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Chapter 51 — I Was Milly

May 10, 2012

Milly Hart’s safe deposit box was opened Tuesday morning and now the world knows what people in Walnut Shade have known for fifty years: that Milly Hart was actually Amelia Earhart. The town has been overrun by journalists and curiosity-seekers since then.

The plans for the L. Frank Baum birthday celebration have been put on hold because of the commotion in town.

Shirley says the cafe ran out of food yesterday, but she was able to get an emergency order delivered last night from the Sysco warehouse in Topeka, and folks around town dropped off produce from their gardens, so customers probably won’t go hungry.

Shirley and Susan Hall, at Bach’s Lunch, had to set up tables on the sidewalk to accommodate customers on Wednesday.

The Stop and Go had a run on bottled water, soda, and snack food yesterday. Those TV people sure do like Twinkies.

Here are a few things that happened around town before Tuesday:

Lori Mendenhall, and Ilene Wick played Mahjong on Tuesday with Ruth Stanford. Olive Jane Johnson filled in for Sherri Brown, who was originally planning to play, but had an emergency at the library. A pipe burst in the restroom, but fortunately Lucy Davis was in there at the time and shut off the water before it did any damage.

Sherri Brown says the library still has a lot of paperback books, vinyl records and CDs left over from its annual sale back in March. She says to stop by and make an offer.

Lillian Reeves has recovered from her bout with bronchitis and is helping her daughter, Jessica in the flower garden.

Rev. Katherine Derby, who is president of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ, will be in Cleveland, Ohio, next week on church business. Les says that meals at the Derby house while she is gone will be strictly vegetarian. Rev. Katherine is the only one in the Derby family who eats meat.

The Master Gardener Tour was a great success again this year, despite the weather being somewhat uncooperative. Twelve gardens in the Fremont, Longwood, and Parkersburg area were featured. The theme was “Anticipation,” a somewhat ironic choice since the growing season has been a bit delayed this year. Phyllis Dane says that she now thinks flower gardens will hit their peak around Memorial Day.

Sometime on Saturday night, someone planted a tree in the park. There is no indication who did it or why. Arnie Potts, the park superintendent, thinks it is a hemlock, but it is so small, he can’t be sure. It looks like something that might have come from the Arbor Day Foundation. If anyone has any information, let Arnie know.

Gwen Burton will be hosting a show of Spanish antiques at her store in Weston on Saturday.

Gene Boone was contacted by a representative of PBS about appearing in a proposed documentary about his distant relative, Daniel Boone. Gene can’t say, but there is a rumor that documentary will be produced by Ken Burns.

Cordelia Beck, Jeff’s mother, just finished a 200 mile bicycle race that began in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and ended in Hot Springs. Jeff said that she told him that riding through the Ozark Mountains was like being on one of the worst legs of the Tour de France: not a flat spot to be found.

And so, back to what seems to be the center of the universe right now, trying to avoid cameras and microphones…

Until next week, I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Craig Gilbert opened Milly Hart’s safe deposit box in Fremont on Tuesday, fifty years to the day after she died, just as she requested. From the beginning, everyone in town knew that Milly was Amelia Earhart and respected her privacy. That used to be one of the advantages of living in a small town: everyone knew who your were and kept it secret from the rest of the world if you wanted them to do so. That, obviously has changed significantly with the advent of the Internet, but occasionally, there are places where it can still happen.

Reporters and TV crews have been pouring into town from all over the world. We’ve even had meteorologists from local stations here, detailing the weather, as if it is different or more important than Topeka or St. Joe or Kansas City, somehow. Of course, in the next few days, we’ll also be getting inundated by “reporters” from the sensational TV shows and tabloids and no doubt, at some point, we’ll probably be visited by government officials interviewing people about what they knew, when. Some day, things will get back to normal. The revelation of Milly’s true identity will be one of the biggest news stories of the new century just as the disappearance of Amelia Earhart was the biggest story just before the beginning of World War II

Joyce O’Rourke and husband Mike were at the opening of the safe deposit box and the reading of the statement contained therein. Joyce only found out a few weeks ago that she was Amelia’s granddaughter when her mom, Grace, died. Here’s part of the story about what happened when Amelia/Milly came to Walnut Shade and I’ll include the letter here, too.

Amelia Earhart came to Walnut Shade in late September, 1949. The day she arrived, she knocked on the door of her, Frances Earhart Benton and asked if she could stay for a few nights. In the early days after Amelia’s disappearance in 1937, Frances and Oscar Benton had regularly been visited by journalists, writers, movie-makers, government officials, representatives of airlines, and general curiosity-seekers trying to get information on her. When the war broke out, the interest in Amelia died down and so did the visits. By 1949, she had mostly been forgotten, so her appearance on Dorothy’s doorstep was at once joyful and almost frightening. Imagine what it must have felt like to see standing before you someone who was once the most famous person in the world and at the same time, the most missing person in the world.

After a healthy dose of smelling-salts had been administered to Frances, Oscar put on a pot of coffee and sat down with her and Amelia to talked about what to do. Amelia had decided before she arrived in Walnut Shade that she wanted to remain as anonymous as possible, at least for a while. Her earlier fame, and the subsequent notoriety of her supposed death, together with what she had been through the previous twelve years, had taken it’s toll on her physical and mental health and she desperately needed to continue to be as invisible as she had been. After some discussion, Oscar made two calls, one to Harlan Bradford, who was the mayor at the time, and the other to Rev. Harry Carlson at St. Stephen’s, both of whom immediately rushed over to the Benton home. After listening to Amelia’s incredible story and her desire to avoid publicity, Mayor Bradford suggested that a town meeting be called to explain the situation and discuss the implications of what could happen in the future if Amelia’s presence in town leaked out. Rev. Carlson suggested that perhaps Amelia could move into St. Brendan’s Convent for a few weeks while the inevitable talk around town was at it’s peak; after that, if she decided she wanted to stay, a permanent place could be found for her to live.

At first, Dorothy was insistent that Amelia stay with them and that together they would face together whatever repercussions might come, but eventually, it became obvious that a short period of seclusion might be the preferable course. Oscar and Rev. Carlson then walked over to St. Brendan’s and sat down with Father Macauley and Sister Mary Frances to discuss whether Amelia might spend some time in the Convent. After the initial shock wore off, Sister Mary Frances said that it was a splendid idea and that she and the other Sisters would help to make Amelia’s transition back into society as smooth as it possibly could be.

Amelia moved into the Convent on September 30, 1949 and for the next three weeks, she stayed mostly out of sight while her introduction to the town was being planned. The six who originally knew she had come to Walnut Shade, Oscar and Frances, Mayor Bradford, Rev. Carlson, Father Macauley and Sister Mary Frances, began quietly letting people know what was happening. Each person they told was initially astonished, then skeptical, then accepting, then elated, and finally delighted to be in on the intrigue. Dorothy said that when she told Rose, one of her close friends, Rose said, “At first I couldn’t believe that it could actually be Amelia and that she was here in Walnut Shade after all these years, but when I thought about it, I said, ‘Where else should she be? This is the perfect place for her.’”

By Thanksgiving of that year, everyone in town was aware who the new person in town was. There was general agreement that a new name was needed to insure that she would not be hounded by reporters and other celebrity-seekers. After a bit of consideration, Amelia settled on Margaret Hart, a nod to one of her pre-war friends, Margaret Bourke-White, the famous photographer, and as a way to hold on to at least a part of her past, Hart for Earhart. She would eventually be known around town as Milly.

Oscar and Frances owned a small house a few blocks from downtown and they made it available to Milly, who was eventually able to purchase if from them. This is the house that Joyce and Mike O’Rourke inherited earlier last year and in which they are now living.

Even though Amelia was a nominal Episcopalian, she began going to St. Stephen’s UCC and worked for a short time as the church secretary. When Lois Heath retired as town clerk, Mayor Bradford asked the council to hire Milly, which gave her a steady source of income and daily contact with town’s people who came to City Hall to pay their taxes, water bills, electric bills, parking tickets, buy dog licenses, ask to be put on the council agenda, or just generally pass the time of day.

From December, 1949 to May 1, 1962, the day Milly/Amelia died, not one person in town revealed her secret. It was clear that they loved Milly for who she was, not who she had been, and Milly loved them.  The following is an excerpt from the narrative Milly/Amelia wrote shortly before her death. It, along with papers and memorabilia that only the real Amelia could have had, were stored in the safe deposit box in the Farmers Bank in Fremont.

I Was Amelia Earhart

If you are reading this, I assume that I have been long dead. I leave this letter to explain how I came to live in Walnut Shade and to thank my family and many, many friends for allowing me to spend my final years in the peace and quiet that can only be found among people who care.

I was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. My father, Samuel Stanton Earhart, who went by the name Edwin, was an unsuccessful lawyer in town, owing to his affinity to drink. My mother was a bit of a free spirit, from whom I got my adventurous side. When I was ten years old, my father took a job in Des Moines and that is where I saw my first airplane, at the State Fair. My father thought that I should take a ride in it, but even at the age of ten, I could tell that it was not very well constructed, so I declined. When I finally did take my first flight, it was in a much more substantial aircraft, one that I was certain wasn’t going to fall apart in mid air.

My father’s career took him to several different cities in the midwest. Until my twelfth birthday, I was mostly taught at home. After that, I attended a variety of schools, depending on where my father was able to find a job. I eventually graduated from high school in Chicago and the next year, during a break from classes I was talking at a junior college in Pennsylvania,  I went to Toronto to visit my sister. This was during the time of the First World War and I volunteered to help with the returning soldiers at the Spadina Military Hospital. It was difficult, heart-breaking work, but I felt like I was bringing some comfort to the men, many of whom had been horribly wounded in the war.

I contracted the Spanish flu when it reach Toronto in 1918 and it seems to have affected me in some ways for the rest of my life. After a long convalescence, I decided to enrolled Columbia University, intending to become a doctor, but my parents had moved to California and when I went to visit them, I stayed. I’m not entirely sure, even now, why I did not return to Columbia, but it was in California that my life took its most significant turn: on a whim, I enrolled in flying lessons and I immediately knew that flying was what I was meant to do with my life.

The details of my flying career and much of my personal life during the subsequent years have been well-publicized, so I won’t go into them here, except that I do want to recount something that is important to people who are now living in Walnut Shade. As you know that I was married to George Putnam, who was a well-known publisher and who supported my flying adventures. George was a sweet man who pursued me for months before I agreed to marry him. Our partnership was not based on love, at least on my part, and we lead mostly separate lives. In 1933, I was introduced to Frank Lowell, an aide to Eleanor Roosevelt, at an air show in Washington, D.C., the First Lady was attending. Frank and I seemed to have an immediate connection and over the next few month, we became quite close. As these things happen, I became pregnant with Frank’s child and gave birth in May, 1934, to a daughter, who we named Grace, in honor of my sister. Because of the circumstances of both Frank’s and my lives, I agreed to let Grace be adopted by a family in Wichita connected to the Roosevelts. Frank and I remained close and I saw him a week before I began my around-the-world flight on June 1st, 1937.  I later learned that Frank had been killed in the Second World War, during the invasion of the island of Tarawa, the place, ironically, I had been held by the Japanese for several years after the crash of my plane, but I’m getting a little ahead of the story.

