One Man’s Kansas

Topeka Capital Journal
Jan. 24, 1986.

Since Kansas Day is upon us again, since the state is 125 years old, and since it was many years ago that we offered our last review of Kansas history, it is time we went over it again and updated it where possible.

Needless to say, the Kansas native sons and daughters of, of whom I am not one, have not endorsed this account of the state’s history. But what do they know?

To begin at the beginning, it is believed now that Kansas was discovered by a roving band of Republicans who were looking for a couple of safe U.S. Senate seats. They settled in, and ruled the state up until a few years ago.

What happened then, and what the future may hold, has led to a new Republican Battle cry in the state: “How many of them bleeping Dockings are there anyways?”

The first famous Kansan was Doctor John R. Brinkley, but he admitted he got here accidentally when he was deliberately given some faulty road information at a filling station in Tulsa.

The doc never forgot somebody had made a goat of him, and he spent the rest of his life trying to get even.

One of the leading figures in early Kansas history was Josephus R. “Skin” Flint, who deserted from the army and fled here after telling General Custer, “them Indians is friendly.”

Before he died, old “Skin” asked that he be buried in the hills near Salina where it was free, and they became known as Old Skinflints Hills. Historians later shortened the name at the request of a newspaper columnist named Peggy.

Speaking of Salina, it was named after two gunfighters who killed each other over whether the town should be named for Sal or Ina, a pair of dance hall girls. My dad, who was born in Miltonvale, once said he saw the fight, but stoutly denied he knew either girl.

How Topeka came into being is interesting. Cyrus K. Holliday, as the ads say, founded a railroad, a bank and a town. Critics of Topeka say Cyrus should have quit while he was ahead.

Actually, Cyrus already had named the railroad the Atchison, Santa Fe, So he had to put a town named Topeka somewhere along the line. It was cheaper than changing all those baggage tags.

So he picked a spot so close to Kansas City that it never would get decent airline service and said, “This is the place.” Topeka, incidentally, is an Indian name meaning “No parking.”

Around Topeka there are a number of Indian burial mounds, dedicated to the eternal sleep of the early tribes who roamed the area looking for deer. Now there is a modern edifice dedicated to eternal sleep. It is called City Hall.

The largest city in Kansas is Wichita, and one of the reasons is its aircraft industry. The airplane builders originally wanted to build their factories in Topeka, But the city commission of the time looked at their plans and said, “If God had meant for men to fly, he would have given them wings.”

This commendable conservatism has marked the progress of the city ever since.

There have been many famous athletes in Kansas history. Walter Johnson made it to Washington playing baseball, and John Riggins made it to Washington playing football. Alf Landon almost made it to Washington playing politics, but he couldn’t hit the curveball.

Jess Willard, the famous heavyweight champion, fought Jack Dempsey in Havana and is accused by some of taking the count while shading the sun from his eyes. I don’t believe that. I think he was looking at his watch to see if it was time for another steroid and forgot to get up.

There’s no question that our most famous athlete is Riggins. If you don’t believe me, just ask Sandy, baby, of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our women have been prominent. Carrie Nation saw “Lost Weekend” on the late movie one night and was so inspired she tried to dry up everything but the Kaw River Carrie-out beer cartons are named for her.

Kansas politics have been dull. Nobody can remember who the last Republican governor was, and nobody can predict when there will be another one. Noting that there are more registered Republicans than Democrats, famous Kansas editor William Allen White said: “It proves some people can screw up a free lunch.”

Kansas also is famous for Quantrill’s Raiders, a gang noted for mean dispositions and inflexible attitudes. Their direct descendants now work in county courthouses all over the country.

Our most famous vacation spot is Cheyenne Bottoms, named for Indians who used to swim there. Our most famous spa, glorious massage, was closed last year by the Sedgwick County vice squad.

For the complete volume of this history, contact your Historical Society. Don’t tell them I sent you.


When the future was in Topeka

Topeka Capital-Journal
Sept. 25, 1992

There have been times when I would have liked to buy back my introduction to Gene Gregston, times when I wished I’d never seen him. Not many times, but a few. The reason is, he’s the man who, some 40 years ago, got me to move to Kansas and go to work for the old Topeka Daily Capital. Continue reading

Teresa, Nelson and Walter walk into a kennel

(Editor’s Note: For many years, the late Topeka Capital-Journal Outdoor Editor Jim Ramberg and his good friend columnist Dick Snider covered the newspaper’s fiercely competitive “Dog of the Year Contest” with equally competitive annual newsprint faceoffs. Here is the 1990 version.)

Quality canine shines over Topeka … again

By Jim Ramberg
July 8, 1990

Let’s face it. Everyone gets old. Some do it more gracefully than others.

