           And Becker analyzes the kind of social experimentation that saw Prohibition and other causes written into law:  “Having conquered nature, they cheerfully confront the task of transforming human nature.”
           Finally, Becker examines our sense of morality.  Here’s his list:  “to be honest and pay your debts; to be friendly and charitable, good-humored but not cynical, slow to take offense, but regarding life as profoundly serious; to respect sentiments and harmless prejudices; to revere the conventional great ideas and traditions, to live a sober life and a chaste one . . .”  He goes on to translate this morality to politics: “One may be democrat or republican,  . . . But no one dreams of denying democracy, the will of the people, the greatest good to the greatest number, equal justice and equal opportunity to all.”
           Folks, you can decide whether the Kansas of now is anything like the Kansas Becker described over a hundred years ago.  I think the state is more like what Becker thought he would find:  drought, reckless and barren social experimentation, intolerance, individualism privileged over public good.
           Folks, I’ve traveled away from the state some this summer.  In the past, upon reaching the Kansas border, I have remembered my Becker.  I have sighed, and repeated, “Dear Old Kansas.”  For the first time, this year, I did not.

Listen to this commentary at the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on June 14, 2013:

Old Man Kansas visits the Co-op

         Well, folks, now that the legislative session is over, old man Kansas did his usual stumble into the Here, Kansas, Co-op. What's left of his hair was a little wild, but he had his usual manic energy, and those intense eyes. Think of John Steuart Curry’s John Brown, on the statehouse wall.  Only instead of a Bible and rifle in his arms, Kansas carried a bag of money and a handgun.  I pulled out my little notebook and a pen.
         "Have a seat," we told him. "You deserve a rest. Tell us how you're doing."
         "Well, it was a long session," Kansas said. "Especially for an old man like me."
         "You better off than you were before the legislative session?" I asked him.
         He held up his money, and his gun. "I still got these," he grinned.
         "What about everything else?" asked Claude Anderson.
         "Well, I'm not schooling myself quite like I used to," Kansas said. "Money’s scarce, you know.  And those that want to go to college can pay for it, just like they pay for a TV at Walmart.” Education cuts, I wrote in my little book.
         “And you’da been proud of me,” Kansas said, “I didn't want the feds telling me what our standards ought to be in education.  Course that didn’t quite pass this time around."
         Grumbling about the Common Core, I wrote.
         "I don't get around quite like I used to," said Kansas. "It'll be someone else's turn to take the pike, I reckon."
         Kansas Turnpike Authority co-opted by the state, I wrote.
         "And I have to worry a little more about who's out on the streets," he said, "but that's why I have my gun, and my increased right to carry it where I want."  Cuts in the Department of Corrections budget, I wrote.
         "You won't need a gun here," I said. And even Claude, who has carried a concealed weapon ever since he could, looked askance at old Kansas, like the old man might just decide he'd had enough of the rest of us.
         "You may have heard,”  said Kansas. “I'm also starting to harness the judiciary.  The people shouldn't be bridled by activist courts."
         Change in selection of appellate judges, I wrote in my notebook.
         "So I guess I'm doing okay. I’m gliding toward zero income taxes, and I’ve got my second amendment rights holstered.  Bottom line, I have my money, and my expanded right to protect it. That's freedom.  And I’m going home to enjoy it.  Won’t take me long at 75 miles per hour."
         Folks, we ushered the old man out of the Co-op, shaking our heads.  You know, Kansas has always been a wild hair, radical left and right.  But never too far from his public.  This year, he just didn't seem half the man he once was.

Listen to this commentary at the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 13, 2013:

Kansas: A “Real-Live Experiment” Scorecard

           Folks, Gov. Brownback has called his political agenda a “red-state model” and a “real live experiment” in government.  Historically, Kansas has been the stomping grounds of social and political experimentation. Perhaps the first was the Free-State cause that helped settle the state.  The idealistic Abolitionists won.  What’s the scorecard for other experiments?
           Kansas women could vote in school elections in 1861, municipal elections in 1887, and that year Susanna Salter became the first female mayor in the United States.  Kansas has elected women to the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, and we’ve had two female governors.  Thumbs up for that experiment.
           In 1880, the Kansas electorate changed the state constitution to begin our longtime relationship with Prohibition.  Laws were not strictly enforced, and Kansas became home to Bootleggers, Carry A. Nation, and such hypocrisy about alcohol that William Allen White wrote:  “Kansans will vote dry as long as they can stagger to the polls.”  The great experiment “failed” nationally in 1933 and in Kansas in 1948.  Thumbs down for that experiment.
           In the 1890s, Kansas elected Populists, who called for the regulation of banks, railroads, and utilities.  They wanted eight-hour work days, worker safety laws, free coinage of silver and a graduated income tax.  Their experiment largely failed, so thumbs down.  But twenty years later, with Kansas in the forefront, the Progressive wing of the Republican Party adopted nearly every policy the Populists worked for.  Thumbs up after all.
           From 1904-1923, Kansas experimented with public health law.  Led by Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine, Kansas passed ordinances against the housefly, the rat, the common drinking cup, the roller towel, and public spitting.  We had the first clean water act.  Kansans enjoyed greater longevity than most surrounding states.  So thumbs up.
           Both political parties came under the spell of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. William Allen White ran for governor in 1924 as an Independent to expose and ridicule the Klan and its influence.  He was successful.  Thumbs down for the Klan, thumbs up for White and Kansas.
           So what about the current “real-live experiment,” the “red-state model” of less government and less taxation?  Well, we’ve seen the gutting of the Kansas Arts Commission.  We’ve seen proposals to weaken unions, to make state aid more difficult for the poor to access, to change the civil service structure for state workers, to alter how the state appoints judges, and to amend the legislature’s constitutional obligation to give Kansas children a “suitable” education.  Elected officials don’t seem to believe in professional expertise in matters of health care, education, and judicial selections.  Ideologues have replaced idealists in Kansas. 
           So far, I say thumbs down.  This experiment is narrow and restrictive, driving away unfunded artists, state workers who will have no stability, the legal profession who will have no say, educators who will be unsupported, and the poor, who will no longer be with us, which is perhaps the intent of policy makers. Folks, Kansas has thrived with we’ve advanced the broadest of American principles: the expansion of the rights and liberties of all citizens.  This “real-live experiment” puts money and social control above rights and liberties.  It is doomed to fail, at least on this old Kansan’s scorecard. 

Listen to this commentary at the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary will air on Kansas Public Radio on or around Valentine's Day, 2013:

Oleander On Renewal of Vows (first aired on KPR in 2001)

            Folks, my sweetheart Iola Humboldt and I have eighteen grandchildren and twenty-three great-grandchildren. We keep their names, with their pictures, on our refrigerator.  Last month, Iola said, “We need a bigger refrigerator!”  We had just returned from another family wedding: one more picture and name to learn.
            “We could buy a second refrigerator,” I said.  “I’ll put my family on one, you put yours on the other.”
            “Weddings make me feel closer, not farther apart,” she said.
            “I was teasing,” I said.  But Iola had taken it wrong.
            I waited a day.  “Maybe we should say some vows,” I said.
            “I’ve liked the weddings where they quote First Corinthians,” said Iola.  “The love verses.”
            “Love versus what?” I teased. She was hurt.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  I went for the Bible.  Iola found the verses: 
            “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  That’s you,” she said.  “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
            “Love is patient and kind,” she continued.  “Or else it SHOULD be. Love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
            “Could you say all that?” Iola asked.
            “Don’t know,” I said.
            “Quit teasing,” she said.  “Be serious for once.”
            “I don’t like to idealize love,” I said.  “How about you say First Corinthians.  I’ll say something like, Love is hard work with wonderful moments of rest; love is muddy, with clear water running beneath; love is frustrating in the short run, but rewarding in the long run; love is compromising until you know your limitations.  It most certainly is rude, insistent on its own way, irritable and resentful.  Still it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love endures a cluttered refrigerator, covered with names.”
            “You certainly lack sentimentality,” said Iola.
            “Not really,” I said.  “Love is like this refrigerator.  Each picture is an individual working to make a relationship.  You stand back and look at the whole thing.  It has no name.  It is too big to think about.  It’s hard to put that into vows.”
            “Let’s not try to do it, then, ever again,” said Iola.
            “Again?” I asked.
            “Yes, again.  You just tried.  When I’m feeling in need of vows, I’ll inspect the refrigerator with its mix of fresh and moldy, spicy and bland.  Then I’ll shut the door, back up and try to take in the whole cluttered, beautiful thing, inside and out.”
            “I love you,” I said.  And that was vows enough for us.

Listen to this commentary at the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on February 1, 2013:

Oleander on Kansas Day, 2013

            Folks, we Hereins in Here, Kansas, spent our Kansas Day in the Co-op.  Although it was a balmy day, we weren’t thankful for it.  We huddled indoors as usual, talking about Kansas.  Starting, of course, with the weather.
            “I like the warmth, but I want the snow,” said Claude Anderson, the Co-op’s proprietor.
            Nobody said a word.  We know better than to argue climate change, or just about anything else these days.  So I started a Kansas Day game.  “What state symbol seems closest to your heart this year?” I asked.
            “Buffalo,” said Barney Barnhill, the oldest among us, “because I nearly went extinct with that heart episode.”
            “Harney Silt Loam, the State Soil,” said Mabel Beemer, but then everyone knows that she’s our best gardener.
            “State Song,” said Elmer Peterson, who owns the Here, Kansas, Drive-Thru Pharmacy and Car Wash, “because it describes Kansas as it was when my grandparents settled here.”
            “Me,” I said, “I identify most with the Ornate Box Turtle.”
            “Because of your crusty exterior?” asked Claude.
            “Because you’ve lived so long?” asked Barney.
            “Because he moves so slow,” said Elmer.
            “Nope,” I said.  “I’m just in my shell.” 
            When they asked what I meant, I explained.  “We Kansans have a proud past.  Whether conservative, moderate, liberal, or whether Democrat or Republican, we worked together for a better state.  Our heroes were as diverse as Abolitionist John Brown, Populist Mary Elizabeth Lease, Temperance Crusader Carry Nation, Progressive Journalist William Allen White, Governor Alf Landon, President Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Bob Dole.
            “Now,” I said, “I’m not sure who we look up to.  I’m just a turtle, hiding in my shell, and no matter the weather, it seems mighty chilly outside.  I stick my neck out just long enough to read about revenue shortfalls and the tax cuts proposed to solve them.  I read about growing numbers of homeless Kansas children.  About poverty levels at their highest in the history of the state.  That’s cold.  Inside my shell, I can remember the robust Kansas past I love so much, and celebrate every January 29th.  Outside, I’m confused.  I don’t see enough beating hearts. Inside, I can still feel some warmth for my state.”
            “In that case, William,” Iola Humboldt chimed in, “I’d like to choose the honeybee as my State Symbol.  I’d like Kansans to come together, work together, set mutual goals for survival, and take care of everyone in the hive.  I’d like to live in a land that honors its past by making life sweeter for the future.”
            “Hear, hear,” I said, coming out of my shell, hoping to see my bitterness replaced with sweetness.  And that was Kansas Day in Here.  Happy 152nd, folks.

Listen to this Kansas Day commentary at the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on November 15, 2012:

Winter Onions

            Folks, Claude Anderson and I were sitting in the Here, Kansas, Co-op, talking about the prospect of the next winter wheat crop.  We can already see the skim of green on the fields, and, like the local farmers, we have our hopes. 
           You never know who might wander into a place like Here, Kansas.  This particular Saturday it was John Peet, the grandson of Fred and Violet Peet.  He used to spend a couple of weeks each summer at the Peet place, back when he was a boy.  Of course Fred died over 20 years ago.  Violet moved to town, then spent her last seven years in a nursing home after her breast cancer.  She died earlier this Fall.
           John asked for a cup of coffee, sat down, and began to talk.  He remembered that hottest room of the old Peet farmhouse, the southwest bedroom, attic ceiling slanting in the heat.  He’d headed out there, he said, to see the view from that window one last time.  He anticipated driving slow, crunching gravel, and, when the road curved, he would see the house, white with green trim, the front partly blocked by the apple and pear trees along the lane.  “I was going to pull in, and go to the barn.  Do you remember how big it was?” he asked.  “My brother, you remember Thomas?  We were going to take turns grabbing the rope and swinging.”  That boy remembered what it was like to take dizzying swoops down and then swinging back up to a safe landing in the hayloft.
            And he wanted to see his grandmother’s garden, which, he thought, might still be someone’s garden, winter onions green all year round.  He wanted to pick one and carry that boyhood taste with him.  The asparagus, he thought, would be all lace and red berries.  And no doubt the corral would be in use, some horses, maybe a mule.  And chickens.  He’d hated them, especially the banty rooster that pecked at his Achilles tendon, making him run.  “I raise those little roosters for fun,” his Grandma Violet had always said.  “To keep boys moving.”
            So, John told us, he’d headed deeper into the country outside of Here.  He looked forward to seeing his brother Thomas.  They’d been together at Violet’s funeral, a small service, the grave soon sodded, the ground no different from all the other graves. 
           “I got to that curve, the one by No-mile Creek,” John said.  “And maybe you already know.  But there’s nothing.  No house, no barn, no trees, no chicken house or corral.  Only my brother’s car, parked in a short space that once was the beginning of the drive.”
           Folks, we had to feel for John Peet.  Like a lot of places, his grandparents’ farm was bought and everything torn down.  Replaced by a flat field of winter wheat, young and green.
           “We walked into the field,” said John Peet, “to where the house might have stood.  I bent down and picked one small sprout of winter onion.  I put it in my mouth.  That bitterness is still there.” The boy took another swig of burned coffee, set his cup down, and left Here, Kansas.

