Holiday visit to Britton, over all too soon

Topeka Capital Journal
November 29, 1996

SOUTHLAKE, Tex. – We are spending the holiday with daughter Amy and her husband, Duff Nelson, and three granddaughters who were glad to see their grandma. They spoke to me too, to say 1) I parked in the wrong place, 2) I can’t smoke cigars in the house, and 3) would I pump up their bicycle tires?

Daughter Mary flew in Thanksgiving Day, so we had a small family reunion. Duff did well cooking the turkey, and it’s a good thing. He is still on probation for having messed up this chore three years ago. The turkey was on Duffs outdoor cooker for about three hours before he discovered the machine was out of fuel. We had microwaved bird for dinner.

We drove to Texas, and along the way I thought of the many times we had traveled south from Kansas for a family gathering. It started in the early 1950s when my parents lived in Oklahoma City, and there was no Kansas Turnpike or interstate between here and there.

We’d take the back roads down through Emporia and Sedan into Oklahoma, then through Pawhuska, Cleveland and Stroud, where we hit the new Turner Turnpike connecting Tulsa and Oklahoma City. It didn’t take long, because on those roads you could make Turnpike time.

We were doing just that one Christmas Eve night when we were stopped by an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper. He gave us a warning ticket, but said if we had been drinking he would have thrown the book at us. I’ve often wondered what he would have said if he’d known the bottle hidden in the baby’s basket on the back seat wasn’t formula.

Going or returning, we usually stop in Cleveland, because it was sort of a special place for a dedicated Oklahoma football fan. It was the home of Billy Vessels, and what made him special was not just that he won the Heisman Trophy, but that he came from a background that included a town drunk and two brothers who went to prison.

There were times we wouldn’t leave Topeka until I had finished work at the newspaper, but no matter when we arrived my dad would be up and ready to take care of however many children we had at the time. For awhile, there was a new one almost every time we showed up.

During every visit the time came when my dad and I would slip away and take a little drive. It was the same drive every time, and it was a trip back in time to the days when he owned a drug store in Britton and my two brothers and I were growing up.

The drugstore was long gone, my dad was working for the Oklahoma State Health Dept., and he and my mom lived in Oklahoma City. Britton, however, was the place none of us would ever forget.

My dad and I would start our drive and, though neither of us said anything, our first stop was at 42nd and Western, where an old friend of his owned a friendly neighborhood rest stop. We’d have a cold one, and then be on our way.

We go up Western, past Nichols Hills, and into Britton, by then part of Oklahoma City, but in our day a town of about 2,000. We’d cruise down Main Street, look at the boarded-up side of the drug store, and we wouldn’t say much. There were too many memories…

My grade school days, when I was a carhop at 10-cents an hour … The World Series, and Notre Dame football games, when my dad would turn on the radio’s outdoor speaker, and men would sit on the curb, and on car fenders, to listen …

The Braniff airline pilots who lived in Britton and who would come into the store in uniform, and I would stare at them in awe … The high school football heroes, like Ben and George Checotah, Indian brothers who made it out of the orphanage north of town … And like brothers Pat and Mike Magrew, who later owned the Texaco station. Yeah, Texaco …

Britton was a two-doctor, four-minister, no-lawyer town, which means that good prevailed over evil, and most of those good people were regulars at Doc Snider’s store. I could name a few hundred more if there was space, and I had the time to think of them.

My dad and I would drive from Main Street to 200 E. Stewart, where the family home was all those years. With little effort, I could see my mom’s washing on the line and hear the revival meeting at the Nazarene church across the street.

We’d cruise other streets slowly, then drive east of town to what we called the Two-Mile Corner. Often in the old days my dad and I would drive there after we closed the store, and he’d have a cold one, but now we both have one.

Then we drive back through town, West to old Wiley Post Airport, where Braniff serviced its planes and where my brother Al, who would become a Navy and a Pan Am Airline pilot, and my Uncle Bill Garthoeffner, both learned to fly. Then, we’d go ‘home’ to Oklahoma City, but it didn’t seem like home.

When we’d leave to return to Topeka, everyone’s eyes would get a little misty, because we knew the day would come when they wouldn’t be there. It came, all too soon, and it will come again.

Lunch with Sen. Kassebaum (Gambling Pays Off)

Topeka Capital-Journal
Oct. 16, 1989

Let it be said that the lady kept her word. Senator Nancy Kassebaum, true to her promise, bought my lunch last Thursday in Washington to make up for the five bucks she cost me when I bet a lawyer, of all people, that she wouldn’t run for office again next year.