As early as 1928, I first dreamed of flying around the world. That was the year that I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, like Charles Lindbergh. In order to make the dream a reality, though, I needed to prepare both myself and the proper equipment. I took additional flying lessons and worked with a number of aeronautical engineers to design just the right plane to make the trip. With help from Purdue University and the Lockheed Aircraft Company, a plane was constructed that met my specification, a Lockheed Electra 10E. It was a marvelous aircraft and we tested it on a flight from Oakland, California to Honolulu in March, 1937. I say we, because my crew included Harry Manning as navigator, my business partner, Paul Mantz, who was a marvelous flyer in his own right, and Fred Noonan, along as an additional navigator. Because of a variety of technical problems, our attempt ended in Honolulu and we return to the mainland.

I originally planned to fly from California west to Hawaii and continue across the Pacific Ocean, but while the plane was being repaired, I changed my mind and decided to head east instead. From Burbank, California, on May, 20, Fred Noonan and I began our adventure by hopscotching across the country to Miami and from there we made our way to Brazil, Africa, India, Australia, and landed in Lea, New Guinea on June 29. After a couple of days rest and repairs to the Lockheed, we set off on the last and longest leg of our journey.

Fred and I were exhilarated to be starting this part of the trip, but also a bit weary, having flown over 20,000 miles in just over a month. We expected to arrive at Howland Island the next day where we would meet a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Itasca. We had been having problems with our radio equipment off and on during the flight and as we got closer to what we thought was Howland, we failed to establish contact with the Itasca. Running low on fuel, we searched for a place to land and spotted an island that I have since learned was probably Onotoa, a part of the Gilbert Island chain. We were well short of our expected rendezvous point, which is, I’m sure, one of the reasons that we were not found by the searches that were organized in the days and months after our disappearance.

Our landing on Onotoa was anything but smooth. There were only a few stretches of beach that were potentials, so we set down on one of those and as we landed, one of our wheels got caught in some driftwood. The plane flipped over and that is the last I remember, until days later, I awoke in a small structure resembling a bungalow. The woman who attended me told me, in perfect colonial English, that she and her husband had found me on the beach with a concussion and a broken arm. Unfortunately, Fred had died in the crash and they had buried him in a part of the island that is considered sacred to the natives. At this point, I was suffering from a severe loss of memory and had no idea who this Fred was that they were talking about. It was not until months later that I began to regain some understanding of what had happened and who I was.

For more than a year, I lived like the natives of the island and then one day, several men dressed in uniforms arrived and said in Japanese that I was to go with them. I learned later that the main island of the Gilberts, Tarawa, had seen a large number of ships from Japan begin to land there, in preparation for the annexation that was to happen two years later. I was put on a boat and taken to Tarawa where I was told that they had discovered who I was and that I was going to be sent back to the United States, but that there were some negotiations going on between the two governments and that it might be a couple of months before I could leave. Those two months turned into two years. In December, 1941, of course, Pearl Harbor was attacked and at the same time, the Marshall and Gilbert Island were invaded by Japan.

During the time before the invasion of the island, I was held in what amounted to a house arrest. At the time, the Gilbert Island were a colony of Great Britain, yet the British did not know I was there. I learned much later that there were secret negotiations between the United States’ ambassador in the South Pacific and the Japanese aimed at securing my release, but when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the discussions ended. Soon after that, I was shipped to Saipan and then to the Philippines where I spent two years at the Bagiuo Internment Camp.

In late August, 1944, I was sent, along with around 500 other prisoners to a camp in Burma to build fortifications against the British and the Burma National Army, who were slowly beginning to regain control over the country. Shortly after I arrived, with the help of some of my fellow prisoners, I was able to escape and eventually make my way to Dacca at the start of 1945, where I stayed to recover from my ordeal in the camps. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that my health was very bad, as well as my spirit. I needed time to recover and I found that in an ashram just outside of the city.

When the Second World War ended, I first thought that I would return immediately to the United States and let people know that I was alive. During my time in confinement, no word had leaked out as to who I was, so I was free to resume my previous life at any time I wanted. My teacher in the ashram suggested that I take my time to rediscover who I was and to consider whether I wanted to be the person I was before. He encouraged me to travel and experience the spiritual possibilities in that part of the world. I had never been a very religious person, but I found something very invigorating about spending several hours a day in meditation.

For a year, I traveled around eastern India, Nepal and into Tibet. There were times when I thought that I had been recognized, but my hair had grown long and I was quite dark from the sun. It is amazing that someone can stand before you whom you believe is dead and not realize that they are in fact alive. People thought that I was lost at sea and so I was lost at sea. I couldn’t possibly be that person who disappeared so completely so long ago. Only one person during that time actually recognized me. I had made my way to Lhasa to visit the Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup, who was at that time only ten years old, but already showing the wisdom for which he is now so revered. You may have heard mention of an assistant to the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who was the tutor of Dalai Lama. I had been hired to teach English and science to the young student. One day, during his lessons, the Dalai Lama looked at me and said, “You have a secret that you want me to know, but I already know who you are. Some day, you may reveal that secret to the rest of the world, but until then, only you and I will know.” How did he know who I was when no one else had an inkling? I can only think that it was because of some spiritual connection between the two of us.

By the end of 1947, I knew that my time in Tibet was coming to an end. I had intended to travel through India after its independence from Britain was declared in August, but the country was in turmoil with what amounted to civil war breaking out. Rather than risk the violence, I decided to head to Afghanistan with the ultimate goal of trying to reaching France at some point. You might wonder how I supported myself during this period. While I was in Tibet, of course, I earned a small amount of money giving lessons to the Dalai Lama, which I saved (should I say?) religiously. As I traveled across the Middle East, I was able to make connections in British outposts along the way and work for short periods of time as a nurse, for which I had been trained years before, or more surprisingly, as a mechanic at some of the airfields. As I said before, the people at these places would look at me and for an instant, thinking that they recognized me, but then I could see them say to themselves, “No, it couldn’t possibly be her. She died years ago.” During this time, I often went by the name Anna Sigerson and told people that I was Norwegian.

After several months in Persia and Palestine, I caught a freighter to Marseilles, where I intended to stay, thinking at the time that perhaps going back to the United States was too fraught with difficulties. I was certain that I’d be found out immediately and then my life would cease to be the uncomplicated existence it had become. Had it not been for an amazing coincidence, I am sure that I would have lived out my life in that city on the Mediterranean. I had been working in a bakery near the Universite de Provence when one morning, a short, older, frumpily-dressed woman walked in with a man who seemed to be looking after her. She asked in perfect French for a cafe au lait and a croissant. There was something about her speech, though, that made me think that she was not really French; her accent seemed to indicate that she must be an American. I had only glanced at her when she came in, but when our eyes met, I knew instantly who she was and there was a spark of recognition in hers. Her companion paid for her food and they went outside to one of the tables lining the sidewalk. It was a beautiful early fall day and I was feeling very happy with my life at that point.

After a few minutes, the woman walked back in, this time by herself, walked up to the counter where I was arranging the pastries and Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “Amelia, where have you been?”

“I’ve had a rather quite remarkable adventure, ma’am,” I replied.

“We were all devastated when you didn’t show up at Howland and we’ve mourned you many times since then. Tell me, what are you doing here?”

I told her that I had been in the city for several months and that I was planning to stay. She told me that she was staying at a hotel close by and that she was in town for a few days, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that she was then chairing. She asked me to come by her hotel later that evening and tell her my story. She said, “I won’t divulge your identity to anyone, but I’d really like to know how you are doing. I’ll let them know at the front desk that Anna Sigerson will be stopping by to discuss the Commission.”

She touched my hand and left the shop. Later that evening, I sat with her in her suite at the hotel and told her my story. She let me know that Frank Lowell had been killed in the battle to take Tarawa Island from the Japanese and had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. She also told me that our daughter, Grace, who was then fifteen was still living in Wichita with who she believed were her real parents.

“Grace is a lovely, smart girl. You would be so proud of her. I hope that one day you will have a chance to meet her,” Mrs. Roosevelt said.

Before I left, she gave me her phone number in the United States and encouraged me to give her a call if I decided to return at some time in the future. She left Marseille the next day and I never saw her or talked to her again.

By June, 1949, I had decided that perhaps returning to the United States was a good idea. I had been suffering from headaches from chronic sinusitis and a doctor in the city seemed to believe that I needed treatment beyond what was available there. It was a frightening prospect, going back to the country I had avoided for so long, but having saved a good bit of money by being excessively frugal, I took the train to Lisbon and from there, caught a ship heading to America. You might ask why I didn’t take an airplane. Perhaps you might understand that given what had happened on my last flight, I was a bit reluctant to get on another plane, especially one I wasn’t flying myself. Actually, the truth is, I just wanted to take my time approaching the country of my birth.

It might be good to point out that I was able to travel because of a forged passport which I had obtained during my time in Afghanistan. Before leaving Marseilles, I got a visa to visit the United States from the consulate there, saying that I was intending to visit relatives in Minnesota. So, Anna Sigerson from Oslo, Norway, left for America and an unknown future.

On June 18, our ship docked at the Port of New Orleans. At that point, I had no idea what I was going to do once I got to the U.S., other than try to find a doctor to help me with my headaches. A couple of days after I arrived, I asked the clerk at the hotel where I was staying if he could recommend a doctor and he suggested that I go to the hospital at Tulane University, which was only a few block away. I was able to see a doctor there who diagnosed my condition as the result of the my long-ago flu and the treatment that I had received then, together with the neglect of my health over the last ten years. I was relieved to find that I did not have a brain tumor, which one of the doctors in Marseilles suggested might be the problem. After a course of antibiotics over a couple of weeks, I was feeling much better, and during that time, I decided what I wanted to do.

Before I left on my last flight in 1937, I had spent a couple of days with my cousin Frances Sappington in Walnut Shade, Kansas. I had always been fond of the town and Frances was one of my favorite relatives. I remember spending the summer with Frances and her family and my sister, Pidge, probably in 1905 or 1906, before my father and mother moved us to Des Moines. It was one of those idyllic times, being outdoors from sun up to sun set, chasing frogs and catching lightening bugs. Walnut Shade seemed like the place I should return to and when I found out that my cousin still lived there, the decision was made. Plus, the town was close to Wichita and at some point I was sure I would make contact with my daughter, if not acknowledging that I was her mother, but at least as a friend of a friend of the family.

From New Orleans, I took the train to St. Louis and then headed west on the Missouri Pacific. At Kansas City, I got on a Greyhound which took me to Topeka and from there, I hitched a ride to Walnut Shade. When I knocked on Frances’ door, I had no idea what to expect and I must confess that it was probably a bit thoughtless of me to do so without some warning. The look on Frances’ face is one I will never forgot: a combination of surprise, disbelief, joy, and a little bit of fear, for after all, I might have been a ghost.

Walnut Shade is one of those places where you can be a part of the community and yet be left to yourself if you want to be. I told Frances and her husband, Oscar, that I no longer wanted to be Amelia; that I had discovered during my captivity in the South Pacific and my journeys through the Indian Subcontinent that the old Amelia was gone and that I was an entirely new person. If it was discovered that Amelia was still alive, I would be expected to return to my former self. I told them that I had come to Walnut Shade to be anonymous. At first, they couldn’t understand what I was talking about, but slowly they came to accept my intentions. With the help of a small group of people, including the sisters at St. Brendan’s, who I came to regard as my sisters, I settled into the town as Margaret Hart, known to everyone as Milly.

For twelve years, no one, as they say, “spilled the beans.” I was able to connect with my daughter, Grace, in 1953, when she was going to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Grace became a nurse in Topeka and we saw each other regularly. I was so happy when my granddaughter, Joyce, was born and it was a joy seeing her discover the world around her much as I and my sister, Pidge, had in Atchison.