Listen to this commentary on the KPR Archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on October 11, 2012:

Oleander on Harvesting Vegetables

            Folks, gardening season is nearly over.  I’m going to miss the work, the vegetables, and the good eating I’ve had since last April.  I’m going to miss the fun of harvesting.  Why, each day as I climb down my back porch stairs to the garden, Iola follows me.  “Don’t you want to take some scissors?” she asks.  I shake my head.  I know the garden guides tell us to gently cut and shear our produce, to protect vegetable and plant.
Not me.  Like my daddy before me, I like to rip and tear, to handle my food in the garden.  I dig potatoes and peanuts, clawing them from the earth.  I yank okra down.  I pinch basil between thumb and finger, then snap it up—same with fennel, cilantro, and dill.  I lift and snap peppers and green beans.  I shred lettuce, spinach, and chard.  I pull onions, radishes, and beets, ripping off their tops for salad garnish.  I snap broccoli, and I roll Brussels sprouts.  I twist cabbages and cauliflowers.  I tug tomatoes.  I twist corn.  I steal strawberries from the birds and I pilfer melons because that rich tradition actually improves their flavor.
            Once I bring my harvest inside, the civilized Iola, with her blades and food processor, takes over.  She peels, chops, slices, cuts, dices, cores, juliennes, crushes, grates, sheers, cubes, scallops, shreds, and grinds with the best of them.  And at the table, I am a delicate man.  I gently raise knife, or spoon, or fork to food, and then to mouth, enjoying the sublime tastes so savagely brought to Iola’s well-set, linen-covered dining table.
            After dinner, though, I return to the garden.  It’s good for my digestion.  Usually, I weed.  This is the most important harvest in the garden, getting rid of all that hinders and debilitates, all that steals nutrients and water and sunlight from what I want to grow.  I can be a little savage again, yanking, pulling, digging, hoeing, chopping, clipping, pinching, and tilling.  I destroy with great satisfaction, then rest until next morning’s vegetable harvest.
            Soon enough, I’ll be sitting at the dining table with nothing more than a garden catalogue, imagining the harvests of tomorrow.  For what is gardening in Kansas?  It’s spending nine months of the year outside in the elements, often craving the indoors, then three months indoors, wishing to be outside, active, like a verb.

Listen to this commentary on the KPR Archives

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on June 1, 2012:

Oleander on Weeds & Immigrants

            Folks, since 1937 Kansas has had a Noxious Weed law.  Among those on the Most (not) Wanted list are some fearful dangers:  Kudzu, Bindweed, Canada and other Thistles, Russian Knapweed, Bur Ragweed, Pignut, Johnsongrass and Sericea Lespedeza. A Johnson County extension agent recently warned:  weeds are prolific, and in no time “the neighbors, the vacant lots and even the street corners give way to these weeds.”  He also noted:  “Another characteristic of noxious weeds is their ability to adapt.”
            These words remind me of what Richard Mabey wrote in his book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants:  “The Twentieth Century, with its global trade and world wars and ubiquitous paranoia, brought with it not just new weeds, but new conceptions of what weeds might be, and do.  Weed anxiety took root.  The vagabond plants were not seen not just as nuisances, but as actively dangerous.”
            Folks, the language for weeds is eerily similar to the language for immigrants.  Unwanted plants and unwanted people, it seems, thrive where others don’t want to be, where it's too dry, too wet, too cold, or too warm.  They adapt, take root, take over.  They also thrive where we don't want them, multiply too quickly, take up too much space and too many resources.  They crowd out what is more valuable.  They are hard to get rid of.  They are vigorous and aggressive, and dangerous.  This is the thinking, anyway.
            So yes, as against Noxious Weeds, laws are passed against people.  Plants are hunted down, pulled up, sprayed, flattened, uprooted, even bulldozed.  Non-native people are forced to prove citizenship, to have identification at polling places, in schools, and at social service agencies.  They are banished from our borders, parents separated from children in our zeal to keep our land pristine for natives.
            But in Kansas, immigration has always been an economic engine.  Historically, we’ve been recruiters, inviting people from the eastern states after the Civil War, from Germany when the Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads had land to sell, from Mexico during that same rail boom, from Eastern Europe to work in Southeast Kansas mines, from Latin America for oil and gas, from Vietnam and South America and Africa to work in meat packing plants.  These people were no more dangerous than Turkey Red Winter Wheat, another immigrant.  We’ve brought in clovers, sorghum, alfalfas, soybeans and all sorts of valuable non-native plants.  Do we fear them?  No. 
            My advice:  don’t base laws on fears, base them on realities.  The green of winter wheat, the brown face in the small town café.  Neither is noxious.  Both should be welcome.  Both help make Kansas what it is.

Listen on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on May 17, 2012:

Oleander on Kansas Going Dry

            Folks, back in March, Governor Sam Brownback signed two bills designed to conserve the state’s water supply and extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.  The Executive and Legislative branches finally agree that limited water use can help our future.  They know what some gardeners have known for years—sometimes it’s best to xeriscape: that is, use landscaping techniques for arid climates.  I can imagine Kansas finally stumbling into one of those meetings, ready to give up drinking from the aquifer:

            Hello, my name is Kansas, and I’m ready to practice all that is xeriscape.  I’m ready to admit my aridity, to dry out, to return to my natural state.  I’ve tried to deny my need for xeriscapism my whole life, I guess.
            In those early days, I was hopeful.  I didn’t have to be dry.  Rain, I thought, would follow the plow, and boy, did I get plowed.  I scatched that itch from the Missouri border to the Colorado line, releasing the pent up moisture in the soil, hoping it would come back down in rain.  No rain.  So I found another frenzy, railroad building.  All that metal lying exposed on my plains would attract lightning, and, with it, rain.  Still I was dry, but couldn’t admit it.  I wanted moisture, I wanted to drink it all in.
            Of course, I got in on the Timber Culture Act of 1873.  The government noticed a connection between water and forested areas, so why not be forested?  I was planted in acres and acres of two-foot pines in the Sand Hills along the Arkansas River, back in the early 1900s.  Dry no more, I thought, and I waited to drink it in!  Those trees never grew, that water never came.  Lord, I needed a drink.  I was still young.  In my frustration I shot off cannons because rain always follows a battle.  But the only battle was with my own nature.  I found religion and tried prayer—had congregations, towns, whole counties praying to the higher powers, and still I was a lost soul.  When I had the energy, I built ponds and dammed rivers for lakes, hoping that a little water would attract a lot of water.  No luck.  I took to the air and seeded clouds, flying high, and still I had nothing to show for it.
            When you’ve tried everything, you look inside yourself, you dig deep.  I should have recognized my need for xeriscapism then, but when I went deep down I found the aquifer, and I pumped and pumped, pure relief, drinking and releasing center pivots, flooding myself, enjoying the green, but ruining myself and my future.
            I realize that now.  Please, I need help.  I’ve been in denial too long.  I have few resources left.  I need to come clean, need to admit I’m a candidate for xeriscape, I need to find my natural state.  I’m ready to take it one day at a time.  Ready to let go and let the higher powers take over.  I thank you for your support.  I promise I’ll keep attending these meetings.

Listen on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on April 12, 2012:

Oleander on Roundabouts and Three-lane Highways

            Well, folks, Iola Humboldt and I had to take our grandson to the Kansas City Airport, so we had what started as a nice car trip.  I love the old Kansas two-lane road, not much traffic, some nice curves, some thin bridges to squeeze through, hills to climb and, at the top, another look into a deep Kansas valley, cut through by river or creek.
            I-70 isn’t bad, either, through the Flint Hills between Junction City and Topeka.  By Topeka, though, a small town driver can feel like there might actually be traffic in Kansas.  That new 75 miles per hour seems just a little faster with cars ahead, alongside and behind, and most really going 80 or 85.
            But then you feel some relief.  After the turnpike ticket booth, you have 15 miles of three-lane road.  I take that back.  You should feel relief, but you don’t, because nearly every vehicle is in the left two lanes.  Slower Traffic Keep Right, the sign says.  But every time I’ve driven that stretch, it’s the center lane being used, and the “slow lane” is a daring pass on the right, while another car passes that center car on the left.  Maybe Kansans don’t like to admit they’re slow.  Maybe, having little experience with triple lanes, they just ignore that extra lane.  Maybe they stay in the center lane because in a few miles it’ll become the right lane again, anyway.
            Folks, I’m an old man, so I know habits die hard.  And I think sometimes Kansas habits die hardest.  When Wichita and Topeka first started building roundabouts, Claude and Martha Anderson told horror stories about circling two or three times around, stuck in the inside lane, afraid to turn lest they sideswipe another car.  “An intersection is where two lines cross,” Claude complained.  “Why should that be a dizzying experience?”  Iola and I took off to Wichita and mastered the roundabout with the same glee we experienced as kids on a tilt-a-whirl.
            Folks, we returned from Kansas City, our grandson properly delivered via roundabout to the circle of Terminal B.  We stayed to the right, speed-limited drivers as we are, between Lecompton and Topeka, though that meant we actually passed cars going under the speed limit in the center lane.  We took I-70 through the hills and turned onto narrow two-lanes, asphalt and then finally gravel, to Here.
            Yes, we’re sophisticated Kansas drivers.  We adjust to everything from sliding gravel and dust to being dusted past by speed demons, from the curves and one-lane bridges to the dizzying roundabouts.  Kansans, stop resisting roundabout, start using three lanes properly.  The future is ahead of you, wider and more efficient.  Quit spinning your wheels and learn to drive.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 23, 2012:

Oleander on Meditation Room

            Well, folks, I’m all for this Meditation Room in the state capitol.  Think of it:  a room you can enter, be quiet, not be assaulted by religious icons, sacred texts, group prayers, or invocations to dieties.  That’s rare in the Statehouse, these days.  The Statehouse still has a chaplain, you know, in the form of Kansas ministers who still help our legislators open each day’s session with a prayer—non-denominational, preferable, but not always.
            The simple, nondenominational Meditation Room, according to the sponsors of the bill creating it, would answer any criticisms about the violation of separation of church and state.  In this case, church and Statehouse.  That might be nice.  Our governor certainly doesn’t hesitate to pray, or attend prayer meetings and rallies here and in other states.  His cabinet meetings have been opened with prayers.  The former Social and Rehabilitation Services Department began office meetings with prayers so often the wags at the Here, Kansas, Co-op called it the office of Social and Religious Services.
            Is it possible that making one place in the Statehouse faith-neutral might influence more of the Statehouse, and more of our elected officials, to be faith-neutral?
            Folks, I went to a one-room schoolhouse near Here, Kansas.  I grew up saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag each morning, my hand over my heart.  This was before we were “one Nation, under God.”  That language came with the 1950s, and the fear of communism and its Godlessness.  That was an hysterical time, just like the one we’re in now, and we responded with allegiance to God and with Senator Joseph McCarthy, at least until the latter was discredited.  I still don’t say “under God,” but everyone else seems to.  The religiosity of our time, the declarations politicians feel compelled to make about their Christianity, the arguments that all our founders were Christians—some were and some weren’t—with the same vision of a Christian nation, added to the required piety of everyone elected to office—all of these things are creating more cultural divides than the separation of church and state.
            So let’s have that faith-neutral space.  After all, if we can do it in the Statehouse, maybe we can do it all over the state.  Imagine a Kansas where you didn’t have to say “under God,” didn’t have to be led in prayer at every civic club meeting and high school assembly, didn’t have to be bombarded by those wearing their faith on their sleeves and wondering why your life is bare of scripture, your jewelry box without crosses, your car’s bumper without a mention of Jesus.
            Imagine a new state slogan:  Kansas:  the Meditation State.  Those of all faiths, and those with no faith, would be welcome, could be quietly who they are spiritually, without fervor and righteousness.  We would do things ethically because they were the right things to do.  I’d like that:  a little more humanity and a little less divine direction.  Starting with this Meditation Room.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on February 9, 2012:

Oleander on Lists/Fame

            “Well,” said Claude, “I don’t think I’m ever going to make it on the Sexiest Man Alive list.”  He tossed a magazine on the table, belched, hooked up his overalls, and took a seat next to me at the Co-op.
            “And me,” said Elmer Peterson, of the Drive-Thru Pharmacy and Car Wash, “I don’t think I’ll be on anyone’s best dressed list.”  He adjusted his scarf, the one his grandmother knitted him when he was a boy, a faded orange striped with red.  He sat next to Claude.
            Folks, I stopped looking at those lists years ago.  There are so many things we aren’t ever going to be.  There are so many things we won’t own—from best new technology to most efficient automobiles.  And there are so many things we won’t read.  And so many places we’ll never visit.  And all of those things are in every magazine, making us feel like we’re only living half a life:  the half that sits in the Here, Kansas, Co-op.  That half is told over and over that we’re not the ones getting the bonuses on Wall Street, we’re not the ones winning prizes, we’re not the ones on the TV showing that America has talent. 
            So who are we?  We’re told we’re middle class, we’re rural, we’re the 99 %, we’re the elderly—we’re a Co-op full of senior discount boys who are costing the taxpayers in Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security.  We often sit drinking nickel cups of coffee and calling each other names. “Taxpayer’s nightmare,” Claude Anderson says to me.
            “At least I don’t have an aging infrastructure,” I say.
            “We live much longer we’ll skew the statistics on the elderly in Kansas,” Elmer Peterson says.
            “We’re skew ups, for sure,” says Claude.
            Folks, I don’t think Claude really cares that he’s not the sexiest man in America, nor Elmer that he’s not best dressed.  None of us, not Mabel Beemer, not Iola Humboldt, not Claude’s wife, Martha, will ever see ourselves in a magazine, nor read about ourselves except in an obituary—and then it will be too late.  So, we have to be who we are.  As I am who I am. Folks, I’m Mr. William Jennings Bryan Oleander, Honorary Mayor of Here, Kansas.  A father and grandfather.  A partner to Iola Humboldt.  Sometimes sexy, sometimes well-dressed, a senior Kansan, white, non-Veteran, not religious, heterosexual, a Kansan, a carnivore, and an occupier of the Co-op.  Yep, I consider myself in the top ten of what I am, whether you read about it or not.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on January 13, 2012:

Oleander on New Year’s Resolutions

            Folks, unless you’re of a certain age, and unless you grew up in the country, you’ve never watched a tin can slowly rust its way into the earth.  Nor have you seen what’s inside an old man’s barn.  I saw both when I went out to the home place, west of Here, and the slow dissolution of goods left in the creek draw to rust, set against the pack rat optimism of accumulation, gave             Simply put:  Get rid of things, and do it properly.
            I started in the barn.  We old farmers never throw away anything.  Might need that piece of baling wire to wrap around a loose spark plug connection.  And that length of 1 x 2 might be a good lever, or might level that old cabinet full of screws and bolts, washers and drill bits that might come in handy as replacements when a hinge is loose, a bolt shears, or something else breaks down.  Trouble is, so many barns, like the one on the home place, aren’t working barns.  Nothing needs repair but the barn itself.  Take that old washtub, the one full of holes, the one I was going to cut up for pieces to patch the roof on my outbuilding, except the outbuildings rotted and fell in on themselves.  Tractor shed, chicken house, smokehouse—all gone. 
            I lifted that washtub into my pickup truck.  I filled it full of wire, screws, bolts, nails, coffee cans, rusted tin snips, a ball peen hammer head and other tools I hadn’t touched in over forty years, and drove it to Wichita, where I sold it for scrap.  Made enough to pay for my gasoline. On the way home, I nearly wept, for the sadness of what I knew I’d never do again, farm out of that barn, but also for the joy of admitting it and tossing what my children and grandchildren would have had to dispose of sooner or later.
            Fellow Kansans, try this in 2012.  Every day, get rid of one thing you haven’t used, worn, or thought about in a while.  Why, one day I gathered up a dozen seed caps, the greasy coveralls from their hook on the back porch, some wool socks too warm unless it’s below zero, and three pairs of boots from the basement, covered in dryer lint.  I ran everything through the washer and found a duffle bag my son borrowed for college and drove to the Good Will.  I felt lighter, but I’ll admit it’s not easy to give up what you’re used to owning, looking at, knowing you have.
            So here’s a second resolution.  Each day, gather to you something that matters.  Write a letter to a friend you haven’t seen in a while.  Call someone on the telephone to tell them you’re thinking of them.  Take that piece of sea glass you collected from the beach 20 years ago, the one in the bottom of your sock drawer, and put it in the window sill.  You catch my drift—value what matters to you while you trash all that doesn’t make a difference.
            Folks, it may be too late to clean up every draw and barn in Kansas, but it’s not too late to work on your own clutter.   Diminishing your goods is not the same as diminishing your life.  If you try my resolution, you’ll see the difference.  Meanwhile, let me gather you to me with a wish for a Happy New Uncluttered Year.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on December 20, 2011:

Oleander on Topeka

            Folks, Elmer Peterson thought he was being clever the other day, and told the old joke about the difference between Topeka and yogurt.  The punch line: Yogurt has culture.  I would laugh, but I’ve heard it one too many times, and some recent journalism uses the same stereotype, and my nerves are frayed by politics.
            Bill James, the baseball guru from Kansas, began a piece in Slate last March noting that Topeka and Shakespeare’s London have the same population.  Same with Kansas now and England back then.  He goes on to write that London had not only Shakespeare, “but also Christopher Mar­lowe, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and various other men of letters who are still read today. I doubt that Topeka today has quite the same collection of distinguished writers.”  Folks, I’ll set aside the fact that James is writing about how this country cultivates athletes better than writers and other artists.  And I’ll set aside that arts culture could benefit from paying the same early attention to kids with a talent for writing.  And I won’t get into the fact that the late Kansas Arts Commission cultivated such talent with their Writers in the Schools program.  More important to me is Bill James’ random use of Topeka to make his point.
            Because if you look at Topeka poets, you have an impressive list:  Kevin Young, National Book Award finalist; Eric McHenry, Tufts Discovery Award winner; Ed Skoog, published by Copper Canyon Press, one of the best in the United States; Ben Lerner, with the same press, and now with a novel on everyone’s lips; Gary Jackson, winner of the Cave Canem Prize.  Not to mention Dennis Etzel, Matt Porubsky, Cyrus Console and Nick Twemlow.  Folks, don’t feel badly if you haven’t heard of these writers—Bill James hadn’t either, nor had the fact-checkers of Slate, who preferred stereotype to truth.
            This month, Ogden Publishing, based in Topeka, and owner of the alternative press digest Utne Reader, announced they would shut down the Twin Cities offices of that magazine, and move it to Topeka.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an article that lamenting the loss, comparing it to Garrison Keillor moving to Des Moines, or the Guthrie Theatre to Omaha.  This article has been endlessly Facebooked, with comments like:  “You’ve gotta be kidding me. … I threatened to unsubscribe,” and, “Sounds like a story from The Onion.”  Folks, it’s not satire, but the news obviously surprised people and brought out those old stereotypes.
            What’s worse, Topeka is also used in reference to our state government.  Right now, the city is making real cultural inroads, putting its best foot forward, so to speak.  But Kansas has a Governor who, as he did with the Arts Commission, is shooting Topeka in that same best foot forward.  So much for Topeka, a “Good Place to Dig Potatoes.”  I’m getting steamed up about the city being fried in the twice-baked press.  Enough to make you boil, isn’t it?

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on October 12, 2011:

Ness City

            Folks, Iola Humboldt and I went to a library program held in the “Skyscraper of the Plains” in Ness City, the county seat of Ness County.  A former bank, the skyscraper is four stories tall, is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, and is newly renovated with great community support.  Once called "The finest and most imposing structure west of Topeka," the Ness City Bank is a singular piece of Great Plains architecture.  And Ness City is a singular town.
            With a usual population of 1300, Ness City has recently grown to 1500 residents.  Why?  Their economy includes the servicing of the oil business, and oil is experiencing a boomlet in Kansas.  Many of the new rig workers, mechanics, and drivers who service the drills, rigs, and pipelines, are Hispanic.  The Kansas Hispanic population is around 9%; in Ness City it’s around 15%.
            But listen.  Iola and I visited with a realtor.  She had no houses for sale.  All had been bought or rented out.  These new residents have bought low-end homes and are fixing them up to live in or to sell again.  “People seem to be here to stay,” the realtor said.  “And that’s just fine.”  Another long-time Ness Citian said, “These new folks are good for the tax rolls.  Our mill levy went up just 16 instead of 24.”
            Folks, Ness City has embraced their new population.  “They’re good workers,” a man told me.  “Their kids are good in school.  If they don’t know English when they come, they sure learn it quick.”  Another woman said, “And there are some really good student athletes, too.”
            “Does everyone in town welcome these immigrants?” I asked.  A man told me that sure, a few people have some trouble with it, “But they’ll come around.  We’re Kansans.  We’re friendly.”  Folks, that should be true.  In the 1870s, Kansas railroads went looking for Russian-German and German farmers who were well-suited to the Great Plains.  Railroad-owned land was there for farmers, whose products the railroads could ship to market, the railroads bringing farmers the goods needed to survive until next crop.  A win-win.  The railroads recruited Mexican workers in the 1890s and beyond.  In the 1970s, the packing plants welcomed Vietnamese, Somalis, and Hispanics to Southwest Kansas.  These people wanted to be in Kansas, and they filled an economic need.
            Some people fear immigrants.  An almost vindictive Kansas legislature passed new state laws to thwart “illegals,” as we like to call them.  But generally, Hispanics are just like the rest of us.  The statewide average age is 35; theirs is 25.  State home ownership is at 69%; theirs is 56%.  Fifty-two percent of them are married, the same as the entire state population.  They earn about $10,000 a year less than the rest of us, but that will change.  Just as Kansas will change.
            Folks, go on out to Ness City.  Stop and look at the Ness City Bank, an example of an elegantly restored past.  Then cruise the streets trying to find a For Sale sign.  You won’t see one.  Look forward a vibrant future.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on July 26, 2011:

Bartlett Arboretum

            Folks, since Kansas is 150 years old this year, I’ve taken to visiting places with a history.  “What about the Bartlett Arboretum?” I asked Iola Humboldt.  She consulted her Kansas map, but couldn’t find it.  “Let’s just drive to Belle Plaine,” I insisted.
            Folks, it might not be on the map, but the Bartlett Arboretum is still there, a Kansas treasure, as it has been for 101 years.  Dr. Walter Bartlett bought the property in 1910.  His son was a star athlete, so Bartlett put a quarter-mile track on the grounds where the high school held races. He added a baseball diamond, complete with bleachers, for community use.  He dammed and dredged the Euphrates, the creek that runs through the property, made islands and built bridges. Then he planted trees from all over the world.  In 2011, you’ll find the largest Japanese maple in the state of Kansas.
            Before long, Bartlett had a show place known to all who wanted to walk in shaded beauty.  On today’s grounds, you’ll see tree after champion tree, blue ribbons festooning their trunks.  And gardens—hedge, shade, perennial and rock.  And floral walks, a white garden, a tree house and gazebo.  Rows of cypress and willow drink at the creek side.  You’ll see redbuds, birches, magnolias, linden, deciduous holly, cottonwood and an ash from the Biltmore estate.  On an open lawn, weddings are held; in an upper clearing the current proprietor of Bartlett Arboretum hopes to restore the prairie.
            All that you’ll see is hard won.  “The Doctor,” as he was known, continued his interest in the Arboretum until his death in 1937.  Closed during the war years, the place was revived by Bartlett’s son Glen, who had spent his youth running the property.  Trained as a landscape architect and horticulturalist, Glen ran the property in this new capacity, along with his wife, Margaret, a flower arranger and garden enthusiast as dedicated to the place as Glen.  Together, they started the intricate gardens that run through the northeast part of the grounds.  They initiated a Tulip Time, planting 40,000 bulbs to delight Kansans.
            But by the 1980s, their abilities to keep up the property waned.  Mary Bartlett Gourlay, The Doctor’s granddaughter, ran it, then eventually put it up for sale.  A Texas woman made a wrong turn in 1997 after visiting the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, another great Kansas tradition.  She saw the property and was smitten.  Robin Macy told Iola and me that her ignorance was bliss.  If she’d known the work it would take to restore the Arboretum, all she’d need to learn to do it right, and what she’d have—both glorious in its beauty, but weighted in its responsibilities—she might have turned and run.  But she wanted the challenge.  A teacher and musician, actually one of the original founders of The Dixie Chicks, Robin has transformed the property.  In 2010, the Bartlett Arboretum was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
            Folks, this is a Kansas story.  We have to take what we value—our places, our traditions, our hard work, our energy and our love of beauty—and make them tangible.  Robin Macy has gone from flitting around the garden to being the center of it, from butterfly to butterfly bush.  With the help of volunteers—called Soil Sisters and Botanical Brothers—she is moving from restoration to renaissance, with a Bartlett Arboretum Foundation to come.  Also to come:  a visit from you.  It’s up to Kansans to put this place back on the map.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on June 23, 2011:

Oleander on Arthur Capper

            Folks, let’s say it’s July 1910, and you’re a kid in Topeka, Kansas.  You are attending Arthur Capper’s public birthday party, eating ice cream, listening to music, maybe going on a carnival ride or two.  The publisher of the North Topeka Mail and the Topeka Breeze and the Daily Capital will go on to own Capper’s Weekly, Capper’s Farmer and Household magazines, and WIBW radio.  If you keep attending his free birthday celebrations at Garfield or Ripley parks—along with 20,000 other Kansans—you’ll see Capper as Governor (1915-1919) and U.S. Senator (1919-1949).  You might be taking your own children to Capper’s last picnic, in 1950.  The 1951 Flood canceled that year’s party, and Capper died later that year.
            Now, let’s say it’s 1920, around Christmas time, and you’re a crippled kid who cannot go outside when the Santa Claus wagon passes by on your street.  Your nose to the window, you watch as other kids rush to get the presents bought and distributed by the Goodfellows, Arthur Capper among them.  Capper sees you in the window.  One of his employees, Con Van Natta, has a child crippled by polio.  Capper begins a fund to help kids with physical disabilities.  That fund grows into the Capper Foundation for Crippled Children, which grows into the Easter Seals Capper Foundation.  In 1945, Capper spoke of the great “pride in the small part I have had in helping these youngsters on the road to independent, self-sustaining and useful lives in the communities in which they live.”  You might be one of the 20,000 kids the Capper Foundation will help in its 90 years.
            Now, let’s say it’s 2011, and Kansas is celebrating its 150th anniversary of Statehood.  You know that Arthur Capper is one of four Kansans—along with William Allen White, Dwight David Eisenhower and Amelia Earhart—to have a statue in the Statehouse.  He was the first governor of Kansas to be born in Kansas, in Garnett, in 1865.  Of the four worthies, you nominate Capper as having the biggest heart.  He never had children, but dedicated his philanthropic work to children.  He started Pig, Poultry, Flower-Growing and Corn Clubs, all because a child had written in asking for help in buying a pig.  Over the years, Capper loaned children over $100,000 to purchase pigs, chickens and seed, and every dollar was returned to him.  “How can [children] be responsible if nobody places any responsibility upon them?” he asked.
            Folks, I like what Capper represents:  a progressive in politics, an investor in our most important future—children—a champion of opportunity for our most disadvantaged citizens, whether poor or handicapped.  You might want to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Capper Foundation.  There will be a picnic, of course, on July 14, 2011, and if you’re there, along with the usual crowd, 20,000 people, you’ll see in one place at one time the number of people Arthur Capper has helped find independence.  You’ll get a glimpse of Kansas generosity, concern, opportunity and hope.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on April 19, 2011:

Oleander on the Football Garden

            Folks, when we Hereins got together to watch the Super Bowl, all we saw was an expanse of ground a hundred yards and more by half again that.  So much green grass, carefully clipped and watered.  We gardeners started to wonder why gardening is not a spectator sport.  We say, Bring on the National Garden League, the NGL!
            Tear the roofs off those dark stadiums.  Let dozens of men plow down the fields of grass, tilling, shoveling, hoeing.  Each down is a touchdown, with the planting of a seed.  Each seed is a first and ten, or a hundred, one seed reaching up and finding so many fruits and vegetables, flowers and berries that no one person can keep score without help.  We need dozens of people on the sidelines with headsets, talking with those in the highest boxes in the garden stadiums.  The referees on the field give each plant its space.  They flag weeds, molds, rusts and bugs.
            Maybe gardening doesn't look competitive, but it can be "blood sport"--biggest pumpkin, plumpest eggplant, brightest tomato, hottest pepper, most aromatic basil, most tender squash, most productive okra.  And try growing peanuts and avocados in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, or wisteria in Green Bay.  With training, of plants and caretakers, it can be done.
            Folks, the crowd is roaring.  The Bears at Soldier Field have grown artichoke plants larger, more tender, and twice as productive as the Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, in spite of extra money spent on fertilizer, and the hiring of three extra plant coaches.  Commentators wonder if the Colts overdid, risked too much as the season ended.  Fourth and five plants to go, and they went for it.  All of us second guess the coach, the extra heat from the solar panels that backfired into the wilted end of several careers.
            We hear a cheer as the home team corn is passed around the stadium.  The Steelers have grown sweeter, fuller corn that the Ravens--who ate much of theirs on the way to the Heinz Field.  They should have brought a scarecrow with them, but they fired him toward the end of the season and are waiting until next to start fresh.
           These gardening games, spectator agriculture, lead to plants nobody could have expected. Maybe it’s the warmth of human beings watching, maybe the crowd noise, the bands, the cheering, but we’ve never seen gardens like this in all of human history.  The NGL ends with a super bowl, everything from all over the league brought together, everything judged for color, shape, health and taste.  And everyone is fed.  And everyone goes home a winner. 
            We all love the NGL.  We go home to compost and plan.  We can't wait for next season.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 8, 2011:

Averill/Oleander/KANU/KPR—a 20-year relationship

            Well, folks . . . I don’t have to say “Well, folks,” because I speak to you as Tom Averill, and not my alter ego William Jennings Bryan Oleander.  Twenty years ago, this station asked its listeners for Kansas commentaries.  I had been editing a collection of affectionate essays that became What Kansas Means to Me: Twentieth-Century Writers on the Sunflower State, brought out by the University Press of Kansas.  Published in 1991, the book is the Sesquicentennial “Kansas Reads” selection from the State Library.
            All those years ago, after spending months researching “affectionate” pieces about our state, I needed someone who, in commentaries, might be a little more unvarnished about our history, culture and politics.  William Jennings Bryan Oleander was an old Kansas character left over from a fiction project that never took flight.  I liked his Populist voice and his honesty.  I have grown to see Kansas through both his eyes and mine.  His comments, in subject and tone, have given me a second voice.  His debut, for example, chastised Liberal, for losing the annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race to Olney, England.  If we Kansans are going to run the race every year, he asked, and our pride is at stake, why shouldn’t the event be a sanctioned track and field event in Kansas high schools?
            Ever since, Mr. Oleander has had a fine time sharing his hometown, Here, Kansas, population 37, home of the International DENSA Society, that support group for the dizzy, dimwitted and dense.  Early on he attended a Bingo Night in Near Here and found octogenarian love with Iola Humboldt.  She had done nothing more than repeat B-9, but he thought she said “Be Mine,” and they moved in together, scandalizing their children and all the Hereins. 
            Mr. Oleander enjoys the sounds of Kansas place names, his favorite radio time being the reading of school closings:  Osawatomie, Potawatomie, Oskaloosa, Lebo-Waverly.  He spoofs how towns boost themselves through obscure originals, like Here’s:  World’s First, Smallest, Brick, South-Facing, Abandoned Carnegie Library in Kansas, From Which the Dalton Gang Checked Out a Street Guide to Coffeyville, Kansas.  Mr. Oleander served a term in the legislature and with each commentary from the statehouse tried to say what nobody else would.  For example:  Why be so hell-bent on “English First” and anti-immigrant legislation when we built Kansas with recruited foreign speakers, promising them they could speak their native languages in churches and schools.  Are we not proud of their rich contribution?
            Oleander has suggested state symbols—for scenery, the word “level,” and for weather, the tornado, which keeps everything level.  And he’s ridiculed Kansans for not knowing the second verse of Home on the Range.  Admittedly, it’s the worst one.  But in it Brewster Higley locates himself in Kansas, in the Solomon Valley, along Beaver Creek.  So sing it with me:
            Oh, give me the gale, of the Solomon Vale, Where life streams with buoyancy flow.
            On the banks of the Beaver, where seldom if ever, Any poisonous herbage doth grow.
            Mr. Oleander, named for the plant that is inedible in all its parts—root, stem, branch, leaf, fruit, and seed—has perhaps been part of the poisonous herbage of your radio landscape.  I hope so.  Like me, he cares deeply for the state—its landscape, its unique past, its often sensible people, its foibles and its future.  He will continue celebrate it, Sesquicentennial or not.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on February 18, 2011:

Oleander on the Kansas Arts Commission

            Well, folks, Governor Brownback signed Executive Reorganization Order #39 to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission.  He’s creating the nonprofit Kansas Arts Foundation.  The Commission, when founded in 1966, was long overdue.  Gutting it as a state agency is terribly premature.
            I could make the usual arguments.  Republicans usually like investments with big returns.  Why not spend nearly a million to leverage matching funds of over a million, and to create 15 million in added revenue, and to boost the 37,000 arts-related jobs in Kansas, and to help sell the state to the very corporations government is usually happy to lure with tax incentives?  Those businesses want Kansas to have an arts culture, as well.
            But I want to make another point.  Because I’m not really worried about the arts.  Did Robert Sudlow paint so remarkably because of the Kansas Arts Commission?  Did Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton rescue herself from depression with contour drawing so that she could get a grant from the Kansas Arts Commisssion?  Has Denise Low, our second Poet Laureate, spent a career writing poetry that celebrates the natural wonders and history of Kansas in order to receive her Laureate designation from the Commission?  No.  Artists will be artists, and will continue to create.
            I’m more worried about Kansas—our state image.  Think of the cultural celebration and awareness of Kansas we receive from artists like Sudlow, Layton and Low.  That benefit does come with the help of the Arts Commission.  Since 1966, the Commission has made Kansans and those who might come to Kansas—individuals and businesses alike—aware of our vital culture.  And the state support of it is important.
            Let me give you some history.  As early as 1922, William Allen White wrote:  “What we lack most keenly is a sense of beauty and the love of it. … Surely the righteousness which exalts a nation does not also blind its eyes and cramp its hands and make it dumb that beauty may slip past unscathed.”  Four years later, in 1926, W.G. Clugston, in his essay “Kansas, The Essence of Typical America,” quotes Nebraska poet John G. Neihardt:  “… the United States is the only country in the world where lack of culture has developed into a cult.”  He calls for cultural enhancement.  Karl Menninger analyzes Kansas in 1939 and concludes, “We need writers and artists to proclaim the beauty of Kansas and to demonstrate the intelligence of the majority … “  Finally, Allan Nevins, in a 1954 address celebrating the territorial centennial, said, “Before its people love Kansas with the right fervor, they will have to make its soil sacred to the nine Muses. … then the State will be able to boast [a] warmer kind of patriotism …; then social and intellectual maturity will stamp more of its life.”
            A dozen years after Nevins made that call, the Kansas Arts Commission was born.  The commission does not create art, but it does prepare a soil sacred to the Muses.  At this juncture, art will not suffer as much as Kansas will if the legislature does not overturn his executive order.  Foundations are fine, but state agencies give true agency.
            If you ask me—and White, Clugston, Menninger and Nevins—Brownback’s order is not anti-arts or anti-beauty.  It is anti-business and anti-Kansas.

Listen to this commentary as aired on Kansas Public Radio

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on November 24, 2010:

Oleander on Jell-O

            Well, folks, each year Here, Kansas, has a pre-Christmas potluck before we all travel to relatives for the holiday.  This year, Claude Anderson’s wife, Martha, was in charge.  “Maybe you’ll do the Jell-O,” she suggested to my sweetheart Iola Humboldt.  “Your Jell-O is always a hit,” she added.
            Iola was miffed.  “Only known for J-E-L-L-O,” Iola lamented.  “I’m sick of Jell-O.  I’m sick of being the Jell-O Queen of Here, Kansas.”  Iola stewed for days.  She went through her recipes and her magazines, sighing and shaking her head.  “I’ve done it all,” she said.  She named some good moments—cottage cheese, pineapple and lime Jell-O.  Cranberries in cherry Jell-O with whipped cream on top.  Orange Jell-O with grated carrots for crunch.  She’d made root beer Jell-O and served it with ice cream, lemon Jell-O made with 7-UP, the bubbles bursting throughout, grape Jell-O with grapes, raisins and bits of prunes for the health of it.  Now, though, she was out of ideas.  “Apples?” I asked her.  “They’re nice and crisp this year.”
            “Done that,” she said.  And repeated herself when I suggested she make something with dill pickles, or watermelon rind or kiwi fruit.
            “Does it really matter?” I asked.
            “Here’s what matters.  I don’t want to make Jell-O.”
            “Fail,” I said.  “Incompetence might make for change.”
            Iola plotted incompetence.  She thought wild.  She bought unflavored gelatin instead of Jell-O.  Tomato juice for the liquid.  Bacon instead of fruit.  She cut up the last little tomatoes ripening in the window, and picked the last of the arugula from the garden.  She bought garlic croutons.  “An American classic,” she announced.  “A BLT, only with bacon, arugula and tomato, on garlic bread.”
            “No cottage cheese,” I tisked.
            “Just mayonnaise,” she said.  So she made an aspic with the tomato juice, added bacon and arugula at the last minute, let it set in a circular pan, put on a healthy, or maybe I should say “generous,” layer of mayo, then the croutons, then turned it onto a plate.  In the middle of the circle, more arugula and tomato pieces.  She carried it to the Co-op.
            She didn’t touch her dish, nor did she expect anyone else to sample it.  But Martha Anderson did, and she nudged Claude, who smacked his lips and raised his eyebrows, so Elmer Peterson and Barney Barnhill took some on their plates.  And Mabel Beemer took a dollop and pretty soon Iola’s version of B-L-T/J-E-L-L-O was the taste of Here.
            At the end of the evening, Claude Anderson cleared his throat and tapped his water glass with his butter knife.  “Pot luck has been lucky tonight,” he said.  He raised his glass.  “To Iola Humboldt,” he shouted, “the Jell-O Queen of Here, Kansas!”
            Folks, Iola hasn’t spoken to me for a week.