Actually, I even came out a little ahead on the deal. Lunch in the Senate dining room of the Capitol cost a little more than I lost, plus I had the pleasure of her company and got to enjoy the rarified air of one of the most exclusive clubs in the country.

There are only 100 senators, and it is an understatement to say they are treated well. It is not difficult to understand why she, or anybody, would decide to return to the task of helping to run the country and, for that matter, the world.

But she said the decision wasn’t all that easy, that when she walked into the press conference to announce her decision on whether to seek reelection, she still wasn’t 100 percent certain what she’d say.

It was so uncertain that her daughter called her after the conference to ask what she had said. And it was so up in the air that the betting on which way she’d go was split in the Dan Glickman family. Continue reading

Doc Snider gets the post office back…in great detail

Oct. 13, 1992
Topeka Capital Journal

In my prime growing up years in Britton, Okla., one of the state’s U.S. senators was a lawyer named Thomas Pryor Gore, known as T. P. Gore, or as “TeePee” when he would use the outline of an Indian tent on his campaign literature.

This symbol and his dark complexion, which seemed even darker because of his white hair, caused most people to assume Gore was part Indian. But he wasn’t. He came from Mississippi, and he was a near-perfect picture of a politician – tall, handsome and solidly built. And, when he spoke, people listened.

He was recognized as one of the great orators of his time. Even as a teenager he was in demand as a speaker, and it was because his fame spread far beyond Mississippi that he wound up in Oklahoma and in the U.S. Senate.

There was one other thing about T.P. Gore. He was blind. Not blind in the political sense, not partially sighted in medical terms, but absolutely, totally blind. The tragic thing about it was that he wasn’t born blind, but lost his sight through two freak accidents before he was 20 years old. Continue reading

Reliving the toughest hour in network television

Topeka Capital Journal
August 21, 1995

HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. – Three men who once were responsible for the production of “the toughest hour in network television” had a reunion here this week. They recalled the horror stories, the good times and bad, and marveled once again that even one show got on the air, and agreed it was a miracle that more than 190 shows made it without a mishap over a 13-year period.

We met here because this is where Bill Flemming, the former ABC-TV sports announcer, spends the summers. Kemper Peacock, the New York City film editor and producer, and yours truly made the long trek here to the far reaches of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

When we were involved in the show, Flemming was the host and Peacock led the production team that actually did the work period as executive producer of NCAA films, I was responsible for the overall operation and for delivering the show to ABC on time. That meant I carried the beads and led the prayers that nothing would go wrong.

The show was College Football Highlights, which aired each Sunday morning during the season.

What we did was film six or seven college football games all over the country on Saturday afternoon, and then put highlights of those games on the air Sunday morning in a neat one-hour package. A sympathetic TV critic gave it the “toughest hour” label.

It sounds pretty simple, and it would be now, but back when we started in the late 1960s, it was considerably more complicated than planning and pulling off the invasion of Normandy. Continue reading

Writing the story of Britton would be no “Picnic”

Topeka Capital Journal
July 30, 2001

Recently I enjoyed visiting the past through the musicals “Music Man” and “Oklahoma,” and the drama, “Picnic.” I’ve seen all three so many times, on the Great White Way, the semi-Great White Way, in local theaters and in high school auditoriums, on the big screen and the small screen, that I long ago lost count.

“Music Man,” my favorite, is about a con man who comes to River City, Iowa, and sells the town on starting a boys band, even though he doesn’t know a musical note from a radiator whistle. The mayor smells a rat and says he “better hear some by-God tootin’ out of them horns, “ and he finally does. The hero wins the heart of Marion, the librarian.

“Picnic” is the story of a young man who returns to his hometown in Kansas broke and looking for work, but really hoping to get by on his looks and charm. It also is the story of an aging school teacher looking for a man.

After 27 unexpected turns of events that teacher lucks into a nice, cigar chewing guy, and the young man leaves by hopping a freight – but with the town beauty queen on a bus right behind him. They’re headed for Tulsa, where he can get work as a bellhop at the Mayo Hotel. Continue reading

A Full Life for Famous Topeka Author

Topeka Metro News
July 1, 2005

This all started with an email from Charles Crawford of New York City, a KU graduate, a faithful reader and a prolific communicator. He said that with “Nero Wolfe” being resurrected for television, now is the time to write something about Rex Stout, once a Topekan and the author who created the heavyweight detective character.

Crawford also offered some items from Stout’s 1975 obituary in the New York Times, and he ended his message with the comment, “sounds like a dream life to me.” If it wasn’t, it was close, and it bolsters the idea you should keep trying until you get it right.