Seeing the world from a small town like Walnut Shade is much the same as seeing it from Chicago or Burbank or Dacca or Lhasa or Marseilles. There are people in each who will help you through each day and there are also a few who will stand in your path. There are those who will see you and know you, and those who will see you and have no idea that you are who you are. In Walnut Shade, I was seen and known, and in the end, I was Milly.

April 23, 1962


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Chapter 50 — It Wouldn’t Be Saturday Morning Without Breakfast at Shirley’s

May 3, 2012

The Town Council met on Tuesday night and selected Sara Oswald to fill out the term of Mayor Combs, and Delores Gilbert was appointed to fill the vacancy on the council left by his death.

The annual May Day parade was held on Tuesday, with the high school band leading the way. There were six floats, representing the four school classes, the junior high, and the elementary school. Members of several area unions marched, also.

May Day also signals the start of “Varnishing Days” (or “vernissage,” if you prefer the French version), around here: that time of the year when we take a little extra time to spruce up around our homes and businesses. Curt Jackson reminds everyone that he will pick up supplies at the Ace Hardware in Fremont for free for the next two weeks.

Sally Ryan says that no more tickets are available for the Master Gardener spring garden tour. This is the tenth season in a row that the tour has reached its capacity.

Tryouts for Flint Hills Shakespeare Fest will be held next week at St. Mary’s College. This year’s production will be A Comedy of Errors.

Lance Graves says that auditions for Romeo and Juliet and A Very Potter Musical will be held June 1, 2, and 3. The Aeolian Acting Company will have a terrific season, we are sure.

Anna Mae Bundy hosted the Excelsior Book Club on Wednesday and members discussed The Language of Flowers. Georgia White brought three kinds of tea bread and samplers of jam.

The Walnut Shade Library and Museum Board met Monday evening and discussed repairs that need to be made to the building. Funds from the endowment were authorized not to exceed $500.

Clark and Ilene Wick and Mike and Elaine Brown went to Hiawatha on Saturday to play bingo at the VFW there. Elaine won $75.

Members of the American Legion got together Saturday night to play pinochle and raised $126 toward the purchase new tables for the Hall.

Plans are underway for the Flag Day Celebration, coming up in June. Stan Adams represents the American Legion and Carl Cunningham represents the VFW on the planning committee

The annual “L. Frank Baum Birthday Celebration and Weather Watcher Training” will be held in the elementary school gym on Tuesday, May 15. Pre-registration for the training is underway at City Hall.

Mark Sappington returned from Baltimore on Friday after spending a week researching the paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller. Mark says that he and his cousin, Stephen, will be going to New Orleans in the fall to explore the Miller connection in that city.

Shirley Jackson’s sister, Rhonda Norris, was in town last week. Shirley turned over the running of the cafe to Wanda and Jay. The rumor around town is that that won’t ever happen again.

Over the last couple of weeks, Harry Morris has been shipping boxes containing his art installation to the Kemper Museum in Kansas City. His show is set to open June 1. Harry says that he has at least another week of sorting through “objects” at the Miller County landfill before he has everything he needs for the show.

Mayor Oswald (it’s going to take a while to get used to saying that) received word on Wednesday that Walnut Shade will be getting a visit from President Obama sometime in July. Looks like “Varnishing Days” will take on a bit more importance this year.

Well, with paint brush in hand…

Until next week, I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Psychologists say that if you do something ten time, it becomes a habit. What if you’ve done something every week for twenty years, is it more than a habit? Is it an obsession? A compulsion?  A mania? A preoccupation? An infatuation? An addiction? A fetish? A hang-up? Is it just a bee in one’s bonnet?  A “thing?”

Well, I’ve eaten breakfast at Shirley’s for nearly every Saturday for at least twenty years, so it is definitely a “thing” for me and, I’d guess, for most of Walnut Shade. How could it not be? Shirley makes the best biscuits and gravy in northeast Kansas. Her pancakes are legendary. The cinnamon rolls are the size of South Dakota. And the coffee? You might as well just take your cup down to the creek and dip it into the water, because her coffee is ghastly. If something can be weak and muddy at the same time, that’s Shirley’s coffee. As far as we can tell, her coffee maker hasn’t been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration. The only good thing you can say about the coffee is that it is free, with the purchase of anything else at all. And we tolerate the coffee so we don’t hurt her feelings, as if that could possibly happen.

But then there is Billy Thornton. For some reason, Billy loves Shirley’s coffee. He’s been known to even get a go-cup when he leaves. Sometimes, Shirley will sort of insist that we take coffee with us, and when we are thus forced to do so, we usually pour it into one of the planters along Main Street. Maybe that’s why the plants all look so forlorn. No, that’s not true; I’m exaggerating for literary effect. The plants all look spectacular. The Main Street/Pride committee takes particular… pride… in the foliage lining the street.

Shirley bought the cafe from Harlan Simpson in 1980. Harlan had inherited it from his father, George, who had purchased it from Wilbur Moss in 1940. It had been known as the Shady Cafe since the early 1920s, but Shirley thought it needed a new name; she couldn’t think of anything catchy and since people had been saying, “Let’s have lunch at Shirley’s” for several months, she decided to just give in and call it Shirley’s Cafe. But no one ever uses the word “Cafe” when they refer to it; it’s just Shirley’s to everyone in town.

Shirley recently put an ad in the Ledger for a new waitress. She inherited Wanda when she bought the cafe and even though she and Wanda have never gotten along, Wanda has stayed and Shirley has become accustomed to the yelling and threats to quit. Wanda told Shirley recently that she had decided it was time to retire after fifty years on the job. Wanda started working for Harlan in 1962 when she as fifteen. Her mother had recently died and Wanda dropped out of school to help raise her little brother and sister, and take care of her father, who was only intermittently employed because of what was generously called “an occasional spell of incapacitation,” meaning that he had a hard time resisting a drink. Wanda’s father, it must be said, was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, drunk or sober. He would, and literally did many times, “give you the shirt off his back.”

Wanda and her father and siblings lived on the south side of Fremont and every morning, she would hitch a ride with the man who delivered ice to the Shady Cafe. She did that until both her younger charges graduated from high school. At about that time, 1976 or so, her father’s drinking put him in the hospital where he died of general systems failure, as the doctor put it, and Wanda found herself alone for the first time in years. She sold the tiny house they had all been living in and moved to Walnut Shade, finally bought a car, and thanked Sam Reeves profusely for all the rides he had given her over the years.

Despite their differences, Shirley and Wanda agreed to part ways amicably and I’m told that there is going to be bit of a party one day after the cafe closes to celebrate Wanda’s time here. Jay and Macy are organizing it (a bit of an aside here: Macy got her name because she was born on Thanksgiving while the Macy’s parade was being televised).

The ad that Shirley put in the Ledger and posted around town reads as follows:

Experienced waitress wanted for busy Main Street restaurant. Must have excellent customer skills and good memory. Variable shift, 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Apply in person at Shirley’s Cafe in Walnut Shade. No phone calls.

Now, first of all, Shirley isn’t looking for a waiter; she’s specifically planning to hire a female for the job. How she’s going to get around EOC rules is anyone’s guess, but she’s made it clear that she wants another Wanda (without the yelling) and she won’t hire anyone with visible tattoos, no matter how much experience they have.

“Stacey was a great waitress who was liked by everyone who came into the cafe, but when she got that rose tattoo on her wrist, her work just went down hill. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it got infected and changed her brain somehow. Anyway, no more tattoos around here.” Shirley is adamant, so don’t expect to see anything in the least artistic showing up on whoever she hires.

Stacey had worked for Shirley for a couple of month at the beginning of last year, but like Shirley said, she got that tattoo and a week later, she left. It was not that her job performance suffered as Shirley implied; she left because her boyfriend moved to Denver and she decided to follow him. Shirley was just mad that she left so soon after being hired, and Wanda and Macy had to pick up the slack, which made them mad. Macy blamed Wanda for Stacey leaving, even though she had nothing to do with it, except Macy overheard Wanda telling Stacey that she thought her boyfriend looked like a nice young man and that she should think about getting married, which is exactly what we have learned happened. Stacey came back to visit a few months ago and when she dropped by the cafe, Macy gave her the cold shoulder. Shirley had forgiven her by this time and even joked that if Stacey wanted to come back to work, she could have her old job back. Macy fumed for a couple of days about that and then resumed her being miffed at Wanda, so things are back to normal.

In addition to needing a new waitress, Shirley is beginning to think that Jay, the cook for twenty-two years is starting to consider hanging up his ladle and spatula. Jay has had some health issues over the last year and there have been times that Shirley has had to do most of the cooking. Jay started with Shirley in 1990 when he got out of the Lansing Correctional Facility. He had been a guest there for fifteen months for “borrowing” a car and subsequently wrecking it on Highway 36 up by Marysville. The owner was his father-in-law who didn’t particularly like Jay to begin with and was not inclined to drop the charges. Shirley and Jay had briefly dated in high school and one day after he got out of prison, he just happened to stop by the cafe and was surprised to run into Shirley. Well, one thing led to another and Shirley hired Jay, who had learned a few cooking skills while in Lansing. While they were both smart enough to not rekindle their fleeting romance years before, Jay sill being nominally married, they did manage to develop a partnership that has been good for them both.

Despite all the personality conflicts, strong, and often contrary, opinions held by everyone concerned, and the almost daily issues, which probably aren’t all that unusual in a restaurant of any size, let alone a small one like Shirley’s, this is the place to be on Saturday morning. You’ll see nearly everyone in town come through for either their usual breakfast, which Wanda and Macy know by heart, or for a cup of Shirley’s horrible coffee, just so they can say “hi” to the rest of the community. I’ve mentioned before that if the Post Office is the heart of the community, I have to say (forgive me, please) that Shirley’s is definitely the stomach.


If you ask most people to name a modern artist, they will probably say Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock. For the ones who are a bit more culturally aware, Helen Frankenthaler, William de Kooning or Jasper Johns might come to mind. What, after all, could be more modern than a painting of a flag?

Sculptors don’t seem to register with people as artist, for some reason. Louise Bourgeois? Never heard of her? Giacometti? Hmmm. Maybe. Noguchi? Doesn’t he design handbags? Jeff Koons? Oh, yeah, the guy who does the balloon animals.

Well, some day, the name of Harry Morris, sculptor, will be on everyone’s lips, mark my words. If you’ll remember, Harry got his start when he won the top prize at the Fall Art Fair in Fremont with his installation that included a working black and white TV and other bits of ephemera he had picked up on the sides of Miller County roads and at the landfill. The judge from the Albrecht-Kemper Museum in St. Joseph was astounded by his piece, Moana Leasa, calling it a conceptual phenomenon. Those of us who have known Harry for a while are pretty sure that he is the real phenomenon, not necessarily his art.

Harry seems to have emerged in Miller County like Athena from the head of Zeus. One day, no Harry. The next day, Harry is there in all his glorious… weirdness. Entertaining weirdness. Marvelous weirdness. Happy weirdness. “That’s really strange, but really fun” weirdness. Some people have a tinge of foreboding in their weirdness, but with Harry, it’s all just jolly good times. Like Robin Williams at his best.

Most people have no clue about what Harry is doing with his art. His installation at the courthouse, precipitated by his winning the Art Fair, raised eyebrows and ire. The commissioners received lots of comments about it: letters, phone calls, emails, discussions at the Pioneer over lunch, impromptu chats on the steps outside the courthouse, in the halls of the courthouse, in the restrooms at the courthouse. Even after people learned that Harry had been invited to the Kemper Museum, the consensus seemed to be that the curator there must be crazier than Harry.