Listen to the above commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on November 2, 2010

Oleander on Farmer as Artist

            Folks, I don’t know about your part of the state, but my Kansas is painted in full color this Fall.  To celebrate, we Hereins of Here, Kansas, held our first Fall Art Fair.  And what do we know about art?  Good question, but I remember reading what Flosse Curtis of Manhattan, “The Little Apple,” Kansas, wrote:  "My husband was a farmer. But he could see beauty in the land. He could see the promise of the seed. Now he was no literary man, but he could almost make a poem out of a clod of dirt."
            Our Art Fair featured the work of Clyde Christianson who farmed for years up by Olsburg Junction.  When he retired, he took up painting.  When he started, he said, he was told to paint what was around him, what he knew.  So he went out and bought some oil paints—brown, black, green and blue.  But he soon of tired what he was painting, in the same way he’d gotten tired of farming, the hours spent on a green tractor, riding a black road to a field where he disked brown soil beneath a blue sky.
            “I got off the tractor for good,” Clyde said, meaning both in his life and his art.  He began to spend days on foot in his fields.  He found them more black than brown, shaded with charcoal, yellows, even blues.  He took to the woods along Olsburg Creek.  There, butterflies were spots of color, purple changing to red with each wing beat.  A snake, one he once would have called black, edged through rocks on a creamy yellow belly, its forest green sides turning to a brown so deep it might have been a piece of leather in the bottom of a well.
            Clyde decided to paint as he used to plow, revealing what is underneath.  He bought all kinds of new colors, mixed them together, and used a trowel to lay a thick layer onto a large canvas.  Then he went after that layer of paint with a garden rake, and a clawed hoe. He dug out lines, and each line was infused with beauty—trailings of black and salmon, flecks of red and blue, greens giving way to yellows and browns.  When he was satisfied that he could reveal no more, he did another, and another.  And brought them to the Here, Kansas, First Fall Art Fair.
            “What is that?” folks asked him.  And asked him again as they viewed each of his plowed canvases.
            “It’s a painting,” he said.  “They’re oil paintings.”
            “Of course,” they said.  “But of what?”
            Clyde shrugged his shoulders.  After all, he was a farmer. 
            But folks, he showed me what I’d seen many times, but didn’t have the time to notice.  Inside each color, are many colors.  The land is only brown, the sky is only blue, your tractor only green if you want it to be.  Otherwise, it’s like this Fall—multicolored, chromatic, rich and enrichening.  Hope you can enjoy it as much as I am.

Listen to the above commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on October 8, 2010

Oleander on the History of the Future

            Folks, next year Kansas celebrates its sesquicentennial—150 years of statehood.  We’ll hold forth on the rich cultures of Prairie and Plains Indian tribes.  The lore of trails:  Overland Dispatch, Santa Fe, Oregon.  The territorial struggles:  John Brown and Abolition.  The Civil War:  Quantrill and Lawrence.  Our blizzards, droughts, grasshoppers, fires and dust.  Our railroads.  Our cattle towns.  Our three P’s:  Prohibition, Populism and Progressivism.  Our industries:  agriculture, gas, oil and ranching.  Our accomplishments in the air—Beech, Cessna, Amelia Earhart—and our strength on land—that first stretch of Interstate ever laid.  We’ll be boasting.
            But what of our future?  Many writers have said that Kansas is an important state to the nation.  Listen to W.G. Clugston, writing in the 1920s:  “I cannot prophesy as to the ability of Kansans to solve their present economic problems and use their energies … intelligently ...  All I can say is that no people are striving more energetically, or with more confidence in themselves and their ideals; … the histories of our era will say: As Kansas went, so went Democracy.”
            This Kansas/America link is reflected first in a 1910 essay by Carl Becker, who wrote:  “The Kansas spirit is the American spirit double distilled.”  Milton Eisenhower, Dwight’s brother, then President of Kansas State University, wrote:  “We are that happy mixture of town and country, agriculture and industry, which seems best suited to the maintenance of democratic attitudes.  We have a state spirit which is a unique mingling of Puritan morality, Southern chivalry and Western individualism.  No state is more accurately representative of America as a whole than Kansas, and none is placed in a more decisive … center of creative compromise.”  Allan Nevins wrote in 1954:  “For the ordeal ahead of us we need the adventurousness and devotion to freedom that marked Kansas history … and the toughness and courage bred by the later conflicts between an agrarian State and an industrialized nation; and … idealism and vision …”
            Folks, these historical calls to the future are critical.  They expect Kansas to remain small “d” democratic, idealistic, courageous and balanced.  To be adventurous and dedicated to freedom.  To rise to challenges.  Kansas at its best has indeed been forward-looking, a place of moderation, compromise, equality and tolerance.
            Our politicians may rail against each other, but at the end of each year’s contentious session, our legislature must unite into a single voice, what I’ve called the “Republi-modo-crat middle,” and most often they’ve done right by the state.  I hope we can celebrate forward-looking centrism  in 2011.  If we do, all of America will be better off learning about Kansas and the history of our future.

Listen to the above commentary on the KPR archives.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on August 6, 2010:

Oleander on Place Names Pronunciation

            Folks, what two things do these place names have in common?  Admire. Milan.  Laurel.  Offerle.  Osawatomie.  Kanorado. Agra. Achilles.  Spica.  Piqua.  Odense. 
            First they’re all in Kansas.  Second, I’ve mispronounced each one of them.
            Those who take the turnpike to Emporia drive by the Admire exit.  They’re used to that pronunciation being a test.  They know enough to admire “AD-mire.”
            But what about places we’ve never heard of?  Well, the KU School of Journalism has reprinted A Pronunciation Guide for Kansas Places Names, by Donald W. Hansen.  If you want to sound like a local, don’t leave home without this booklet.
            Milan is an Italian word meaning “in the middle of the plain,” which is true of this town, south of Wichita, but be sure to say it like this:  “MY-lun.”
            Laurel is named for the tree, also called the “sassafras tree.” The town, in Hodgeman County, where there are few trees, pronounces itself “luh-REL.”
            Nearby Offerle is named for a Frenchman, who must have been an oaf, because that’s how they say it:  “OHF-er-lee.”
            Folks, many of us know that Osawatomie is “oh-suh-WAH-tuh-mee” because it’s named for the junction of the Osage River and Potawatomie Creek.  But combinations are not always a simple guide.  Kansas and Colorado combined state names for the border town of Kanorado?  No, it’s actually pronounced “kan-oor-AY-doh.”
            You’d think that Agra, in Phillips County, two-thirds across the state, would be a reference to agriculture.  Some say it’s named for a woman, others say it’s for Agra, India, home of the Taj Mahal.  Either way, you’d best say it like this:  “AY-gra.”
            I mispronounced Achilles because I supposed the town in Rawlins County was named for the Greek hero.  As I did for all these towns, I looked up the origins in John Rydjord’s book, Kansas Place Names.  I found out about Achilles Morris, the father of the first post officer in that town, who pronounced his name “uh-CHILL-us.”
            Spica (“SPY-cah”), from the Middle English for the spike of a head of wheat, is a populated area between Colby and Oakley.  But pronounce it as though you have a politician in your living room, your very own “SPEE-kuh of the house.”
            The great Indian Chief Tecumseh was born in Piqua, Ohio, and the Woodson County town is named for that birthplace, properly pronounced “PICK-way.”
            Finally, if you say Odense, you are oh-so dense.  You should be calling this town near Chanute “oh-DEN-suh,” and celebrating that it’s named for the Danish town where Hans Christian Anderson was born.
            Folks, place names and their pronunciations defy logic.  And when you don’t have logic, you need good reference guides.  Unless you enjoy the kind of ignorance that infuriates locals.  Remember, you’re a local, too, and most likely you say things and pronounce your towns in ways that leave others scratching their heads.

To listen to the above commentary, follow this link.

 

The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on July 8, 2010:

Pure Kansas Nights

            Folks, I heard Governor Parkinson hold forth in his welcome to the Symphony in the Flint Hills last month.  Our admirable Governor was a bit over the top.  But his invocations actually put him squarely in the tradition of honorable Kansas rhetoric.
            “… tonight is no ordinary, boring night,” he began. “Tonight is a night that I can only describe as a ‘pure Kansas night.’ So, I’ve decided to do something … different. Because I’d rather you think that I was a little crazy, than to think I was boring on a night as special as tonight.”
            True, he was not boring.  But he was also not different.  Like many before him, he invoked our uniqueness, the “synergy that can’t exist anywhere else in the world.”  He invoked diety, noting the combination of “the best of what man has to offer—talented musicians, and you pair them with the best that God has given us—the Flint Hills.”  He invoked our obscurity and our pride in our obscurity:  “… it’s about people on the East or West coasts not even knowing about the Flint Hills.”
            In invoking our storied past, he set us against our neighbors:  “It’s about the fact that 150 years ago Quantrill really did invade Lawrence and really did kill 183 innocent men, women and children because Missouri wanted us to be a slave state. … and the Free Staters pushed them back … It’s about the fact that  … no one here will ever forget those raids and many of us avoid going to Missouri at all cost, if for no other reason the fear that we might accidentally spend some money there.”  Luckily, the musicians from Kansas City, Missouri, played for us in spite of the bombast.
           So how is all this rhetoric traditional?  Here’s Columbia University history professor Allan Nevins, writing in 1954 about our storied past:  “ … the moral elements bound up in the struggle along the Kaw and the Missouri strengthened the vein of Puritanism in the Kansas character, just as the violence of the contest nurtured traits of bellicosity and extremism.”  Or here’s William Least Heat-Moon:  “… the two states have gotten along like the Hatfields and the McCoys, Popeye and Bluto …”
            Here’s Fran Grace, from her biography of Carry A. Nation, on our connection to diety: “Kansas had a religious culture that was steeped in a sense of divine chosenness.  Kansans believed themselves morally superior to other states …”  Here’s William Allen White:  “Abolitionism was more than a conviction; it was a temperamental habit.” 
           And our uniqueness?  In 1902, E.H. Abbot explained us in The New York Outlook:  “It is the quality of piety in Kansas to thank God that you are not as other men are, beer-drinkers, shiftless, habitual lynchers, or even as these Missourians.”  As for our grounding in place, Abbot ends his essay:  “Even the most talkative Kansas idealist can always be found to have his idealism firmly fastened to a peg driven deep into the earth.”
           Our current Governor is an idealist.  He said, “It’s a night about our progressive past and knowing that whatever difficulties we have in the future we will make it to the stars.”  Mark Parkinson is also as grounded as the pegs driven into the Flint Hills to stabilize the tents where food, education, rhetoric, and finally music were brought to us by the Symphony in the Flint Hills one “pure Kansas night” in June 2010.

To listen to the above commentary, follow this link.

 

The following commentary was supposed to be aired on Kansas Public Radio on May 27, 2010, but was delayed until 7/21/10:

On Libraries


            Folks, the Here, Kansas, library is now a tourist attraction, the World’s Smallest, South-facing, Brick, Abandoned Carnegie Library, from which the Dalton Gang Checked out a Street Guide to Coffeyville, Kansas.  If I need library time, I drive to There, where the library is so well-known to its patrons the only sign for it says, simply, “Library.”
            Of course, it’s not as simple as that.  When I was a boy, libraries loaned books.  Mrs. Henderson stood at her desk like a guard.  She guarded books.  She guarded silence, though her “shushhhhhh!” was enough to deafen us.  She guarded the sanctity of a library where great wisdom might be imparted, where the sacred exchange of ideas could happen, even in the middle of Kansas.  We were always afraid of Mrs. Henderson until summer reading time.  Then, she would prop a book in a chalkboard tray and begin to read.  As she read, she drew, her hands as fluid as her tongue.  Peter Pan flew toward Captain Hook’s ship.  Tinker Bell was trapped behind glass.  A Lost Boy sat listening to Wendy.  And the Lost Boy drawn on the board would be the spit image of me, and Wendy’s face would be Mrs. Henderson’s face, and I understood that if she guarded books, it was only to make sure we would always have books and connections to books and to each other.
            The current There librarian, Ms. Bornson, is young and energetic.  She doesn’t guard anything.  She can’t spend much time dusting books, because she also has more than books—videos and movies, computers, magnifying readers, year-round programming for children and for adults, tax and other government forms, audio books, and, like Mrs. Henderson, summer reading.
            My grandson recently bought me a laptop and invited me to the There Library.  “Let’s set up that computer of yours,” he said.  I shot him a puzzled look.  “Did you know your library is wireless?”  I shook my head.  “You do know what wireless is, don’t you?” he asked.
            “Of course,” I said.  When Elmer Peterson at the Drive-Thru Pharmacy and Car Wash went wireless, he offered to share with Claude Anderson at the Co-op.  Claude's response:  "When you go wireless, how do you get the electricity in?"  Claude is more up to speed now, but it's dial-up speed.  Folks, since U.S. Libraries with free Wi-Fi outnumber Starbuck’s, Barnes & Noble and Borders in Hot Spots, why aren’t we all occupying libraries instead of businesses?
            Anyway, we booted up the laptop and downloaded audio books, free from the State Library. We made me a Facebook account because my grandson promised I could make “friends” of my children, great-grandchildren, and all their friends.  I spent an hour looking at photographs, and became a fan of There, Kansas, Here, Kansas, even Near Here, Kansas.
            At dusk, we started home.  It didn’t seem like dusk, but like some kind of dawn.  According to Ms. Bornson, I’ll soon be one of the 14,700 people each day to take technology training classes at a library.  When I refill a prescription at the Drive-Thru Pharmacy, I’ll use Elmer’s wireless to connect to the State Library for audio books.  I’ll check Facebook for the latest news, re-check the paper books I’ve borrowed from the There Library, and sign up for a reading group.  Iola Humboldt will have to call down to the Pharmacy to remind me that dinner is waiting, just like she had to do that day to get us to come home from the There Library to Here.  Thanks to the laptop from my grandson and our techno-savvy librarian, Ms. Bornson. Folks, go meet your librarian today.