Stout was famous a couple of times before he gained permanent all-star status by writing 78 detective novels, 46 of them featuring Wolfe, an eccentric, chubby, beer-drinking gourmet sleuth, whose wisecracking aid and companion in crime solving was Archie Goodwin.

In the books, Wolfe weighed 286 pounds and made fat fashionable. I think I read every one of the Wolfe-Goodwin’s stories, in book form or in American Magazine or the Saturday Evening Post. I was addicted to them early in life as I was later to John D McDonald in his Travis McGee.

Rex Todhunter Stout was born in Noblesville IN, in 1886, and a few months later the family moved to Wakarusa. He was like Dwight D. Eisenhower in that he came so close to being born in Kansas the state can claim him as one of its own. Continue reading

For These Shooters, No Shots, No Hats

Topeka Daily Capital
July 15, 1959

The popular picture of the press photographer comes from the movies, or the poorer television shows. The fellow is a middle-age wise guy, with his hat turned up in front and a press card sticking in the band and – since he works for a newspaper – he naturally drinks too much and talks too much.

I was comparing this “typical” photographer with the Daily Capital’s real life staff the other day and I was a little shaken. Either times have changed or we’re on the wrong track.

Rich Clarkson, the boss, and Gary Settle, are Ivy League-trim, practically hairless and disgustingly young and single. Owen Brewer is so young, he’s Little League. Then there’s Bill Snead, and I guess you would call him National League. He’s young, too, but he’s married and he’s a Cardinals fan.

The four of them don’t own one hat among them. If anything, they talk too little, and I shudder to think what havoc a shaker of martinis could create in their darkroom. I am confident they all take heed of my admonition that bleary eyes cannot focus properly and hands that touched liquor should not touch our shutters.

It’s remarkable, the more I think about it, how these guys get us good pictures when they fail so miserably to measure up to the movie and TV versions of their profession. Continue reading

After Philly, before Oakland, Finley, Bauer and the A’s

Topeka Daily Capital
June 28, 1961

WASHINGTON – When the Kansas City A’s last played here, about three weeks ago, one of the things I heard while visiting with them was that owner Charles O. Finley had wanted to release Hank Bauer before the season opened.

They say that the loudest protests came from Joe Gordon, then the manager. He said Bauer not only was a good ballplayer, but also was a good influence on the younger players and was popular with Kansas City fans.

They say, too, that general manager Frank Lane agreed with Gordon and the two of them combined to save Bauer’s job. Continue reading

Life and Times of the Light Crust Doughboys

June 11, 2001
Topeka Capital Journal

One day recently, Elaine White, without whom there would be no daily newspaper in Topeka, was reading, on her computer, the obituaries of notables from the day before. Knowing well my cultural tastes, she asked me if I ever had heard of the Light Crust Doughboys.

I said I had virtually grown up with them, and she went on to tell me Smokey Montgomery, their banjo player, had died in Dallas of leukemia at the age of 88. Then she asked me again if I really knew about them.

I said yes indeed, and to prove it I wore bold one verse of their theme song which they used to open and close their shows:

If you like us, think we’re fine.
Sit right down and drop a line
To the Light Crust Doughboys,
From the Burrus Mill.

There’s a lot of hillbilly music history, and politics featuring a one-time Kansan, in this story, so bear with me. Considering all the pleasure they gave me, the least I can do is offer a few words in their memory. Continue reading

O’Neill on Paige and the National Pastime

Topeka Daily Capital
May 14, 1958

Jackie Robinson’s recent uproar over when and how Negroes reached the major leagues brings to mind again the great number of Negro stars who came along too early to take advantage of the memorable day when Branch Rickey erased the color line.

One of those is John (Buck) O’Neill, who played with and saw the biggest names in baseball for 18 years. He was a star first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs for 17 of those years, and managed them for seven years. He now is a scout for the Chicago Cubs.

John (Buck) O’Neil

He had a lifetime batting average of .300 in the Negro major league and twice led the league in hitting with a mark of .350. He once was telling Sec Taylor of the Des Moines Register about life in the league, and the conversation went like this:

Is Satchel Paige the best pitcher Buck has seen? “I haven’t seen anyone better than old Satch,” O’Neill declared. “He was a competitor when he got in that ballpark. The trouble was to get him in it.

“Time meant nothing to him. He might go fishing just before an important game or he might get to the park gate, see you or anybody else and stand there and talk till after the game had started. Continue reading