June 16, 2000
Zula Bennington Greene never was sure where her given name originated. She would say her best guess was that her mother read a novel that had a character named Zula in it and gave it to her. That was in 1895 when she was born on a farm in Missouri.
Her first name never really mattered, because she became famous all over Kansas and beyond for the “Peggy of the Flint Hills” columns she wrote for the Topeka Daily Capital and The Topeka Capital-Journal. She wrote her first one in 1933 and continued them until her death 12 years ago this week at the age of 93.
She started writing a newspaper column in 1928, for the Chase County Leader-News, and by the time she moved to Topeka it was appearing in 14 other Kansas weeklies. Her career spanned 60 years, so now you know why I never will be longest-serving columnist in this paper’s history.
If you’re thinking Peggy wrote social tidbits, cooking and canning tips and helpful household and gardening hints, think again. Her first column in Topeka was “Domesday,” about the turmoil in the Legislature over the great Finney bond scandal.
Another of her early columns talked about how appropriate it was that politicians had put campaign signs on a manure spreader. Still another made the comment that monogamy was like a cook stove — invented by men, for women.
The name Zula was all but forgotten. She was Peggy in the newsroom and everywhere she went. She also was Peggy to her friend William Allen White, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Emporia Gazette, who wrote:
“It is people who look at things like Peggy does who really make this life worthwhile. A pair of eyes like Peggy has is worth far more than a college education or a trip around the world. She can get more out of life staying at home than most people can traveling.”
As a teenager, Peggy moved with her family to Colorado. After high school, she taught a year, went to the University of Colorado two years, then taught two more years before she married Willard Greene in 1918.
They moved to his family’s farm near Bazaar, in Chase County, and she started writing for the weekly paper. When the editor asked her to write a column on a regular basis, he suggested they drop the “Zula” and call her Peggy. Why Peggy, nobody remembers.
Thus the column, “As Peggy Sees It,” was born, and it spread like a grass fire. When she came to Topeka, she was the columnist from the Flint Hills, so she crowned herself “Peggy of the Flint Hills.”
In Topeka, in addition to her column, she wrote features, covered the Legislature at times, wrote arts and entertainment reviews and also wrote “The Coleman Family,” a weekly serial for WIBW radio. You can check a sample of her work in this Sunday’s Capital-Journal special section of unique weddings, where there will be a reprint of her story about a couple married four times, but never divorced.
Peggy was a charter member of the Topeka Civic Theatre, which she joined in 1936. She appeared in several productions, and later was given every honor TCT had to offer. She also was in the national television production of “Mary White,” about the tragic death of William Allen White’s daughter.
She was a founder of Performing Arts for Children, and conducted weekly acting classes for patients at the VA hospital. She won local and national recognition for her contributions to community theaters.
In 1984 she was featured on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS, and on May 15, 1988, a month before she died, she received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Washburn University.
She was in demand as a speaker, usually talking about Kansas history. She was a member of a dozen or more civic, social and honorary clubs and societies, and in her spare time won prizes for her work in clay and ceramics.
But it was her columns that drew the most attention. She had a huge following, and delighted it with tales of every sort, including riding a special train with her granddaughter Melissa to Kansas City to see the Beatles.
This has been a tough week for Peggy’s daughter, Dotty Hanger. For one thing, the week marks the 12th anniversary of Peggy’s death, and for another, she and her husband, Dick, have been preparing for the memorial service Saturday for daughter Melissa, who died June 1 in Minneapolis. This also is the week of their 51st wedding anniversary.
Peggy once wrote that there are no sharps or flats on a typewriter, but it still can turn out some sour notes. Some sweet ones, too, and Peggy of the Flint Hills could hit them.