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The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on April, 23, 2010:

Oleander Gardens Tour

            Folks, I’m out in the garden again.  You might find it interesting that a tour of my garden is also a tour of the past.  All of my perennials are scavenged.  Lilies are easiest to find, growing in ditches all over Kansas, or lining what was once the lane to what was once a farm house but is now empty space.  Orange, like the ones that line my driveway, are most common, but I have found pink and yellow.  I once read that 150 years ago, a starving family survived because of lilies.  Deer crave the bulbs, and the farmer shot a deer, also starving, who was foraging in the bulbs his wife had brought from her mother’s garden in Indiana.  Then the wife, once the venison was entirely eaten, and her family near starvation once again, gave up the need for tradition and beauty for food, digging up and eating all her bulbs.
            My lilac, just outside the kitchen door, is a cutting from a sturdy bush planted next to an abandoned and crumbling stone house out on the No-Mile Creek Road.  I smell its spring fragrance and remember a family who welcomed the same rich scent.  Soon enough, breezes would contain the blasting heat of summer and the blizzards of winter.  Like those one-time Kansans, I cherish a moment of calm, of perfect blossom.  The lilac’s former home, now fallen in on itself, has taught me how transient beauty and other promises might be.
            Violets are everywhere around Here, Kansas—blue, pink, white—and I have spread them throughout my garden, just as pioneers spread themselves through this country.  Violets have survived with more tenacity, more grace.
            I have dug the cherished crowns of asparagus, the long rooty bulbs of winter onions, the rhubarb—all those plants that reminded our forebears of how they missed, and yet tried to recreate, their own pasts in their new homes.  Now something of their homes makes my home.
            Do you see that willow, weeping in the side yard?  I cut it from a tree in a darkened fringe of trees next to a foundation filled in with stones and weeds.  As I cut away the thick dead branches, searching for a tender green twig to sprout, I found a small marble stone.  Etched into it, the word “Infant.”  I nearly loosened the stone, to plant it under my willow, but that stone belongs in the past, that old tree sentinel to the loss it represents.
            So much is lost.  But out of loss I have found what grows.  You can see in Here, Kansas, in my garden.
            Oh, don’t you love that blood-red poppy?  Now that’s a story.

Listen to this commentary on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 12, 2010:

Oleander on Florence

            Folks, if you ever find yourself on Highway 50, between Emporia and Newton, you’ll see a water tower at Florence.  Block letters on all sides advertise the water as 99.96% pure.  Don’t think about that 0.04%, just stop in Florence for a drink of water and know that what you are drinking was awarded second prize among Kansas Rural Water Districts for cleanliness and purity.  Only Augusta, which draws its water from Lake El Dorado, has better water.
            For your drink, you might want to stop at the Doyle Creek Mercantile, where you can also have lunch on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.  After lunch, you might want to explore.  West of Main Street, you’ll see a section of what used to be the Clifton Hotel, bought by Fred Harvey in 1878 and opened as the first Harvey House Hotel.  Topeka had the first Harvey restaurant.  Now, the building houses the Harvey House Museum, where you’ll find a sign on the door asking you to call Neva Robinson.
            Make that call.  She’ll come on over and tell you about the House’s history of service to the railroad between 1878 and 1900.  She’ll tell you about the Florence Mexican-American community, recruited by the Santa Fe Railroad and housed in apartments built close to the tracks.  She’ll show you pictures of the 1903 flood, the 1906 flood, the 1951 flood.  In ’51, the water came to the tops of the windows of the buildings on Main Street.  She’ll tell you about the mass grave of German Russian Mennonites brought in cars by the railroad to settle, but falling victim to a smallpox epidemic instead.  Of the 500 immigrants, 300 died.
            The Harvey House Museum contains the history of Florence, and that history is entwined with Kansas History.  There’s the early settlement by immigrants—French, Belgian and Mennonite in this case.  There’s the railroad presence, town builders deciding on the location at the point where the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad would cross the Cottonwood River.  The town is named for the daughter of Samuel Crawford, who was part of the town company, and also a Governor of Kansas.  Florence grew up to marry Arthur Capper, who was also Governor.  After Florence’s railroad boom, the town experienced an oil boom in the 1920s, growing in population from 1,300 to 3,000 in three years.
            FDR visited in the 1930s, leaning against the back rail of a railroad car while he was saluted by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who thanked him for the work they’d been given.  They built Marion County Lake and constructed limestone buildings all over the county.
            Florence exemplifies Kansas history, but, like a lot of small towns, has almost nothing left but history.  And a good meal.  And water worth stopping to drink. 
           So stop for a draft of spring water, a waft of Mercantile lunch and a raft of history.  When nothing else is keeping our small towns afloat, history bobs along like a survivor of the flood of contemporary life.  This is a flood that will not recede, so relish that history.  Drink it up like pure water.  And build on it, so that history might become more than mere nostalgia.

Listen to this commentary on Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on January 29, 2010--Kansas Day:

Where there’s a way, there’s a will?

            Folks, they always say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  But a lot of little towns in Kansas—Here, included—can’t find a way or a will.  Our little towns are quickly disappearing, and we’re not sure how to save them.  So maybe if there was a way, there’d be some will.
            Here’s some ways I’ve noticed.  Lucas has made itself the home of grassroots arts.  Of course, they had the Garden of Eden, that cement creation of S.P. Dinsmoore.  But they’ve added a Grassroots Arts Museum, another primitive artists’ home, and they give residencies to such artists.  In short, they have become a destination.
            Alma, that gem in the Flint Hills, with its limestone buildings, has adopted historical preservation, succeeding in their nomination of the entire downtown to the National Register of Historic Sites.  Not only do they have incentive to restore and preserve, they don’t have any choice—their designation forces them to keep their town an intact showplace for stone architecture.
            Other towns, Olpe and Cottonwood Falls come to mind, have signature restaurants.  Whenever anyone is in the area, why wouldn’t they drive a little farther to eat at the Olpe Chicken House or the Emma Chase Café?
            Peabody has long been part of the Kansas Department of Commerce Main Street Program.  With 42 buildings on the National Register, and with events like Hometown Holiday each December, they have attracted outsiders, and remained attractive to themselves.
            When in doubt, towns have adopted Oz.  Liberal has Dorothy’s House, Wamego the Oz Museum, Sedan the Yellow Brick Road.
            And don’t forget eco-tourism.  Why, in a several-mile stretch along Highway 50 near the Tallgrass National Prairie, you can spend time on a  Flint Hills Ranch, wagon or horseback rides and then sleep in the bunkhouse at the Flying W Ranch. Or you can stay at the Doyle Creek Mercantile Bed & Breakfast, or the Doyle Creek Ranch in Florence, the same ranchthat hosted last year’s Symphony in the Flint Hills. 
            So, folks, whether arts, restaurants, historic preservation, Main Street Programs, Oz, or eco-tourism, surely there’s a way.  Now we need some will.
            I shared my observations with the good citizens of Here, Kansas, down at the Co-op the other day.  “The only thing we’re preserving is ourselves,” said Claude Anderson.  “Our truest arts are quilting and canning,” Mabel Beemer bragged.  “Our restaurant, Eat Here, closed when you could still get breakfast for under a dollar,” Elmer Peterson remembered.  “Our Main Street is Kansas Street, with just three buildings left,” said Barney Barnhill, “and if we saw Dorothy we’d probably send her to Sedan to get her a start on her journey.”
           “Surely there’s some will beyond your last will and testament,” I said.
           “I feel a new business coming on,” Claude Anderson teased.  “How about the Abandoned Bank Bunkhouse, preserved and serving Mabel Beemer preserves to starving primitive artists who paint only scenes from Munchkinland?”
            Folks, in this new decade, I hope your towns can do better finding a way and a will.

Listen to this commentary on Kansas Public Radio.

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on December 29, 2009:

Oleander on the Common Drinking Cup

            Folks, I’ve been waiting all of 2009 to announce an important Kansas Centennial.  One hundred years ago, in 1909, the Kansas State Board of Health abolished the common drinking cup in public facilities in the State of Kansas.
            This was the work of Samuel J. Crumbine, one of my favorite Kansans.  Dr. Crumbine, of Dodge City, was appointed Secretary of the State Board of Health in 1904.  From that office he published monthly bulletins that campaigned against food adulteration, the house fly, the roller towel, the rat, venereal disease, and tuberculosis.  Topekans still hoard their “Don't Spit on Sidewalk" bricks.  Because of Samuel Crumbine, Kansas was the first state to pass Pure Food and Drug, and Water and Sewage laws.  We gave the world the flyswatter, invented as a “fly bat” by Frank Rose, of Weir City, during Crumbine’s “Swat the Fly” campaign.  Crumbine created a Division of Child Hygiene and lobbied the Kansas Legislature to pass a Vital Statistics law that went on to become a national model.  The good doctor resigned in 1923 under political pressure.  After all, Governor Davis was the first Democrat elected in a long time, and wanted to exercise some patronage, even though it meant discharging one of Kansas’ most forward-thinking public servants.
            One hundred years ago, in his fifth year as Secretary of the State Board of Health, Crumbine fired his salvos against the common drinking cup.  Yes, one cup might be attached to a water source—spigot, fountain, well—in all kinds of venues—rail cars, stores, courthouses, parks—and each person consuming water shared the germs of everyone who had drunk before.  Cumbine wrote: 
            The common drinking cup and the germ of diphtheria are partners.
            An individual drinking cup is cheaper than a package of anti-toxin.
            Good water is more to be prized than fine rubies, and clean hands are better than much fine gold.
            The paper cup, container and dishes are the cheapest and best health insurance available.
            If your roof and well both leak, fix the well first.
            Folks, Crumbine went directly to the sources of disease.  He understood germ theory, and anywhere germs lived was enemy territory:  flies, rats, spit, adulterated food, sewage, polluted wells and the common drinking cups.  Dr. Crumbine was persuasive enough to make these things enemies of Kansans, too, and for that we must salute him.  In a time when we resist science—everything from immunizations to global warming—I find comfort in time travel:  100 years ago, medical science was at the basis of our health policy.  Before 2009 ends, please raise a cup, though not a common drinking cup, to a persuasive, forward-looking doctor who put Kansas on the national map for public health reform.  Or, if you’d like, blow him a kiss, down through time.  Blown kisses to a century before, are, after all, more sanitary.  As Cumbine wrote: 
            There are microbes, so I see,
                        Germlets in a kiss;
             Maybe so, but they must be
                        Bacilli of bliss.

 

Listen to this commentary at Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on November 20, 2009:

Oleander on Genetics

            Folks, what do I know about genetics and natural selection?  Not much.  But my great-grandson came for a visit last week.  And what do you do with a twelve-year-old boy in Here, Kansas?  But the weather was nice, and Iola Humboldt suggested I put him to work in the garden.  If you’re like me, you’ve been harvesting more and longer than usual—at least that’s true of my green beans.  I couldn’t keep up with them, so I let them go.
            Imagine me in the garden, then, picking the dried husk of beans.  I’m selecting some for seed.  The thinnest beans were tender and sweet.  Should I save those, plant their seeds next year, select for those traits?  Of course, if I can’t keep up with the beans next year, as I couldn’t this year, I should select the beans with the largest seeds.  Iola can boil them up into the white kidney beans that most green bean seeds, if left to dry in their pods, will become.  Or maybe I’ll just plant both, two rows side by side, one to eat, one to go to seed.  Unless they cross-pollinate and ruin my strategy.  For what the heck do I know about selection and genes and traits?  I’m no Thomas Jefferson, no Mendel, experimenting with the seven dominant traits of peas.
            No, I’m just out in my Here, Kansas, garden, pretending to know what I’m doing, entertaining my great-grandson as we husk the thick skins of the pods from the nearly-dried, mottled beans inside.  When I say, “Let’s save that one for next year,” the boy dutifully puts it in a small paper bag.
            “Are these like Jack’s beans?” he asks me.
            “No,” I admit.  “But they’re magic.  Plant them in the ground and who knows what will come up.”  I put some in the bigger bag for the beans to boil up, to stretch stews and soups, giving Iola and me some protein and fiber.  How much protein, how much fiber?  I don’t know.
            The boy and I sort through the small hill of beans we’ve picked from the dying plants.  We work for over an hour, and the boy wants to quit.  But I need to finish.  “We finish what we start,” I say, nodding.
            The boy nods, too, imitating my gesture of determination, even though I can tell he doesn’t feel determined.
            “We don’t want to waste these beans, do we?” I ask.
            “No,” says the boy.
            “We’re gardeners,” I say.
            “We’re gardeners,” repeats the boy.
            We hunch over the pile of beans, strip the pods from the seeds, work in unison, sometimes sighing together, sometimes showing each other the funny shapes and laughing, sometimes throwing the pod skins into the wind to watch them float away.  We concentrate, we sort, we make our way to the bottom of the heap.
            I might not know much about genetics.  But me and that boy, we’re two peas in a pod.