My guess is that the curator who saw something in Harry’s work will be getting job offers from the Met or LACMA pretty soon. And Harry will be spending even more time in the landfill in Miller County. In fact, Harry might have to expand his art recognizance and recovery expeditions to Riley County, or Brown County, or even Johnson County for the really choice ingredients that will go into the future most recognizable sculptures in the world. Don’t miss his work at the Kemper beginning May 25.


Coming up in a couple of weeks is another one of those dates that we celebrate in Walnut Shade: May 15, L. Frank Baum’s birthday. We think of him as one of our own, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near hear, because he immortalized our 1891 tornado in one of his books. Yes, that one.

Baum was a prolific writer, publishing eighteen Oz books, twenty-three fantasy novels, thirty-eight short stories, seventeen books using the pseudonym Edythe Van Dyne, and fourteen other books using the pen names Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, John Estes Cooke, Suzanne Metcalf, and Laura Bancroft. He also wrote adaptations of his books for the stage and even composed some of the music for these plays.

Some of his most interesting work was written as Edythe Van Dyne and provides a rather ironic twist to something that is happening right now in Walnut Shade. Baum wrote a series of what would now be called young adult novels, entitled Aunt Jane’s Nieces. Each book in the series puts the three nieces, Patsy, Beth, and Louise, in different situations such as traveling abroad, on a ranch out west, or working in the Red Cross, the last written just as the United States was about to enter World War I. The novel that rather coincides with current events around here is called Aunt Jane’s Nieces at Work placing the girls in the midst of a political campaign, with different roles based on their different skills and temperaments.

We are seeing “Aunt Jane’s nieces” in three young women who have come to Kansas to assist in the campaign of President Obama. Patsy, Elizabeth, and Louise Norris are nieces of Olive Jane “Aunt Jane” Johnson. Patsy and Louise are taking the summer off from their studies at the University of Chicago, and Elizabeth works for the Midwest Democratic Campaign Coalition as a communications specialist. Patsy will be soliciting support from businesses across the state, while Louise will be making contact with local county committees to engage individuals in the campaign. Elizabeth, with her communications skills, will be urging the editorial boards of newspapers like the Ledger to endorse the President for re-election. It should be an interesting summer for them and us here in Walnut Shade, especially with the visit by the President later on in July. We haven’t had a President visit Walnut Shade since the day Harry Truman had lunch at the Shady Cafe back in 1957.


Miller County News from the Past:

Fremont, July 4, 1924 — The Independence Day celebration was canceled this year because of the six days of rain that caused flooding along Main Street, as far south as the high school. The flood carried away two of the floats that were being decorated in George Watkins’ garage and Wilbur Graves, the band director, reports there was damage to many the instruments in the high school band room.

Blue Valley, June 12, 1946 – A big croquet game was played at James and Sarah Ott’s home last Sunday which delayed their lunch until about 3 o’clock. The game was concluded before dinner, with Sarah claiming victory, though James says one of her “outs” was questionable.

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Chapter 49 — Harry and Bess Visit Walnut Shade

April 26, 2012

Sandy Cramer and Grace Morton want to thank everyone for the outpouring of condolences and support that have been received at City Hall after the death of Mayor Grant Combs. 

The South County High School theater department presented the play, Annie, on Friday night. Pat and Alice McManus’ dog, Roxy, played the part of Sandy.

There was a book signing at Singleton’s Rare Books and Photographs on Sunday afternoon. Glenda Singleton’s latest book of poems, Prairie Flowers and Prayers, has already made to number 197 on the Amazon poetry list after only a week.

The Prairie View Extension Club met at the home of Helen Baker on Monday. Members exchanged spring flower cuttings and heard about making ice cream the old fashioned way from Grace Morton.

Sandy Cramer says that John, Jr., who is at the University of California, Santa Cruz, made the  varsity lacrosse team, a sport that he had never played before heading off to college in January. She also reports that he now goes by JJ.

Pat Beck has been hired as the office manager for the ASCS office in Fremont and will begin her duties at the end of May. Lorene Robertson, who has been in that post since 1957, recently announced her retirement and will be training Pat.

Jeanne Riley and Lorene Robertson joined Kathleen and Olive Jane Johnson for lunch on Saturday at the Cedar Ridge Restaurant in Atchison last Friday. After a stop at Nell Hill’s, they returned to Walnut Shade and had a late afternoon tea at Olive Jane’s.

Ilene Wick, Lori Mendenhall, and Sheila Miller played Mahjong on Tuesday with Ruth Stanford. The Mahjong tiles, which had been missing for several weeks, were discovered in a drawer in Ruth’s bureau. Everyone is said to be relieved.

Frank and Sarah Brown met Marshall and Marie Green at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park on Sunday. Marie was in town attending a meeting of a committee of the Kansas County Commissioners on Friday and Saturday and stayed over until Sunday to do some shopping and art browsing.

Barb Wilson had lunch with Sarah Brown on Tuesday at Bluestem Bistro in Manhattan. Barb’s niece, Sandy, who is a junior at K-State, joined them.

A May Day Celebration will take place at the elementary school on Tuesday evening. Principal Jeffries invites everyone to come and enjoy the bonfire and May Pole dance. This year’s May Queen and King will also be crowned.

The Willing Workers 4-H Club met at the home of Lauri and Andrea Duffy. Sarah Heath called the meeting to order with a poem about spring. Hanna Tucker, who is entered in the county 4-H public speaking contest, gave a talk about spiders and showed several photos of spiders she has taken over the last year. Victoria Cramer demonstrated computer coding.

Lillian Reeves had a visitor from Park City, Utah. She would only say that his initials are RR. Hmmm.

Jeff Hawkins, Lou and Lois’ grandson, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, has received a grant from the Department of the Interior and the Institute for Museum and Library Services to work with conservators to catalogue part of the University’s basketry collection from Native American tribes of the Southwest and Northern Mexico.

Bill and Pam Heath had visitors from St. Louis on Saturday, Bill’s uncle and aunt, Nathan and Joyce Heath, who were on their way to Hays.

Ilene Wick’s grandson Charley and his wife, Harriet, have moved to Houston where Harriet has  a position at the Johnson Space Center in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Office. Charley is working on his Ph.D. in hospitality administration at the University of Houston.

The Dixieland Stompers will be playing at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ in Kansas City next weekend. They have been adding more blues-inflected numbers to their repertoire since Melody joined the group. We understand that the barbecue is pretty good at B.B.’s and we know the music will be.

Thinking about barbecue…

Until next week, I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Walnut Shade has had it’s share of famous visitors in the past, as I’ve recounted, but probably the most unexpected pair arrived in the summer of 1957. Here’s the story, as I heard it from Hazel Bradford, who was there that day:

For the previous seven or eight months, folks in town had seen a steady increase in the traffic along Highway 75 because of the opening the previous winter, of an eight-mile stretch of U.S. 40 just west of Topeka that became the first segment of what is now called the Interstate Highway System. The Interstate System had been authorized by Congress in June of that year and signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, a native Kansan who saw the importance of good highways to national security and to economic development. Kansas highway officials hurried to get the segment done to have the honor of being the first in the nation to complete a part of the system. There is some controversy about whether Kansas or Missouri was actually the first, adding to the feud between the two states, exemplified by the bitter rivalry between the university athletic teams. Missouri had the first contracts to begin work, but Kansas actually started pouring concrete first, so the debate continues whenever the subject comes up in Topeka or Jefferson City.

In any event, when the portion of the system was opened in November, many national and local Kansas dignitaries were on hand to cut the ribbon. The President was not able to attend, but the former President, Harry Truman was invited. While Eisenhower and Truman were not especially close at that point in their relationship (early on, they had been friends, with Truman even offering to step off the political stage in 1948 and let Eisenhower run for the Presidency, but Eisenhower later criticized Truman’s secretary of state, George C. Marshall during the 1952 campaign and their friendship cooled), Eisenhower knew that having at least the former President would lend added importance to the ceremony. However, Bess Truman had come down with a cold a few days before and Harry didn’t want to leave her alone, so he stayed home. As it turned out, the day was cold and rainy, and Harry probably would have gotten a cold had he attended.

By the summer of ’57, several more segments of the Interstate System had been completed and people were out exploring the new, fast, safe ways to get around the country. Harry and Bess loved road trips, so they joined the throng. One sunny Saturday, they got in their 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, which had replace the 1953 Chrysler they had used to drive from Independence, Missouri to New York to visit their daughter, Margaret (in 1953, when Truman left the White House, presidents did not have the protection of the Secret Service; it was not until 1958 that ex-presidents were afforded that protection, so as hard as it is to imagine these days, the Trumans made the trip alone). The Trumans drove from their home and all the way to the Maple Hill Road, the terminus of the new highway, without incident, but on the way back, Truman was pulled over by a Kansas Highway Patrolman for failing to signal when passing a farm truck that was driving slower than Harry wanted to go. When the patrolman approached the car, he was startled to see the ex-president at the wheel and Mrs. Truman in the passenger seat. Somewhat embarrassed, he asked for the President’s license and they were both chagrined to learn that Truman had forgotten it back in Independence. The officer wanted to let Truman off with a warning, but Harry would hear none of it. He insisted that he be given a ticket for his infraction, which the officer obliged reluctantly (how would he explain to his superiors that he had ticketed the former president for a minor traffic violation? There is no record of what happened when he got back to patrol headquarter but one can imagine the scene), and he sent the Trumans on their way with Bess driving.

By this time, it had gotten to be about noon and the couple decided to turn off on Highway 75 to find something to eat rather than drive on to Topeka. After a few miles, they found themselves in Walnut Shade and at The Shady Cafe. Now, in small towns, local restaurants are the hub of news and gossip. Mostly gossip. Everyone who comes and goes from the place is noted and their current story is added into the town’s ongoing narrative. When someone new shows up, they are as likely as not to not even be overtly acknowledged; merely observed and filed away the collective consciousness in case that person returns at some future date.

And so it was with ex-President Harry S Truman and Bess Wallace Truman. Gladys, the waitress on duty, walked over with a carafe of coffee and two cups and asked if they would like to see a menu. The Trumans said “no thanks” and ordered the blue plate special, which on Saturday’s was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, creamed corn, and a roll, made fresh every day by Sarah Simpson, the owner’s wife. A salad was extra, but no one in Walnut Shade in 1957 ever ordered a salad and neither did the Trumans. Instead of coffee, they ordered iced tea, since it was a warm day and the air conditioner had not yet been installed in their car (at that time not everything came standard on a car; it was much more a la carte than it is now. I once saw an invoice for the 1940 Chrysler Harry bought when he was elected to the Senate, a coupe for himself and a sedan for Bess. Being a United States Senator, he felt he had to meet a certain standard among his colleagues and so he splurged and had a radio and a heater installed in each one, and extra $92!)

The regulars in The Shady Cafe let the Trumans eat in peace, but when they had finished their meal, Harry struck up a conversation with the couple at the next table, something that he did on a regular basis when he and Bess were on a trip. He wanted to know what people were thinking and feeling about the country, even when he wasn’t in charge. Now Kansas has always been a thoroughly Republican state, but it was, until recently a progressive Republican state. In the 1948 election, Tom Dewey beat Truman in Kansas by nearly ten points (only Vermont, Nebraska and Maine gave him a higher percentage), but Miller County went for Truman overwhelmingly, 1056 votes to 322 (somewhat incredibly, there were two votes for Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat party candidate; no one in the county knew who those two people could have been, but the suspicion was that they were a couple who moved to Georgia the following spring, apparently not wanting to associate with the “liberals” here in this part of the country).

