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.