I’m a Kansas girl. Born here. Educated here. Married here. Raising a family here. Even in the year of college that I studied and lived in France, Kansas has been home.
As a kid, this didn’t exactly feel like bragging rights. Rectangle state with a little jagged corner. A teacher once suggested to me and my classmates that we could find Kansas on a U.S. map by looking in the middle of the country for the cracker with a bite out of it. Kansas has largely been function over form, to be sure.
But Kansas is much more than fly-over country. And although I know my regular blog audience hails from mostly other places, today I’m celebrating Kansas Day. Because if you’ve watched the news (or the Daily Show) over the past few years, Kansas is bleeding. Our state is in crisis. The state budget is in ruin. A scary majority of our elected officials are focused on their own careers, their own pride, or their own pocketbooks. The ultra wealthy have bought the highest offices in the land, driving policy with impunity. Our leaders double down on fear, blame and division. Kansas public schools, long among the nation’s very best, have been discredited, are being defunded and are actively targeted to be dismantled. The poor and vulnerable of our state are now shamed and, in too many cases, farmed out to the highest bidder.
It’s the state of my dad, his dad, and his dad the generation before. German settlers who homesteaded in the middle of the state and believed in the common good. Strong people who worked hard and helped each other. And smart people who understood that public education is essential to the future of democracy. I’ve heard stories about small, scattered Kansas prairie towns where families scraped together what little they had to hire a teacher. This is Kansas.
My grandfather grew up on the family farm, and my grandmother lived there with her new in-laws when Grandad was stationed in Japan for World War II. After the war there was college, hard work on the farm and enterprising business decisions. Grandad, who built two of his family’s homes, opened a variety store in one small Kansas town and later operated a Ben Franklin and department store in another. And Grandma, born and raised in Oklahoma, worked right alongside, his equal. She raised three boys and Eagle Scouts, helped run the stores and single-handedly chased down custom cutting crews when crops were ready to be harvested. They were a team of two intelligent, hard-working, enterprising people. They are Kansas.
Fast-forward to my life, with all the advantages offered by an extraordinary public education. My school district was admired nationally for excellence, and I had every opportunity to create whatever future I wanted. Classmates went off to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU and elsewhere. I decided to stay in Kansas and squeeze every ounce of goodness out of my five years at Kansas State University, the nation’s first land-grant university. I played in the symphony, recorded a CD with a string quartet, wrote for the award-winning daily newspaper, studied abroad and enjoyed access to world-class performers and lecturers. (I also enjoyed the benefits of a university that has a dairy science program. Hello, ice cream!) This is Kansas.
After graduating, I had professional and personal opportunities to be part of two Guinness record-setting flights piloted by Steve Fossett in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, play backup for Collin Raye and write a book. All while living and working — in Kansas.
When I was a teenager, Grandma would tell me about leaving her family when she was my age and enrolling in business college in Wichita. She wanted to make sure I knew, she chose Kansas. “All people are respected here, even women.” “Kansas wasn’t a slave state — it was a Free State.” And the one I can still hear her saying, “Kansans aren’t rednecks, hicks or bandits.” I wish I could say I appreciated her perspective at 16, but I certainly do today. And the more I know about Kansas, the deeper my appreciation and love.
Kansas was built by populists. It was the first in America to ban the Ku Klux Klan and the first to elect women to public office, one as mayor and another as sheriff. Our state capital — now the center of so much scandal and destruction — is home to the pioneering civil rights decision integrating public schools, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the first of its kind in the nation. The first state to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate on her own merits, without following a term that her husband had served. The native home of Dwight Eisenhower, Erin Brockovich, Langston Hughes, Amelia Earhart, William Allen White and Charlie Parker. This is Kansas.
The Hutchinson News editorial board wrote an obituary of our state nearly three years ago, documenting the painful highlights of losses we’ve suffered, ground we’ve lost. But Kansans are fighters. And we don’t give up. Not before, and not now. The sky may be very dark, but the Kansas stars are still out there — and they’re worth fighting for.
Ad Astra Per Aspera. And happy birthday, Kansas.