After a bit of conversation and slices of apple pie, the Trumans got up to leave. When they went to the counter to pay, Gladys said, “Mr. President, this meal is on us,” and the ten or fifteen people in the Cafe started to applaud. Harry protested, as he did with the patrolman who had given him his traffic ticket, but Gladys was adamant, as was George Simpson, who had come out of the kitchen to say goodbye to the Trumans.

“Mr. President, I’ve been saving this picture of you since you left office. Would you mind autographing it for me?” George had pulled out a framed picture of the President, one of those official ones you see in the Post Office or other government building, and he quickly took it out of the frame.

“I’d be happy to on one condition. Would you give Mrs. Truman your recipe for apple pie? I’ve been eating the ones her mother has been baking for forty years and yours is way better.”

“It would be my honor, sir,” George replied hesitantly, noticing the combination of scowl and grin on Mrs. Truman’s face.

“And you’d better have Mrs. Truman sign that photograph, too, since she was just as much the President as I was,” Harry said, laughing, as Mrs. Truman’s scowl turned completely to a grin.

With that, they walked to their car and headed home. There is no record of any other traffic issues that day, but it was a memorable one for everyone involved, I’m sure. So the next time you stop in Shirley’s, the successor to The Shady Cafe, you’ll know why there is a picture of Harry Truman on the wall, signed by him and by Mrs. Truman.


News from the past:

Parkersburg, May 29, 1954 — The Grant family reunion was held at the Grant farm beginning on Saturday afternoon. Eighty-two family members from Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas attended. Those who arrived early on Saturday enjoyed donuts, juice and coffee before the fish fry  that evening, prepared by Glen Grant and his sons Harry, David and Jeff. On Sunday morning, before a worship service on the grounds, donuts, juice, and coffee were served. At noon, relatives enjoyed sandwiches at noon and the afternoon was spent by the children playing games while the adults visited, shared photos and remembered family members who had passed. Later that afternoon, everyone went to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves. Neighbors of the the Grants catered the evening potluck meal and the family was serenaded by  a local string band. For relatives who stayed over until Memorial Day on Monday, a big breakfast was shared, along with donuts, juice, and coffee.

[I wonder if the donuts on Monday were left over from Saturday and Sunday?]

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Chapter 48 – Deaths in Paradise

April 19, 2012

We are sad to report Mayor Grant Combs passed away suddenly on Monday. A mass will be said at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church on Saturday, beginning at 11:00 a.m. We send our sympathies to the Mayor’s wife, Marie, and son Larry.

Orvi Robins’ funeral was Saturday at St. Stephen’s UCC. Marshall Green gave the eulogy.  Downtown businesses were closed during the funeral and interment.

Out of respect for Mayor Combs and Orvi Robins, there will be no report of happenings in Walnut Shade this week.

Until next week, saddened, I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Deaths are hard things to deal with in small towns. Aside from the grief that the family and close friends feel, there is always the unspoken realization that the town has gotten smaller, not just in size, but in spirit, in knowledge, in tradition, in laughter, in tears, in uniqueness, in relationships, and sometime, in possibilities. Grant Combs had been a central part of this community for over fifty years, since the age of twelve when he alerted the fire department that he had seen flames coming from the elementary school. It was a cold November morning and he was out on his newspaper delivery rounds when he saw the fire. Now, a kid that delivers newspapers knows everyone on his route and he knew just where the chief of the volunteer fire department lived. He immediately ran to Dan Flynn’s house and roused him from bed. Grant saved the school that day and in many ways, he managed to save Walnut Shade a number of times after that.

Grant Combs was born in the Miller County General Hospital in Fremont in 1950. He was the youngest of eight children and he always said that hand-me-downs were the uniforms you wore when you played on your family team. His father was a farmer and his mother taught at the Donner Crossing school, which at the time had eight grades in two rooms. She retired in 1969 when school districts in Kansas were consolidated, saying that she didn’t want to move to a larger school where she would lose touch with her students. She also said that she wanted to have more time to go to her youngest son’s football games at K-State.  Grant had been a standout high school receiver and had earned a scholarship to play for the Wildcats. During his senior season, he led the Big Eight in receptions for touchdowns on a team that won only three games. He said that one of his proudest accomplishments was catching the touchdown pass that let K-State beat Kansas that year, 20-19.

Grant was also an exceptional student and was named an Academic All-American his last year in college. His major, Agricultural Economics, led him to a career with K-State Extension and he spent thirty years doing research and teaching. In 2002, he decided that he wanted to devote his life to helping Walnut Shade remain a viable community and he retired from K-State. His research while there had been centered on the economic of small towns and he knew that a balanced local economy was crucial to survival. Walnut Shade had always had a business sector dependent on farming and agricultural trade, and had experience many periods of growth and decline. The times of decline had come more often in the last thirty years of the 20th century and each one caused more families to move away. That’s when Grant decided to get personally involved in the future of the town.

When I started writing this column, I sat down with Grant and asked him why he decided to run for mayor.

“I knew that Walnut Shade had the right combination of people with good ideas and a strong work ethic, and the town itself had managed to maintain its social and physical infrastructure, so the bones were there,” he began. “The thing that was lacking was what musicians call a “hook”: something to bring money into the town. Our downtown was still pretty intact and there were a couple of stores that catered to tourists. It was matter of focusing our attention on our assets.”

As mayor, Grant had access to information about state programs that could help small towns and his reputation in Topeka was such that he had access to the people that ran those programs. Walnut Shade had participated in the Kansas PRIDE program periodically, but needed a boost to really get it off the ground. Grant assembled a group of people who had worked on various projects over the years and he put together a meeting with the PRIDE director, who was only too happy to get Walnut Shade back in the program. The first thing the group tackled was organizing an assessment of the downtown. They found that while all of the buildings were occupied, several were only being used as storage for the owners. A general clean-up was also called for, so the first weekend in May, 2002, after Grant’s election to the town council, the PRIDE committee and member of the council got out and pulled weeds, washed windows, did a little painting and generally spruced up the three blocks of downtown. Next, they called a meeting of all the property owners and formed an economic development group to find uses for the buildings that did not have retail or service activities in them. The mayor managed to find a small amount of money in the city budget to advertise, in a wider market than just Miller County, that these buildings were available either for rent or sale.

While it didn’t happen over night, within a couple of years, almost all of downtown was filled with shops and businesses that would appeal to local customers and to tourists. There continued to be a few absentee owners who rented their buildings, but most were purchased by people who either already lived in Walnut Shade and wanted to open a shop, or by people from outside the town who saw new opportunities here.

In 2010, Walnut Shade was selected to participate in the Main Street program which brought new resources for downtown revitalization. Again, the mayor was instrumental in making this happen, along with Inez Harris, who used her considerable influence in Topeka to earn the designation. Besides the members of the town council, the mayor was good at establishing partnerships with people in town who had influence in other realms, such as Inez and Miss Cecelia Davenport. As a retired social studies teacher, Miss Cecelia had mentored many people who had gone on to serve in state government and she was able to pick up the phone and suggest that perhaps one thing or another might be good to happen. And it usually did.

In ways large and small, Mayor Combs was able to nudge things forward to bring Walnut Shade to the place it is today. We’ll always remember his good humor, vision, ability to bring people together, dedication, patience, intellect, and especially his impression of Gene Simmons in full KISS makeup at this year’s Halloween dance. Thank you, Mr. Mayor, from all of us in Walnut Shade.


I suppose every town has them: tortured souls who, for whatever reason, live lives that are distinctly different than what we assume is the norm.  Sometimes, we understand that their state is the result of illness or an accident.  Sometimes, we don’t know why they are the way they are and take the easy road, calling them eccentrics.  Often, we are not so kind and call them crazies, loonies, idiots, nut cases, psychos, screwballs, crackpots, fruitcakes, fools.  I’m sure that Orvi Robins was called all those things and more.  I’m sorry to say that despite my understanding of his circumstance, I, on more than one occasion uttered some of those words, or at least they were in my mind. These days, people still use such demeaning terminology saying, derisively, that not doing so is just being “politically correct.”  But there is really nothing political about being civil, well-mannered and empathetic. And it’s certainly not a correct way to think or act toward our fellow human beings.

As I recounted a while back, Orvi had been a fixture in this community for twenty years, especially at Christmas when he sang his famous “Harvey Maria.” He was also known for standing on the corner of Main and Second Street, right in front of City Hall and speaking to each and every person who walked by. And to those who walked by who were only seen by him. That behavior, and some other minor quirks, such as wearing a long wool coat in winter and summer or preaching to the wind in the courthouse square, was unsettling to some people who didn’t know him or his history, but to most people in town it was, after a while, just Orvi being Orvi and we knew what was going on. He came to this situation in the following way.

When he graduated from high school, it was understood that because of the injury he suffered during that infamous baseball game, the one in which he was hit in the head by a line drive, it would be to his advantage to stay around Walnut Shade and work with his father on the farm. He was a conscientious, hard worker and there was never any doubt that he was an asset to his family and the community. He continued to sing at Christmas and at other special occasions throughout the year. He had lots of friends and when his high school mates came back for holidays and the summer, Orvi was always part of the group.

One of the tasks that his father gave him every year was to drive truckloads of soybeans to St. Joseph where they were bought by the company that had once been Quaker Oats, but has since become part of a worldwide conglomerate that makes everything from breakfast cereal to toothpaste. Orvi enjoyed these excursions because it gave him a chance to get away from the farm and spend some time in the “big city” of St. Joe. His time there was actually pretty limited because most of his day was spent in the “bean line,” the procession of trucks like his waiting to unload their raw product. If Orvi was able to get to town early in the morning, say before 8:00 a.m., he might only have to wait for an hour to drop his beans and be on his way to a late breakfast at Betty’s Cafe on the South Side. If he got there later, he might be in line for anywhere from two to six hours, depending on who was bringing beans from where. The bean line usually moved at a steady pace, but every now and then, a truck would break down and because the road leading to the plant was only two lanes, moving it out of the way it might take a while if the driver couldn’t get it running.

Now, you might think that sitting in your truck for six hours would be torture, or at least very, very boring, but as I understand it, the bean line could take on the feel of a party, if the right mix of people showed up. There would have been music coming from most, if not all of the truck cabs, all tuned to KFEQ for the farm reports or KFKF for country music. And sometimes, if it was a really hot day and the line was just crawling along, there might be some beer or other form of alcohol passed around. There were also some enterprising South Siders who would move up and down the line and offer sandwiches for sale. Again, it was a bit of a party.

The third year that Orvi was making the trip to St. Joe was a fateful one for him. It was early in the fall and one of those hot Indian summer days. He took advantage of some of the beer that was being passed around, though he almost never drank anything, and on the way home, misjudged a curve in the very familiar road he traveled and turn the truck over in a field just south of Rushville. The accident was witnessed by a passing car and the driver stopped to see if Orvi was hurt. In the mean time, the passenger in another car that stopped called for an ambulance and Orvi was taken to the hospital in Atchison. While his injuries were not serious, he suffered a concussion and that is when his difficulties really began. The injury to his brain exacerbated his aphasia and over time, caused him to experience periods of disassociation, which eventually became his normal state.

After the accident, Orvi stayed home for several months and was able to do minor jobs around the farm. Then his father died unexpectedly and his mother, Mary, decided it would be best to sell the farm and moved into Walnut Shade, where she took a job at Shirley’s cooking on the weekends and looking after Orvi. While she was at work, Orvi would often sit on a bench in the park or in the courthouse square, lost in his thoughts and sometimes carrying on a conversation with an unknown audience. The rest of the time, he was at his designated spot in front of City Hall.