Listen to this commentary at Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on September 3, 2009:

Oleander on Fossils and Evolution

            Folks, Kansas was once submerged beneath a great inland sea.  As a result, we are rich in fossils, and proud of our fossilized past.  Iola Humboldt and I, being fossils ourselves, decided to turn our summer vacation into a fossil run.
            The Natural History Museum at the KU began collecting fossils early.  Professor B.F. Mudge, walking down Kansas Avenue in Topeka in 1873, noticed the footprint of a Paleozoic amphibian in a curbstone.  The rock had been quarried near Osage City, so he went for more.  His discoveries are in the Museum basement.  “Upstairs,” a staff member told us, “you’ll find an exhibit on evolution.  It traces the theory from before Darwin and natural selection, on up to the present.”
“That’s good for those busloads of Kansas kids,” I said. 
“Some won’t come,” the staff member said.  “Evolution has been controversial.”
“I’ll climb the stairs toward evolution,” Iola said
            “It may be the ascent of man,” I cautioned, “but we’ll have to do it slowly.  These bones feel as old as the ones in the basement.”
            Folks, we also drove to the Fick Fossil Museum in Oakley.  The Ficks found an ocean of fossils on their land.  Out of them, Mrs. Fick created fossil art.  Shark’s teeth are arranged to make an American flag.  Small clam shells are the bark on the Tree of Knowledge in her portrayal of the Garden of Eden.  Nearby stands a four-foot wax painting of Mr. Fick as a Cro-Magnon man, shaggy and stooped.  “Did the Ficks believe in evolution?” I asked the volunteer.  She didn’t know.  “Do you?” I asked.
            “Not so much,” she said, even though surrounded by case after case of fossilized plants and animals.
            The Keystone Gallery, near Monument Rocks north of Scott City, is packed with local discoveries.  Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton are the proprietors and fossil hunters.  The Bonner family has made significant fossil finds for generations.  I asked Chuck Bonner if he believes in evolution.  “Of course,” he said.  But, he qualified, he doesn’t like the self-satisfied humans who think they are the end-all and be-all, the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder.  He excavates and admires the bones of complex, strong creatures.
            Bonner’s grandfather worked with Charles Sternberg, and any fossil trip will include the Sternberg Museum in Hays, an institution that shows how evolution works, from before inland sea to after.  How refreshing, given that Kansans so frequently submerge themselves in controversies about evolution.  Each step to understanding the theory helps us.
Folks, 2009 is the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, and the 200th birthday of its author, Charles Darwin.  Let’s celebrate our contribution to the knowledge of a rich and revealing fossil past.  As Iola and I discovered, Kansans too often love their fossils, but hate evolution.  Let’s be more like Iola Humboldt, climbing the stairs at the KU Natural History Museum.  “I want to take the next step,” she said, “even if it’s not easy.”

Listen to this commentary at Kansas Public Radio.

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on June 12, 2009.

On Preservation

            Folks, when you live in a town like Here, Kansas, about all you have left is your history.  You may remember that we took our cue from other towns, those with the World’s Largest and Smallest and First and Most Notorious of things.  We discovered we had the “World's First, Smallest, Brick, South-facing, Abandoned Carnegie Library in Kansas, From Which the Dalton Gang Checked out a Street Guide to Coffeyville."  This spring, we decided to preserve that historical structure with the idea of turning it into a museum.  After all, the basement is jam-packed with oddities.  Among them—Bob Dole for President pins, the hat Alf Landon threw into the ring, and one of the original flyswatters made by Frank Rose’s Weir City Boy Scout troop, back when they nailed a square of screen on a yardstick and called it a “Fly Bat.”  Talk about Kansas history and invention.
            In Here, nothing is easy.  Once we decided to go for the Kansas and National Historic Registers, Claude Anderson fought us.  His Co-op is close to the library, so once we get the designation, the state’s historic environs law means the preservation office will have to approve improvements or changes in surrounding properties.  Claude liked the bill that was introduced in the legislature, the one that would strip the environs inspections and approvals, but our elected officials finally agreed with the rest of us in Here.  History is worth protecting, not just piecemeal but whole cloth.
            Of course, once we get the historical designations we want, we’ll need to apply for State Tax Credits to help with the preservation.  That Wichita contractor doesn’t come cheap, and 25 cents to the dollar tax credit helps us make the investment in Here history.  Unfortunately, omnibus bills are like the omni-basement of the Here, Kansas, Carnegie Library—you never know what’s in them.  Turns out the legislature capped the amount it will pay out.  So we might get a tax credit sometime, but most of us in Here don’t have a lot of “sometime” left.  We have to convince our legislators that the preservation of the past is economic development.  It is not just rescue, but reward.
            And it turns out that even Claude Anderson likes a reward.  Just last week he stuck the word “Museum” after his “Here, Kansas, Co-op” sign.  Three people came in.  “Where’s the museum?” they asked.
            “You’re in it,” he said.  “Remember, this place hasn’t changed since 1952.  Eisenhower has just been elected.”  And he pointed to the “I  Like Ike” poster on the wall.  “Do you see any sign of Elvis Presley?” he asked.  “Any pictures of the earth from outer space?  Do you see a computer?  Come look at this cash register,” and he made it Ka-ching.
            Folks, he’s looking to put his building on the register, just like the library.  If you ask me, he’s giving historical preservation a bad name, but at least he’s on our side.  And if someone wants to visit his 1952 gas station museum, all the better.  We’ll fill it full of brochures for Here’s real attraction, what will be the newly preserved and renovated “World’s First Smallest, Brick, South-facing, Abandoned Carnegie Library in Kansas, From Which The Dalton Gang Checked out a Street Guide to Coffeyville.”

Listen to this commentary at Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on April 23, 2009.

Late Spring Fools April Fools

       Well, folks, April has been  Poetry Month, so I walked into the Co-op on April first and held forth with my favorite rhyme:
       It’s Spring, it’s Spring, it’s Spring,
       The bird is on the wing.
       Absurd, absurd, absurd,
       The wing is on the bird.
       It was April Fool’s Day, and now I admit to being a fool—for Spring has spent the entire month trying to arrive in Here, Kansas.  Yes, the birds were on the wing, fat robins—maybe too many of them.  And the crocuses croaked.  And the daffodils are wandering across the yards like yellow clouds.  And we have tulips.  But the hostas are still hasta manana.
       When I think of true Spring, I think of Mabel Beemer marching into the Co-op the first week in April to announce that her potatoes have broken through in the garden, cracking the soil like tiny volcanoes.  To brag that she’s already eating radish sprouts as she thins those flat-leafed crowders whose seeds are so small she can’t sow them far enough apart the first time through.  To tell us that her beets seem so thick in the stem that they will be unbeaten this year for size and taste.  That the cilantro she let go to seed last Fall is a carpet between the red cabbages she set out on April Fool’s day.
       Seems she was fooled, too.  Each morning she stood watching the black soil for those little sprigs of green.  Each afternoon she studied the next round of seed packets waiting on her table.  She puts them in the same configuration she’ll plant them:  green beans, and corn on the south side, squash and melons to the north.  Each night she hoped for enough moonlight to pull her potato sprouts toward light.  But by mid-month we hadn’t yet seen her at the Co-op, crowing like one of her gangly roosters.
       “So, it’s a late Spring,” I told Iola.
       “After record-breaking high temperatures in February and March.”
       “That’s right, 73 and 86.  I remember that because Barney Barnhill turns 73 this year.  Claude Anderson will turn 86.”
       Folks, I’ve lost some of the spring in my step, but I brag that my mind is like a steel trap.
       “Because so much that’s in your brain seems trapped inside?” Iola asked me.
       “Like Mabel’s seeds have been trapped in the ground,” I said.  “They’ll come up.  Just like I’ll remember your birthday next year.”
       Folks, Iola can be a little cruel, but not as cruel as April, the cruelest month.  For this month of poetry, my old friend from Lawrence, Steve Bunch, wrote, "If April is the cruelest month/ the cruelest day is April one-th." In Kansas, Spring often fools, and not just once.  May we all have a budding, blooming, sprouting May.

Listen to this commentary via Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on Febuary 18, 2009, and published in the Topeka Metro News on Febuary 20, 2009.

Majority Rule/Minority Protections

            Folks, the inauguration of President Barack Obama is well behind us.  Of course, the discussions over nickel cups of coffee in the Here, Kansas, Co-op are ever about politics, economics, stimulus packages and state budgets.  Our conversations are hot, cold and tepid.  But Claude Anderson said after the election, “I didn’t vote for Obama, but he’s our president, and I wish him well.  After eight years in the majority, I can accept being in the minority for a few years.”
            “Minority?” I asked.  “Claude, you’re in your nineties, you’re a Kansan, you live in rural America.  You don’t have cable TV, or Internet, or a cell phone …”
            “Oh, those things,” he said, as if they weren’t important.
            But folks, they are.  For example, I recently read that two-thirds of Kansas counties, 69 of 105, have fewer than 10 people per mile of public road.  In this time of budget cuts, the Kansas Department of Transportation might decide to only fund highway construction and maintenance in more populated counties.  After all, I pointed out to Claude, that’s the logic of commerce.  And you’re in another minority.
            “That would hardly be fair,” he said.  “Roads are freedom—to leave, to come back, to stock my Co-op, to have visitors and to visit.”
            “Exactly,” I said.  Folks, as a society we are equal parts majority privilege and minority freedoms.  Serving the needs and protecting the rights of the few of us—the elderly, the rural, the racial and ethnic minorities—is just as important as the right of the majority to elect leaders and make laws.
            Of course, sometimes we have to be held to our ideals of racial equality, or of equal pay for equal work across gender lines.  This past election saw ballot questions defining marriage, as though the majority of citizens in places like California, with their Prop 8, can decide the rights of a minority—gay and lesbian citizens.
            “What do gay rights have to do with citizens per road in Kansas?” Claude asked.
            “Think of it this way,” I said.  And, folks, here’s my argument.  Barack Obama is president because a majority of us voted for him.  But he is also president because for years people stood up for the protection of the rights of African-Americans.  Hillary Clinton ran against Obama in the primaries as a viable female candidate for President because for years people fought for women’s rights—to vote, to hold office, to serve the country in the military, to become firefighters, police officers, athletes and bankers.
            “Minority protection,” I told Claude, “is as important as majority rule.”
            “Kansas roads?” asked Claude.
            “Ten of us per mile out here,” I reminded him.  “How about we each stand on our tenth of a mile and hold up one of the Bill of Rights?  Make a point about minority protection, freedom, mobility, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  No majority should try to rob anyone of those roadside rights.

Listen to this commentary via Kansas Public Radio.

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on January 13, 2009, and published in the Topeka Metro News on January 9, 2009.

Holiday Invasion

       Folks, Iola Humboldt’s family invaded us for the Christmas holiday.  Her grandson came on December 23 with his wife and two boys, one 12 and one 10.  Her niece arrived Christmas Eve, bringing a cat named Matilda and a dog named Ranger.  We didn’t have much room at the inn, so to speak, but we squeezed everyone into our little bungalow, except for Ranger, who stayed in the manger—our tool shed with the floor covered in straw.
       An avalanche of presents cascaded from under our little tree.  We brought all three leaves for the dining table out of the basement, and so much food spilled from the kitchen I thought we might all founder.  After dinner we read The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, even though he didn’t steal Christmas.  Iola’s grandson read from the Good Book about the shepherds and their flocks by night, the star in the east, the baby in swaddling clothes.  Before bed, we read The Night Before Christmas.   Soon, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, not even Matilda the cat.
       Christmas morning came to us Hereins in Here-ville.  Iola and I found the stockings we’d hung by the chimney with care.  Ours were full of oranges and apples, since we still remember the Great Depression.  The niece, a college student, found the iPod her parents had given her to slip into hers.  The rest of them found candy, more than I could have eaten in a year.  The great-grandsons devoured most of it in a few gulps.  Then they ripped into presents like an army of invaders.
They received an army, too.  Soldiers, and computer games with soldiers to load onto the grandson’s laptop.  And warriors from some fantasy game they like, and superheroes and foam dart guns.  We had armies and arsenals.  Pretty soon those boys found targets—ornaments on the Christmas tree, mistletoe hanging from the light fixture.
       The grandson’s wife tried to settle them down.  “Remember the holiday,” she said.  She sat in front of the upright piano to sing carols.  “O little town of Bethlehem,” she began.  Sounds of rocket fire sputtered from the mouth of the 12 year old.  “How still we see thee lie.”  Machine gun sounds, the booming of cannons, exploded from the 10 year old.
She kept singing.  But by the time she started “Silent night, holy night, all is calm …” she threw up her hands and took herself for a liar.  Both boys whistled down missiles, took gunshots to the heart and toppled over onto the couch.
       “Peace on earth!” yelled the grandson.
       But the niece had just let Ranger in the house, and he found Matilda, and they chased each other between the legs of the dining table, and the cat caught the tablecloth in her claw and down came the breakfast dishes with a crash so loud the boys were silenced.
       “Good will to all,” I said.
       “God bless us every one,” said Iola.
       Folks, those are wishes we can all use, what with missiles and rockets and tanks ranging the earth, and with everyone fighting like cats and dogs, whether in Here, Kansas, or the Holy Land itself.
       Folks, I wish for peace in Here and peace on earth for this New Year of 2009.