Look at Nolan Ryan, for instance. A class act, still throwing a 90-mph fastball.

George Foreman, that roly-poly fighter, isn’t going around singing “Yesterday.” He’s knocking the stuffing out of fighters half his age.

And Mick Jagger, the little English wimp, is still cavorting around on stage at the age of 50.

Of course, you have people who old age effects in a negative way.

They become mean spirited, cranky, vindictive. What’s worse, they get confused and often get their facts wrong.

Let me give you an example.

There’s this guy who writes a column here at the paper. This columnist. (his name sort of rhymes with Back Slider) lashes out at everyone and everything. He has attacked the legislative pension fund, the Expocentre, even (I’m not kidding) his own family. Continue reading

When heat tested whittlers, nuns and nearly naked newsmen

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 22, 1987

Often on the golf course, when four or five men are about to suffocate from heat and humidity, they talk about how they would react if they were forced to go out in that weather for four hours and do something equally as senseless as chasing a golf ball.

The other day, one such group followed that brief discussion by talking about what life was like before air conditioning and what it would be like now, if that marvel of marvels hadn’t been invented. Things would be different, that’s for sure. Continue reading

Fields of dreams and delusions.

Topeka Metro News
March 25, 2005

Devere Nelson, known to his millions of fans worldwide as Dev, used to sit in a little closet-sized control room, or studio, or whatever they called it, at WIBW and recreate baseball games that Topeka’s professional team was playing on the road. Continue reading

No Contest: Phelps gets his way with Topeka authorities

Topeka Capital Journal
December 20, 1995

You might say the Rev. Fred Phelps is exactly where he wants to be. He is on the front page and the editorial page with some regularity, and also at times on other pages, this one included. He and his followers are free to picket anything and anybody, whenever and wherever they choose. He has the city divided. This newspaper and some concerned citizens have laid the “Phelps problem” on Mayor Butch Felker’s doorstep, but he has responded defiantly, saying it’s not his fault the picketing outrage goes on unchecked. 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

Another Birthday to Forget to Remember

(Editor’s Note: The 100th anniversary of Dick Snider’s birth is March 20, 2021)

Topeka Capital-Journal
March 27, 1992

I had a birthday a week ago, on the first day of spring, as usual, but it went largely unnoticed. A few days before the date, I mentioned my birthday on the phone to two of my children, but to no avail. One of them said, “When is it?” and the other said, “When was it?” Neither sent a present.

Five heartless children have caused me to grow old and weary before my time. They make me remember what my mother used to say: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the sting of an ungrateful child.” Of course, she wasn’t talking about me when she said it.

My wife, who knows me best and obviously thinks of me as a pillar of strength, gave me a card, along with a nice gift. But other than that, the only card I received from anywhere in the family came from my brother, and it wasn’t what you’d call a joyous greeting. Continue reading

Assignment Topeka: Great People and the Best Capital in Kansas

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 25 , 1995

The executive editor, who really is a very dear friend of mine, said a special edition was in the works, and he wanted me to write something nice about Topeka.

I gave him my most engaging grin and said, “Isn’t that a isn’t that request a little oxymoronic? You know, like ‘Army intelligence’ and ‘honest government’?

Doesn’t saying nice things about Topeka have the same ring to it?”

The executive editor, who really is as nice a fellow as you’d ever want to meet, wasn’t smiling. “This is not a request,” he said. “It is an order, and I won’t repeat it.”

He was glaring at me now, displaying the same cordiality he did when I referred to the “giant Goodrich plant North of Topeka” in a recent column.

In an ominous tone, he said, “I will only remind you that you are hanging on by the thinnest of threads here, so it behooves you to comply with this order promptly.”

Well, that being the case, plus the fact the executive editor really is one of my all-time favorite people, I will get right to it.

Let me begin by saying that, unlike many Topekans, I am here not by chance, but by choice. I wasn’t born here. I moved here of my own free will not just once, but twice. Continue reading

Pondering Phelps Picketing Probe

Topeka Capital Journal
January 22, 1996

There are two investigations going on that are trying to determine who, if anyone, told city police not to arrest the Fred Phelps picketing gang. Actually, there are more than two probes, because I am conducting one of my own, and there may be other sleuth like me digging for the truth of this dastardly deed.

I have patterned my investigation after that of O.J .Simpson, who was trying to find the “real” murderer of his former wife and her friend, and also after the annual search for the WIBW Santa Claus.

What I am doing is asking people at random if they told the police to lay off Phelps and his troops.

So far, I haven’t turned up anything, but I figured that still leaves me with the two official inquiries.

Continue reading