From what we can tell, Orvi was mostly happy and good-natured, but at the beginning, he was sometimes the target of some of those unkind, thoughtless, and benighted comments. Orvi seemed unaware of these episodes, but when they occurred, the people involved, kids or adults, were taken to task by the community. We protected Orvi as best we could and tried to help him lead a life that seemed to be satisfying to him. His death was a shock to us all and we will miss his greetings each day as we go about the business of living here in Walnut Shade. Christmas this year will not be the same, but I’m sure that we will sing “Harvey Maria” in Orvi’s honor, just as we did at his memorial service this past Saturday.


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Chapter 47 – Take a Walk

April 12, 2012

Mayor Combs’ overwhelming victory in the mayoral race seems to have improved his spirits, according Marie. Plans are for him to come home from KU Med Center by the weekend. His doctors have told him not do any town business for at least three months. Marie says that she’s going to make sure that happens. “I’ve put a hold on his email account and Grace Morton has been instructed to give Sally Oswald any mail that comes to City Hall.” Mayor Combs doesn’t stand a chance of doing anything but resting with Marie, Grace and Sally looking after him!

In his absence, Sally Oswald presided at the special Town Council meeting Tuesday night. The meeting had been called to fill the vacancy on the body which was created when neither Billy Thornton nor Ralph Thompson received any votes in the municipal election. Both were in attendance and everyone expected one of them to be chosen when lots were cast. However, they both decided to withdraw their names from consideration and Sue Brady was appointed on a unanimous vote.

Grace Morton heard from her son, Larry, who lives in Munich, Germany, that he will be in the U.S. in a week for a walk in Seattle. Larry is the current All-EU champion in competitive walking. Grace said that she and Bill are planning to meet Larry in Seattle, whom they haven’t seen in almost a year.

Dorothy and Don Norman celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Sunday with a reception and dinner at The Convent, hosted by their children, Amy and Stan Goodwin of Little Rock, and Henry and Pat Norman of Oklahoma City. Dorothy and Don will be further celebrating when they leave on their Danube River cruise in October, a present from their family and friends.

Gloria Davis, a student of Hazel Bradford’s in the class of 1966, visited from Warrensburg, MO. Dr. Davis is a professor of linguistics at UCM.

The dog that was in the audience for the debate between Billy Thornton and Ralph Thompson, and was later taken to Dr. Cramer’s, was identified as belonging to Sid Northridge who lives in Fremont. Mr. Northridge was called and the dog was returned to him. There was no indication how the dog managed to get the twelve miles from Fremont to Walnut Shade. Or why.

Dr. Cramer heard from Gerald Keen, the veterinarian from whom he bought the Walnut Shade practice. Dr. Keen is now retired and living with his son and daughter-in-law in Phoenix.

Michelle Clemons says that they will be having guests from France in a couple of weeks. The couple heard about their B & B from Rachel Watkins, who is met them when she was doing her research on a church in Eze, just outside Nice. Good work, Rachel! Transatlantic promotion!

Not that they are competing, but Jason Glenn says that The Convent will have visitors from Barcelona in June. He didn’t indicate how they heard about the B & B. Perhaps Rachel was visiting Spain?

Lillian Reeves, Jessica Cunningham’s mother, has been ill for the past couple of weeks. We hope she feels better soon.

Rev. Derby was in Tulsa last week attending a meeting of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Eddy and Jeff Barnett spent Saturday and Sunday in Columbia visiting Stephanie at Mizzou. Eddy says that they ate their way through town, stopping at Bouche’s for cheeseburgers, Shakespeare’s for pizza and the Heidelberg for breakfast on Sunday morning.

I tried that once in Manhattan, and twenty pounds heavier, here…

I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


There were a few people in town a bit perturbed at Ralph Thompson and Billy Thornton for what Al Higgs called their “shenanigans” in the election. I talked to Ralph and Billy on Wednesday about it and they both said they were sincere in their initial decisions to run for the Council, but when neither of them got any votes, they figured the most prudent thing to do was both withdraw, otherwise whoever was chosen would be serving a “tainted term” (Ralph’s phrase). For the record, I’ve never heard Ralph say anything close to something being “tainted.” Where in the world did that come from?

Anyway, except for Al and a couple of others, it seems most people in town are relieved that neither will be serving on the Council. There is hope for democracy and common sense after all.


Race walking has been an Olympic sport since 1908, having first appeared as part of a decathlon four years before. But walking, just plain old everyday walking, has been around for, well for as long as people stood up on their hind legs, as the saying goes. Why do we walk? Well, to get from point A to point B, of course; for exercise; to enjoy the outdoors with our family or friends or animals; to enjoy the outdoors by ourselves; to see and be seen; because we get bored sitting in front of the TV or computer screen; because someone tells us “take a hike.”

Walking is the stuff of literature, poetry, music, movies, art, religion, legend. Mark Twain once described golf as a good walk spoiled and that is certainly one way to look at both golf and walking.  James Joyce gained fame and a good deal of notoriety for his description of Bloom’s walk around Dublin in Ulysses. Thoreau traipsed through the woods around Walden Pond, seeking solitude and a simple life, which after a while grew boring and he walked back to Concord and the society he disdained. Rousseau was a solitary walker, though he did his walking in the heart of Paris, and two centuries later, Virginia Woolf used the same streets as an excuse to imagine what was going on in the heads of those around her.

Walt Whitman might be the most famous American walker, besides Twain and Thoreau. Walking gave Whitman a chance to think, observe and appreciate the world around him, something that must have been a relief after his experiences in the Civil War. Oddly enough, someone we associate most with traveling by car, Jack Kerouac, was great walker. He likened it to the practice of Zen, and also rebellion, two things he knew a lot about.

“Think what a great world revolution will take place when … [there are] millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country.”

If you want to really know what walking is all about, though, just put on a little music and it will all be right there: I Walk the Line, Walking in Memphis, Walk Away Renee, Walk Like a Man, Walking in the Rain, You’ll Never Walk Alone, Walk Between the Raindrops, Walk On By, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, Walk Like an Egyptian, Love Walked In, Walk on the Wild Side, Walk of Life, Baby Elephant Walk, Sleepwalk, Walk Right In, Lambeth Walk… Ah, the list could go on, but you get the idea. And the idea is that just about every conceivable kind of walk is sung about by pop, rock, jazz, rap, gospel, ragtime, contemporary, and classical artists.

Artists have been painting pictures of walkers since the beginning of painting. Those cave paintings found on every continent depict people walking, often times in pursuit of their next meal, but clearly out, putting one foot in front of the other. And photographers are especially good at creating images of people walking; think the Beatles crossing Abby Road, or Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment.

Where would religion be without the walk that Moses and the Hebrews took to the promised land?  Or Jesus walking on the water? Buddha became Buddha after a long walk. “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain” probably describes a bit of a walk, right?

Walks have been, and are, a part of the Native American experience, both good and bad. The Trail of Tears is the name given to the 1838 removal of the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muscogee nations from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern U.S. to what was called Indian Territory, including Kansas and Oklahoma. Similarly, the Long Walk of the Navaho was a forced march of tribes from Arizona to eastern New Mexico in the 1860s. On the other hand, freely walking was thought to be a way to cleanse oneself and become close to the Great Spirit.

Now, I recite all of this not as a cultural lesson, but by way of introduction to the walking of one of Walnut Shades’ sports notables, Larry Morton. People around here remember Larry as a standout track and field performer. Name a distance and Larry probably holds not only a Miller County record for it but a state title. Everybody in Kansas knows Jim Ryun for his accomplishments in running the mile, but few know that Larry beat Jim’s times in all the other distances. Unless you are a running aficionado, you probably have forgotten about Larry because he gave up running in favor of walking when he graduated from high school and went away to Rutgers to college. I talked to Larry a few months ago when he was passing through town on his way to a “walk” in Santa Fe.

“I was on a full scholarship to run track at Rutgers, but in our first race against our arch rivals, Princeton, I tore my meniscus. As part of the rehab process, I had to walk ten miles a day and I discovered that I liked walking more than I liked running,” Larry began. “I used to walk from the campus and cross over the Raritan River on the Albany Street Bridge. I’d pick up River Road or Johnson Drive and walk along the river until I could cross back over on I-287. I used to like to walk through Ukrainian Village and occasionally go over to Six Mile Run State Park. I usually walked early in the morning, before class when there were only runners or people with dogs. I used to see my teammates out running and they’d give me a hard time about ‘just walking,’ but the spring of my sophomore year, I learned about competitive walking in Europe and thought that sounded like a fun way to see another country.”

Larry explained that the competitive walking he had discovered was not race walking, that heel-and-toe stride you see in the Olympics, but walking for distance and endurance. It was a throwback to the “pedestrianism” that had started in England in the 1800s when the aristocrats started betting against each other that their footmen could walk the farthest and the longest. It caught on in the United States in the late 1800s when “professional” competitions were organized by people like P.T. Barnum in large indoor stadiums.

“Walnut Shade played a minor role in one of these matches,” Larry continued. “There was a walker during the 1860s named Edward Payson Weston, a reporter for the New York Herald newspaper, who bet that he could walk from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 30 days. He won the bet and during a night of celebration there, apparently wagered that he could walk from Chicago to San Francisco in 60 days. His route brought him through St. Louis and Kansas City and across the wagon train trails to Walnut Shade. He got to town about supper time. Lucian Bradford gave him a bed for the night and breakfast the next morning, and he continued his journey. Just outside Salina, Weston stumbled and broke his right leg. That was the end of his walk across the continent.”

“You went to Europe in 2006, is that right?” I asked.

“Yes, that was the first time, that summer,” Larry said. “I found out that the center of the walking culture was in Munich. It’s a great city to walk in. There’s this parkway that circles the old city and all these radiating roads going off it. The city is just sort of a tangle of streets and alleys and places to explore. I found the headquarters of the competitive walking organization, Internationalen Vereinigung für Wettbewerbsfähigen Spaziergang, or IVWS, and got the scoop.”

And what a scoop it was! Larry explained that the IVWS sponsors four events during the year, much like the stages of the Tour de France, except that time is immaterial in the competition; the only caveat being that all four events must be completed within the six months allotted. If you are familiar with a Volksmarch, the IVWS events are like really, really, really long Volksmarches.

“I had missed the start of the first event, which began in April, so I was not eligible to enter the competition except as an observer. The second event was set to begin on June 1, so I signed up for that. I really had to idea what I was getting into,” Larry laughed, that laugh you give when you can’t believe that you just swallowed a bug. “The competition entry materials explained about the routes of the various events and things to expect along the way. For example, you are responsible for your own food and water and first aid supplies, in case you injure yourself away from a city. You have to arrange for any lodging you might need, though I learned that most competitors carry their lodging on their backs — a sleeping bag. All of the walk is along main highways, so you don’t need hiking boots, but reflective clothing is a must.”

“So how long are these events?” I asked, thinking that they might be a walk of a day or so.

“Event One, like all the events, starts in Munich and heads east to Zurich and Basel in Switzerland. Then it passes through Dijon, Lyon, and Bordeaux in France. From Bordeaux, it goes through Spain on the way to Lisbon and then to Gibraltar. The route follows the Mediterranean to Barcelona, Marseille, Monaco and Genoa. Then it heads through northern Italy to Innsbruck, Austria and finally back to Munich. That’s a total of 2,867 miles.” Larry looked a bit exhausted just describing it. But he then laid out the route of Event Two, the one he entered as a non-competitor.