Listen to this commentary via Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on December 9, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on December 5, 2008:

On Being Here

       Folks, town building in Kansas has an interesting history.  Why, in territorial days, when Kansas was just an idea, so many towns were planned and begun that the Territorial Legislature of 1859 passed a resolution stating that at least every alternate section of land be set aside for farming.
       I may have told you about how Here, Kansas, got its name.  My ancestors were on the Santa Fe Trail, looking for land, and they kept asking the wagon master, “Are we here, yet?”  They were whiney as a bunch of kids on a family vacation in the back of a station wagon, and one morning the wagon master left them.  They weren’t smart enough to realize they’d been abandoned; they thought they’d arrived.  They called the place Here, and we’ve been Here ever since.
       I like being Here.  The very name shows an acceptance.  We are where we find ourselves.  We’re here.  So many towns overestimated themselves.  There was once a Utopia and an Eden and there still is a Paradise, which is close to the Garden of Eden in Lucas.  The name Here shows contentment, because Here is as good as it gets.  Dickinson County may have Enterprise and Industry, but neither has attracted more of either enterprise or industry than Here, Kansas.  Our name also shows that we predicted a realistic future.  We are still Here.  No flourishes, nothing to attract settlers with promise of crops (think Garden City) or promise of water (think Coldwater and Sharon Springs) or security (think Protection).
       We haven’t changed our name a bunch, either.  Weskan, a combination of Western and Kansas, is just five miles from the Colorado border—only Saunders and Kanorado are closer.  Weskan had its start as a railhead on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and was dubbed Monotony Siding.  The town upgraded to just plain Monotony, then finally to the current Weskan.
       Folks, let me tell you about some places that are no longer on the map.  Reno County once had towns named Purity and Desire.  There was a town named Echo in Douglas County.  Novelty, in Montgomery County, lasted from May to June of 1881.  Rock-a-by survives as Rock in Cowley County.  Since some town names are traits, Tidy (in Stafford County) might be an Example (in Haskell County) to Haphazard (in Dickinson County).  A town in Rawlins County, Mirage, lasted a full 10 years.  There is no longer any Air in Lyon County.  Young America, Osage County, last only a few years.  And there was another Echo, Kansas, in 1874.  And 1878.  And 1894.  And 1900.
       Outside the post office in Wright, in Ford County, and spelled W, a sign reads, "We've been Wright for more than 100 Years!" And in the same spirit, Here has been Here.  Right here, as a matter of fact, and proud of it.

Listen to this commentary via Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on September 26, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on October 3, 2008:

Co-operative Discussions

       Folks, Claude Anderson is mad.  Says we’ve changed the rules of discussion at the Here, Kansas, Co-op.  You see, we generally sit down every morning with our nickel cups of coffee.  We like our discussions to be civil.  So, like lawyers who can strike jurors with no explanation, we can each take a topic off the table.
       Here is split pretty much down the middle, Democrats usually on one side of the table, Republicans on the other.  Maybe not a typical small Kansas town in that way, but we’re no doubt typical in our sometimes-heated discussions.
After the two parties had their political conventions, we’ve become like parliamentarians arguing rules rather than substance.  After Denver, Claude took “change” off the table.  I counted by taking the “experience” bullet from his gun.  Republicans Elmer Peterson and Young Hopkins, perhaps anticipating their party’s convention, removed “deficit” and “Iraq” from discussion.  Barney Barnhill and Mabel Beemer further disarmed the Republicans by taking “immigration” and “religion” off the table.  With all those issues taboo, we went from garden fertilizer to offshore drilling to sports to the weather with hardly an unsettling moment.
       Then came the Republican convention in St. Paul.  After hearing Governor Palin one night and Senator McCain the next, I walked into the Co-op with one word to take off the table.  “Politics,” I said, “and by that I mean to include, as the Republicans do, ‘everything.’  Change, family, experience, religion, abortion, immigration, lobbyists, gender, glass ceilings, race, education, taxes and the hunting of large game animals with hockey sticks.”
       “You can’t do that,” said Claude.
       “I didn’t do it,” I countered. “The Republicans did.  They make everything political.”
       “Democrats do, too,” said Claude.  “So what are we going to talk about?”
       “The hurricanes,” said Elmer Peterson.
       “Republicans used Gutav,” I said, “just as the Democrats used Katrina.”
       “You’re saying everything is politics?” asked Claude.
       “When used for political warfare and political gain,” I said.  “Beside, politics is off the table, remember?”
       “Entertainment?” asked Mabel Beemer.
       “Neither party succeeded at that,” said Barney Barnhill.
       “You’re talking politically,” I reminded him.
        “My old truck?” asked Hopkins.
       “Gas guzzler,” I said.  “Don’t you care about the environment?”
        “That’s politics,” said Claude.
       Folks, in Here, we decided to talk about quilts for the rest of September, and play cards through October.  Come November, we’ll lift the ban.  By then, hindsight will be 20/20.  We’ll be civil again, united behind whatever new President we get out of all this rankling.

 Listen to this commentary via Kansas Public Radio.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on September 25, 2007, and published in the Topeka Metro News on the same day:

Strong Sunflowers

        Well, folks, on the day after Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama campaigned in Ohio, National Public Radio reported:  “Later in the day, Obama attended a barbecue across the state. He stood before hay bales and sunflowers doubled over from the heat . . .”
       Since I’m a citizen of Kansas, those “sunflowers doubled over from the heat” caught my attention.   Neither Kansans nor sunflowers, you see, double over from the heat.  What the reporter saw, no doubt, were heavy-headed crop sunflowers, their shells full of meat, bending toward the ground, soon to be harvested.  Sunflowers love heat, which is one reason they’ve bloomed so cheerfully in fields and in ditches, draws and grasslands, long before political reporters began traveling through the Midwestern states.
       They’ve also been blooming in the national mind for a good long time.  As early as 1867, Kansas women adopted the sunflower as a symbol in their fight for suffrage.  The American Woman Suffrage convention of 1876 declared:   “The sunflower seems an appropriate flower, as it always turns its face to the light and follows the course of the sun, seemingly worshipping the [arche]type of righteousness. Let us all don the yellow ribbon, and fling our banners to the breeze. By this sign let us be known, and the more who wear it the greater our strength will be.”  These women never “doubled-over” in the long journey from Seneca Falls in 1848 to the ratification of the woman suffrage amendment in 1920.
       By 1903, the Kansas legislature had written this state symbol into law, noting its “historic symbolism” and lauding its connection with “the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, & [the] majesty of a golden future.”
And in 1936, the sunflower found a place in presidential politics.  Kansas governor Alf Landon ran for President.  Given his uphill battle against the very popular President Franklin Roosevelt, his sunny disposition and his campaign slogan that pitted “New Frontier” against “New Deal” made the sunflower an apt symbol.
        Landon’s face, with a winning smile, replaced the brown center of the sunflower in millions of posters and buttons.  Like the “tough daisy” the sunflower has been called, Landon took a lot of heat in his campaign against the overwhelmingly popular FDR.  In the end, Landon carried only two states. He leavened defeat with a memorable quip:  ''As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.''
        Folks, Kansans don’t double over in the heat of political campaigns.  And sunflowers don’t double over from the heat of summer, especially a mild one.  Women’s suffrage brought their sunflowers to seed.  Alf Landon may have gracefully bowed out, but he returned to the fertile and receptive ground of Kansas to become the Grand Old Man of the GOP, a role he played until his death in 1987, just past his 100th birthday.
        Indeed, the sunflower is such a powerful icon that a national reporter might be certain to mention it in a campaign report, even from Ohio.  But doubled over?  Indeed!

Llisten to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on July 10, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on July 18, 2008:

Pockets

        Well, folks, I brought Iola Humboldt a unique sewing project the other day.  The right-hand pockets of three pairs of pants were worn to nothing.  They had holes in the bottoms of them, and when I turned them inside out, they looked like cheesecloth.
       “How long have you had these?” she asked me.
       “They’re my newest pants,” I said.  “My oldest ones have stronger pockets.”
       Folks, she found that hard to believe, but then a woman is not as close an observer of pockets as a man.  “Most of your slacks don’t have pockets,” I pointed out.  “Same with your skirts and dresses.”
       “I’ll buy some fabric and make you new pockets,” she said.
       “While you’re at it, can you lengthen the pockets in my new Roebucks overalls?”
       “What?” she asked.
       “They have the shortest pockets I’ve ever seen.”
       Folks, used to be that overall pockets were deep.  A man had his keys, and his pocket change, and a pocket knife, at least for starters.  Have you tried to fit a pocket knife into a pocket these days?  You can’t do it.
       Here’s my thinking.  Overalls are mostly for ornament anymore.  Sure, farmers buy them, and wear them, but you darn near have to special order them.  When was the last time you saw a pair of overalls in a department store?  And whoever makes them has forgotten about pockets.  Used to be I’d fit in a hammer, nails, a couple of fishing lures, some twine, a button or two, maybe even a small flask if I was fishing late at night.  When I was a boy, I could empty nuts, bird nests, BBs, worms and at least one toad and maybe even a turtle from my pockets on a good day.  Later on, my boys could, too.
       Now, my front bib barely holds a pencil and a cell phone.  My back pocket isn’t even as deep as my checkbook, so it sticks out and I find it on the seat of my pickup truck.  My front pocket won’t hold much more than keys and a little loose change, but then I don’t carry change anymore, since I need so much of it to buy any little thing.  Folks, decent overall pockets have gone the way of cash.  They’re as thin as a credit card, as small as the balance at the end of the year for a farmer.
       And pants?  Pockets are a mere ornament, front pocket just big enough for a few keys, back pocket for a thin billfold.  And where do we carry everything else?  Well, we don’t have anything else, and everyone knows it.
       When I was a boy, my father used to come home from town with penny candy, and we could always find one more piece in the bottom of his capacious pocket.  These days, when I come home from town with a new pair of pants, or new overalls, why, I’m lucky to find a pocket at all.

Listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives.

 

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on May 28, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on May 9, 2008:

State Flowers

        Folks, Tommy Burns is a big booster of Here, Kansas.  He wants us to have tourists.  He researches anything that propels people to what he calls “attractions.”  A while back, he visited the huge concrete buffalo built by Ray Smith out by Longford, Kansas. Tommy came back with an idea, but it did not involve buffalo.  You see, Smith was a trucker who collected rocks on his routes.  In Longford, he laid out a thin cement map of the United States.  In each cement state, he put a rock from that actual state.  Inspired, Tommy enlisted the help of Mabel Beemer, Here’s best gardener.
        At least five years ago, Tommy tilled his acre of backyard in the shape of the United States.  He dug up patches for unattached Alaska and Hawaii behind his garage.  He mounded up some mountains, bordered the 48 states in green plastic, and planted state flowers.
        Of course he and Mabel started with Sunflowers.  Then Goldenrod in Nebraska and Kentucky, Violet in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Illinois.  Texas Bluebonnet, lots of it.  Vermont Red Clover.  Some more Goldenrod in Alabama, to mix with Camellia–since they upgraded in 1959.  California Poppies.  He put the Roses in North Dakota and Iowa, Georgia and New York.  Then Nevada Sage Brush, New Mexico Yucca, New Hampshire Purple Lilac–he was sure these plants would flower the next season. 
        “And when they do,” he said, “think of the visitors to Here.”
        He did get a little discouraged when he contemplated the long wait to see Maine White Pine Cone and Tassel.  What were they thinking?  Or Louisiana and Mississippi Magnolias, if they could survive Kansas.  Same with North Carolina and Virginia Dogwoods.  Mabel wasn’t sure they could make an Arizona Saguaro Cactus bloom.
        Folks, just last winter, his Oklahoma Mistletoe, a parasite on a locust tree, nowhere near Oklahoma on his map, put on waxy white berries.  Nobody visited.  Nobody even came down from the Co-op to share his excitement.  Tommy was finally tired of the cultivation of variety.
        So this spring he tilled the U. S. of A. and planted cockscomb, poppies and red impatiens to create Red States.  He planted asters and chicory for the Blue States.  Simple, he thought.  Not much to remember.  Not much to think about.  And only a few states to replant every next spring, after the election.  Mabel missed the variety, but neither of them missed the work.
        Now, Tommy doesn’t care if he has visitors or not.  He’s taken to sitting on his back deck with a 20 oz. bottle of Coke, surveying his domain, proud of his simplified country.

Listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives.


This page is updated with each new commentary.  
To find archived Oleander commentaries  click on the link.  Currently available are those that aired from February 2002 to March 2008.  
Address all comments to
Tom Averill
Washburn University of Topeka
1700 College
Topeka, KS 66621
tom.averill@washburn.edu

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