“Each event only begins when all the participants from the previous event return or let the committee know that they have withdrawn. The first event began with fifty-six competitors and by May 27th, forty-three had returned, with the other thirteen having dropped out. The next event was scheduled to begin on June 1 and this one was much shorter, heading east to Prague, then north to Berlin, west to Hamburg and Amsterdam, south to Brussels, back east to Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, a bit south to Strasbourg and then east to Stuttgart and finally back to Munich. While that’s only 1,400 miles, it’s a bit more challenging than Event One because it goes through more of the forests of Germany, in particular.”

Larry says that he completed the course in twenty-seven days, well behind the winner of the event, who finished in nineteen days.

“I thought I was keeping a pretty good pace, but Henrick Carlson was averaging nearly seventy-five miles a day. That is twice the speed that most people walk and he was doing it in a sustained way.”

You could tell that Larry was impressed. He said that he wanted to stay and enter the third event, but he needed to get back to school, and after a short stop in Paris and then in London, he flew back to Kansas City and spent the rest of the summer in Walnut Shade before returning to Rutgers. He kept up his walks around New Brunswick during the school year, but ten miles a day seemed like “a walk in the park” after having done as much as fifty miles a day in Germany. Some weekends, though, he would walk to Manhattan, about thirty-five miles away, or to Philadelphia to visit an uncle.

“If I started out by six a.m., I could make it to Philadelphia by around eight in the evening. Uncle Gene thought I was an idiot. He’d say ‘You’re a damn fool walking all that way. I don’t even walk to the corner for a beer.’ But then he’d laugh and take me to the tavern on the corner and buy me a beer.” Larry seemed to have a bit of a catch in his throat when he talked about his uncle. “I haven’t been back since I graduated. Maybe I’ll do that after I do the walk in Santa Fe.”

The summer after his junior year at Rutgers, Larry went back to Europe and entered the third event, again as a spectator. This one traversed most of France and Switzerland, a distance of 1,845 miles. Since the event didn’t begin until August, he decided to also take a semester off and do the final event through eastern Europe, finishing just before the end of November.

“That one was the most formidable because it started just as the weather was beginning to turn cooler and ended when the daytime highs were only in the thirties. It was only a little over 1,200 miles, but it seemed like I was never going to finish or be warm again.”

Larry said that when he got back to the United States, he had a big decision to make. He had completed three of the four segments of the competition as an observer/spectator/non-competitor, but he had made a lot of friends, impressed the organizers and had decided that walking had gotten into his blood and head.

“Did I mention that there is prize money?” he asked, almost as an afterthought. “The winner of each event receives the equivalent of $25,000 and the overall winner gets an additional $25,000, so it’s possible to earn $125,000 for the competition.”

Not bad for taking a walk.

“So, I delayed the start of my senior year, but was able to take extra coursework during the winter semester. Rutgers was just beginning to offer on-line courses, so I managed to finish up during the breaks between events. I actually graduated while I was in Germany at the end of the first complete competition I entered.”

“How did you support yourself while you were in Europe, walking?” I had kind of missed this part of the story somehow. You’ve got to eat and buy walking shoes and probably replace a sleeping bad every now and then.

“Sponsorships,” Larry said, laughing. “We all look like NASCARs or the golfers with their Titleist shirts and Nike hats. I was sponsored the first year by Volvo, BASF, and New Balance. This year, I’ve picked up a couple more, including Polo, Mercedes and Royal Bank of Scotland. You’d think that two car companies wouldn’t want to sponsor the same person, but they don’t seem to care as long as their name is on you somewhere.”

For three years, Larry was among the top finishers, but his breakthrough came last year when he won the competition. For six months, he walks through Europe and for the other six months, he appears around the globe for his sponsors. After our talk, he flew to the southwest, did his walk in New Mexico through Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque and then flew to New Zealand for a walk from Auckland to Wellington. Now, he’s on his way to Seattle where he will spend a couple of days with his parents and do the Olympic Two Hundred before flying back to Europe to defend his title.

Larry has so inspired me that I wake up Jerry, my dog, a couple of times a day and we take a walk to the park or to the Post Office, even though I don’t get much mail these days. I wonder if I could get someone to sponsor me for these walks?


Over the last year, I’ve discovered from talking to my fellow correspondents around the county that Walnut Shade is not the only town that has that wonderful character who knows just enough about almost every subject to be able talk authoritatively but also manage to get most of the facts slightly wrong about almost everything. I think about the John Goodman character, Walter Sobchak, in The Big Lebowski or Kramer in Seinfeld. One of the things that makes characters like them endearing, and infuriating, is their ability to seem sensible while they are saying outrageous things. They also have a way of saying things that sort of make sense when they are saying them, but when you think about it later, they really don’t. For example, our local sage is Harry Morris, whom I’ve talked about before. In addition to being someone you can always rely upon for an opinion or pronouncement, he’s also a becoming-renown artist for his organic sculptures, with a show opening in Kansas City in a couple of weeks (“Those are just piles of trash, if you ask me,” says Billy Thornton. Yes, Billy, they are piles of trash, but very valuable piles of trash these days). A while back, I started writing down a few of Harry’s more memorable maxims. Herewith is a sampling.

When Harry is engaged in a conversation that he thinks is not getting to the point, he’ll say “Move your bananas to the belt,” meaning “move things along.” I think he picked that up at the IGA in Fremont where they have a couple of checkers who get upset if you don’t unload your cart as quickly as they think you should. Actually, it’s not a bad sentiment. Some people never get to the point.

Harry is fond of saying about someone who doesn’t quite know what’s going on around them: “He doesn’t have all his chairs under the table.” Sort of the equivalent of “a few bricks short of a load” or “a few cards shy of a deck.” But I’m really not sure what having all your chairs under the table would do for you. Heaven knows where Harry got that one.

We have a veteran in town who was a Marine and every time he comes into Shirley’s, Harry greets him with a hearty “Semper Fry.” The Marine just smiles.

We were talking about a celebration at The Convent a while back where champagne was served. “Ah, that’s just ginger ale that knows someone.” Hmmm.

Harry said a few weeks ago that he wanted to join Facebook, but that he didn’t really have any friends, so he wouldn’t have anyone to talk to on there. Harry has lots of friends. In fact, I don’t know anyone that isn’t his friend.

“People ask me why I rummage around in the trash dump and I just tell them that’s where the art is.”

“I thought about hiring Gary [the local “solid waste contractor”] to be my assistant, but he doesn’t know good trash from bad trash.”

“Someone asked me to explain my art, but when I did explain it to them, they still just thought it was junk. Junk is what they throw away. Art is what I pick up.”

One day, several of us were sitting in the Stop and Go, having a lengthy, but one of our ultimately nonsensical conversations, when Harry suddenly got very quiet. Someone asked him why he had stopped talking. Harry replied that he had gotten bored with what he was saying and decided to listen to the rest of us for a change. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch up with you all. I just have to refill my bucket.”

I suppose all of us should refill our buckets now and then. Thanks for reminding us, Harry.


News from the past:

Topeka, December 27, 1906 — Mrs. Ethel Lambert, wife of Governor Harrison Lambert, died Christmas day after a long siege of the pneumonia. The people of Kansas share in the grief of their splendid governor in his great bereavement. Thankfully, their children are all grown.

Willow Springs, April 18, 1914 — Earl Potts finished constructing his chicken coop and installed twelve hens and a rooster in it on Monday. We are sorry to report that the tornado that touched down near there on Wednesday took the chicken coop and all but two of the chickens with it. Earl says he is determined to rebuild.

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Chapter 46 — The Winds of Change

April 5, 2012

The GWSBAS (Greater Walnut Shade Bike Around the Square) was a great success again this year, with forty-six riders. Over $18,000 was raised for Main Street/Pride committee projects and for new lounge furniture at Walnut Rest, this year’s designated charity.

The Main Street/Pride committee met on Wednesday and discussed uses of their share of the money raised in the GWSBAS. They also considered some of the new slogans suggested for Walnut Shade advertising.

The municipal election results were announced Tuesday evening about 7:30, after the poll closed. There were 212 votes cast, from a pool of 227 eligible voters. The results are as follows: for mayor — Grant  Combs, 212 votes; for four at-large council seats — Les Derby, 212 votes; Sandy Cramer, 212 votes; Thomas Miller, 212 votes; Billy Thornton, 0 votes; Ralph Thompson, 0 votes. Since neither Billy nor Ralph received any votes (!?!), the seat will be filled by the council at a special meeting next Tuesday.

We were sad to hear that Delores Gilbert’s aunt, Betty Franks, passed away last week. She had been in failing health since her husband, Tommy, died in November. Craig and Delores flew to California for the memorial service.

Bill Heath’s “water retention structure” is at capacity and he said he will be stocking it with bluegill and channel catfish.

Sally Ryan wants everyone to know that The Garden Center is well-stocked with bedding plants and spring annuals. Tickets for the Master Gardener tour are also available.

An information and training session will be held next Thursday at the ASCS office, Lorene Roberts reports, to acquaint farmers in Miller County with the Ag Census, which will conducted later this year. The session begins at 10:30 and lunch will be served afterwards.

Parents and friends were treated to a performance by Daphne Wolfe’s piano students at the First Baptist Church on Sunday afternoon. There was a consensus by the listeners that are a number of budding Lang Langs and Vladimir Ashkenazys among Daphne’s pupils.

Stephanie Barnett will be interning at WIBW this fall as a meteorologist. She says she is looking forward to working with Jeremy Goodwin, who is a graduate of Mizzou and has been at the station since 2001.

Jim Fillmore and Melody Watkins have been living in Jim’s house since they were married New Year’s Eve, but last week they put an offer on the old Crenshaw house, across from the park. Listed on the National Register, it has been vacant for several years.

Larry Long has been promoted to principle bassist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Guess that means he won’t be joining the Dixieland Stompers now that Randy Humphreys has been offered a job with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, which will become a quintet when he joins them in New York for their latest tour.

Nathan Crane, Extension Agricultural Agent, will be presenting a session on apple cultivars at the spring regional meeting of NACAA in Chicago in May. Nathan has become recognized as an expert in the grafting and pruning of apple trees.

Betty Watkins, Lois Hawkins, Mary Franklin, and Lois Adams attended a statewide VFW Auxiliary meeting in Topeka on Tuesday.

Ilene Wick heard from her nephew, Curtis Reynolds, on Sunday that he and his cousin, Valerie Adams, will be visiting friends in Manhattan this coming weekend and will stop in to see her on Sunday. Curt works for Verizon in Denver and Valerie is a sales associate for REI there.

Hank Stanford, Ruth’s brother, was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in Blue Springs, Missouri, after suffering a fall from a ladder while he was cleaning the gutters on his house. Ruth says that he only has bruises and cut on his hand from grabbing the gutter as he fell. “That kid has always been accident-prone,” Ruth said. “That kid” is seventy years old.

I’ve never cleaned the gutters on my house. That’s a job for the professional and probably why I am whole and in one piece…

And why I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Elections in small towns are usually perfunctory affairs. If someone really wants to be on the town council, it’s a foregone conclusion that that person will be elected. Often, no one runs for a seat and so it is filled by appointment/coercion: one of the “prominent” people in town gets talked into serving and does so reluctantly. Those who do make the decision to run on their own seem to have a couple of reasons to put their name in front of the community: they see something that needs to be taken care of, such as a street corner needs a stop sign where a bunch of kids cross going to school, or pot holes aren’t getting fixed and the street superintendent needs someone on the council to goad him into action; or, he or she has aspirations to a political career beyond the town and sees the council as the stepping stone to the county commission or legislature. To be honest, the latter is the reason least used around here. While there are Walnut Shade residents who have gone on to higher office, mostly they have just jumped straight into the fray and gone for the office they wanted without preliminaries. Grover Harris, Inez’s grandfather, comes to mind. He had never held an elective office before moving into the Governor’s mansion in Topeka in the 1930s. It was an unusual happening to say the least, but the late ‘30s was an unusual time. Harris ran as a progressive in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt and won over the more conservative Republican and Democratic candidates. Funny, but there’s to historical marker commemorating his victory here. The Main Street/Pride committee needs to work on that.

The municipal election this year was a very, very strange one indeed. Flossie Wentworth, who had held a seat on the council for sixteen years decided not to run, citing her desire to spend more time with the Excelsior Book Club, thus leaving an open spot on the ballot for the first time in eight years. The last time a new face was added to the council was when Les Derby stepped up to replace Marie Green, who had been elected to the Miller County Commission the previous November. So, with an opening on the council, the buzz around town for a few weeks was who would want to become a candidate. As it was assumed that no one in town was currently thinking about higher office, the question was who in town had an problem they though needed to be corrected. Who had been attending council meetings to talk about something that needed to be done in town? Who had been complaining about something over pancakes or cheeseburgers at Shirley’s? Who had been occupying one of the red molded plywood seats at the Stop and Go, giving advice about town issues to anyone who would listen?

Well, two people fit the bill: Billy Thornton and Ralph Thompson. Billy, when he and Dorothy returned from New York, began to tell everyone who was within earshot that what Walnut Shade needed was a public transportation system! The Main Street/Pride committee was the primary target of this harangues, suggesting that they buy one of those trolleys that he had seen in lower Manhattan so the tourists would be able to get around town easier and for free. Now, unless you have a sprained ankle, you can walk from one side of Walnut Shade to the other in about ten minutes and while we do have a considerable number of visitors on the weekends and during our several celebrations during the year, no one has complained about needing to ride around town to see the sites. He found a less than receptive ear when he talked to each of the current council members, so that’s why he decided to run, in hopes that he could persuade them from inside “the establishment,” as it were.

Ralph Thompson, on the other hand, had no particular platform on which he was basing his candidacy. He apparently told Sandy Cramer that he just had the sense that something needed to change. What and how were not specified and knowing Ralph, he wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint them if they tapped him on the shoulder. Since it was pretty obvious that his only opponent would be Billy, he put all his efforts into beating him. At several venues around town, the two discussed the issues, although neither could specify how there was any difference between their views, other than Ralph though a trolley might be a bit too expensive and suggested golf carts instead. His “debate” with Billy in the Courthouse Square was like a contest between a boxer and someone playing checkers. Punches were thrown and moves made, but it seemed that each participant was on an entirely different plane of existence. It was sort of like “Waiting for Godot” without the urgency. As I reported before, the audience was negligible and so the event concluded rather quickly.

The campaign was blessedly short, also, and so the two went into the election with no clue about what would happen. What did happen was a shock to everyone in town and to anyone who has the faintest familiarity with voting. When people say that “every vote counts” and “one vote can make a difference,” they were never more correct. One vote would have decided this election had either candidate receive even one! From the beginning, Dorothy Thornton and Connie Thompson thought their husbands’ campaigns were silly and so when it came time to vote, neither voted for them. That was pretty much the feeling around town, also. Most people thought the contest was a joke and just left the boxes next to Billy and Ralph’s name unchecked.

Billy and Ralph, being friends, didn’t vote for themselves, of course, but as competitors, they didn’t for vote for the other one, either. The election thus ended in a 0 to 0 tie! According to state law, when an election ends in a tie, it will be decided by drawing lots. So, it will all come down to who gets the slip of paper with the X on it. My guess is that it will be the one playing tic tac toe.


The GWSBAS (Greater Walnut Shade Bike Around the Square) was held on Saturday, April Fools Eve as it was called this year. It was great fun for everyone. The weather was exceptionally good, with the temperature at midnight, when the race began, standing at 61 degrees. By the afternoon, it had risen to 82. When the race ended at midnight, April 1, it was down to 63 degrees. Pretty unusual, given that the average high is usually about 70. Several of the more experienced riders said that it was one of the best days they had had here. Last year, for example, a late season cold front moved through during the night, when they were out on the course, and it dropped the temperature to 28; it never got above 34 that day. Riders were fine, but the spectators and volunteers were far from comfortable and not very happy.

The ride, if you’ll remember, begins at Harris Park and heads south for four blocks to the Courthouse Square. Imagine if you can the Tour de France compressed into that distance. The first year the ride was held, there were only five riders. Now, with upwards of fifty, it can get pretty crowded. At least at the start. This is a “ride,” not a “race,” so things spread out fairly quickly. The idea is to make as many circuits as possible, not compete for time. During the overnight hours, there are frequents stops for coffee, hot chocolate, and hot cider from Lou Hawkins’ apple trees (I’m told that the cider may have some “additives” during the evening hours of the ride; just a rumor, I’m sure, never having experienced that myself; well, maybe once or twice). Daylight brings out the donuts from the Stop and Go, cinnamon rolls from Shirley’s, and this year, Jerry Hall served a full breakfast for the riders, compliments of Jason Glenn and Harry Singleton at the White Geranium. Riders got box lunches from Bach’s Lunch, of course, and dinner was served by the Altar Society from St. Brendan’s (known locally, now, as St. Brenda’s, much to the chagrin of Dorothy Westover; we love you, Dorothy).

As the ride has grown over the years (this is the twenty-fifth edition of the ride, by the way), it has turned into a major event for the town. One of the traditions that has grown up around the ride is known as the “decorating of the porta potties.” Now, everyone knows that any time people are out of their houses for any length of time, nature calls. “Nature” was accommodated the first couple of years when there were only a few riders, by the public restrooms in the park and the ones in the downtown businesses. As more riders began to take part, the sponsors decided to bring in a few portable toilets and place them in strategic locations. Those things aren’t particularly attractive and having them scattered along the route detracted from the overall visual appeal of the ride. Along about the third year, someone got the idea that the porta potties should be, shall we say, camouflaged. The first couple of years, this consisted of painting sheets of cardboard and placing them around the toilets, but like the Rose Parade floats that get more elaborate every year, the skins of the porta potties got more elaborate. In fact, believe it or not, there is now a “theme” each year. A couple of years ago, the theme was “historical outhouses,” with the porta potties decorated as privies which might have belonged to famous figures from the past, like Cleopatra, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, and the Red Queen. Perhaps the most unique one that year was the “outhouse” of Dracula, shaped like a coffin. Apparently that one wasn’t used much. This year’s theme was “March Madness,” since the Jayhawks are in the basketball championship. There were several porta potties sporting crimson and blue; purple and silver was also used, though the Wildcats didn’t figure in the tournament much this year. Our three local Tiger fans apparently were still upset at the team’s early exit from the games, so black and gold didn’t show up on any of the portable facilities.

Beside the decorating of the toilets, the day features a parade at noon and a fashion show, the models in which wear the latest cycling togs. The parade is a chance for young cyclists in town to demonstrate their capabilities maneuvering on two and three wheels, the upper age of the entrants being ten years. This year, there were twenty-three kids in the parade, the youngest only three years old. The theme of the parade echoed that of the porta potty decorations, so there were lots of little Jayhawks, Wildcats, a couple of Shockers, and an Ichabod.

The race has grown into quite the news-worthy even and there were film crews from WDAF and KMBC in Kansas City, KAKE in Wichita, WIBW in Topeka, KQTV in St. Joseph, and KETV in Omaha, all competing for the best angles and interviews with riders, volunteers and on-lookers.

“Even though it wasn’t April 2, I sort of expected to see Bill Murray,” remarked Curt Jackson, our resident film critic, referring, of course, to his favorite movie, Groundhog Day. “All those cameras!”

It was a memorable day, one that I’m sure will be repeated even bigger and better next year. It’s just another reason we live in Walnut Shade.


This is the windy season in northeast Kansas. Not only does the likelihood of tornados increase, but spring brings what is called around here, the Mistral, which usually begins around the first of April and lasts for a couple of weeks. The Mistral is a period of cold, northerly winds that sweep down the Vermillion River valley. It usually follows unseasonably warm weather in March, but sometimes it seems like it is just the last gasp, shall we say, of winter. On the one hand, we look forward to the Mistral because it bring with it crisp, clean air that hastens the opening of the blossoms on the apple trees, but it can also put a chill in the air that doesn’t really seem to leave all day.

One of the benefits of the Mistral is that it seems to block any possibilities of tornados around here. There has only been one recorded instance of a tornado during the first two weeks of April anywhere in this county and that was not technically anywhere close to the Vermillion. The air brought by the Mistral is dry and it is said to bring good health, evaporating stagnant water and the mudflats that develop over the winter. On the downside, it has been blamed for causing something akin to “prairie fever,” what old-timers called “wind madness:” the feeling that the howling of the wind, sometimes for days on end, will never stop. I’ll admit that it does get a bit unsettling at times, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night and hear the shutters banging furiously and the dog whimpering under the bed.

There is a story from the 1870s of a family who had recently settled just outside Walnut Shade and experienced the Mistral for the first time. The winter of 1873 had been particularly brutal, with long periods of extreme cold and several blizzards that dropped large amounts of snow. For days, the family was essentially trapped in their small two-room cabin and although they had plenty of food, the uncertainty of the situation created increasing tension between the adults. The father seems to have been mentally unstable, according to neighbors, and by the time spring came and the winds blew for several days, the stress apparently caused him to become highly agitated and erratic. An item in The Ledger from that time indicates that on a trip into town to buy supplies, he got into an argument with a storekeeper and shot him dead before turning the gun on himself. Later that day, when the Sheriff went to his farm to notify the wife, he found that the entire family had been killed, presumably by the father. While it certainly can’t be proved to be the cause, the Mistral was blamed for the tragedy by people in the valley.

There have been other instances of violent and strange behavior during and immediately following “the wind.” One year, a farmer turn all of his livestock out of his pasture and drove them down the road to an adjoining farm. He told his neighbor that he no longer wanted the animals and that he was making him a gift of them. Of course the neighbor recognized that there was something wrong and gently took him and his livestock back to this farm. A few days later, the winds had died down and the farmer was back to normal, somewhat embarrassed by what had happened. An example of widespread wind madness happened in the 1950s when the families on three blocks in Walnut Shade parked their cars in the middle of the street, saying that they were afraid the “Red Army” was going to take over the town and they wanted to be able to get away as quickly as possible. As it turns out, that probably wasn’t so much a case of wind madness as watching too much TV during the Joe McCarthy era.

Lately, though, the wind has become a valuable commodity. At last count, there are eight wind turbines in the county, supplying power to the electric grid. Rodney Dane has become a pioneer in this regard, with two turbines on his farm, alone, and plans for three more.

“We’ve always been forward-thinkers in this county, and I believe that we need to become much more self-sufficient,” he said the other day while we were having a late breakfast a Shirley’s. “My grandfather had three windmills on the farm that pumped water for the livestock and even generated a little electricity before he got hooked up to the Co-op. He knew that the wind was a resource that could be used, not just yelled into. I think he would have been one of the first to sign up for a turbine.”

Rodney’s probably right. From what I’ve heard about Franklin Dane, he was a conscientious farmer and a conservationist before that word was in general use. That has been the norm around this area. I’m not entirely sure where that ethic comes from, but it was probably brought here by the New England progressives, the Philadelphia Quakers, and the “thinkers” from places like New Harmony, Indiana, and Arrow Rock, Missouri. It is a tradition that we are proud of and that we try to honor, even when the wind blows in the opposite direction.


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