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

Bud Wilkinson: To a Very Rare Man

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 14, 1994

Last Wednesday night Jay Wilkinson called to say his dad, Bud, who made history as football coach at Oklahoma, was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He didn’t. Next morning we heard on the radio he had died.

Later in the morning I tried to call Charlie Hoag to tell him about Bud, but I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t until the five o’clock TV news that we heard there had been a wreck on the Turnpike and that Charlie’s wife, Salli, was killed and he was seriously injured. The day had provided a double dose of bad news.

Wilkinson and Hoag had closer ties than you might think. In the early 1950s, Bud was one of the best coaches in the country and Charlie was a superb running back at KU , as well as being a key member of a national championship basketball squad. 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

Averting a National Fitness Crisis: A Story of Pluck on the Front Lines

Topeka Capital-Journal
Jan. 9, 1991

There is more bad news for would be war correspondents. It wasn’t enough that the prospective war zone bans booze and wanton women, so now the Pentagon says journalists must pass a physical fitness test before they will be accredited to cover the troops in Operation Desert Shield.

Several men and women already have been tested, and only a few men have failed. This is not surprising, since men are less inclined to take this sort of thing seriously. Those found wanting probably went to the test directly from a wholesome lunch of spicy chili, barbecued ribs, cheesecake and a few beers.

Some men aren’t meant to pass physical fitness tests, and this simple fact calls to mind the greatest fitness crisis in the country’s history. It occurred in February 1963, and I am proud to say I played a major role in resolving it.

The White House was occupied at the time by John F. Kennedy, and it probably was his Irish humor and his bent for playing a dirty trick on his portly press secretary, Pierre Salinger, that started the whole thing. Robert F Kennedy, the attorney general, got into it, and in the end it turned out to be funny to everybody but Salinger.

The story goes that President Kennedy somehow learned that Teddy Roosevelt, when he was president, had sent a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps saying every Marine should be able to walk 50 miles amd that White House personnel probably should be able to do it, too. You can smell a plot being hatched here.

Continue reading

A Friend Recalls Alf Landon

Topeka Capital-Journal
October 16, 1987

In 1935, Gerry Barker was a junior at Ottawa University and Alf Landon was governor. On a night when Baker University played at Ottawa for the league basketball championship, Landon was in the stands. Ottawa won in the final seconds, and Barker was the star.

Later, Barker was just coming out of the shower when E. C. “Ernie” Quigley, who had refereed the game, came into the Ottawa dressing room and asked, “Where is that young man Barker?” Gerry stepped forward and Quigley said, “Hurry and get dressed. The governor wants to meet you.”

When they met, Landon congratulated him on the victory and on his efforts. Barker says today it was a high point of his career, and then some. It was the start of a long and enduring relationship.

In 1947, Barker went to work for radio station WREN, which had just been moved over from Lawrence. In 1952, Landon bought the station, and when he met the staff he looked at Gerry and asked, “Are you the Barker who played at Ottawa?”

Continue reading

Amy’s Least Favorite Column

October 6, 1959
Topeka Daily Capital

Thinking it over, I guess that one of the bigger developments of the year, along with the beginning of the era of personal diplomacy, summit meetings and the steel strike, is Amy’s learning to go to the bathroom.

In listing major events of the year, the feeling here is that their importance should be measured in terms of how they affect people. Well, in my little corner of the world, Amy’s ascent to this level of refinement created more excitement by far than Khrushchev’s visit.

I’m not really sure how the other three made this advance. All I know is that one day they wouldn’t go, the next few days they might and they might not go, and suddenly they went. One at a time, of course.

Their mother guided each of the other three through these perilous – and often disastrous – times, and I was barely more than a casual observer. But in the case of Amy, it became a family project and seldom have I seen a group so engrossed.

As the coaches would say, the education of Amy was a team effort.

Continue reading

Rockne, Gipp and Jess Harper: On the Ranch with a Football Legend

(Editor’s Note: In September 1956, Topeka Daily Capital Sports Editor Dick Snider devoted a series of his Capitalizing on Sports columns one week to a sports legend living in southwestern Kansas.)

It’s inspiring to visit some of Kansas’ old-time athletic greats and see how and what they’re doing now. It inspires you to live to a ripe old age and settle down in the peaceful surroundings of beef cattle, oil wells and wheat. Or, the moral might be, you don’t have to be young and in Las Vegas to live it up.

Proof came first from 82-year-old Fred Clarke, who enjoys life amid his 1,300 acres and modest handful of oil wells near Winfield. And now we have Jess Harper.

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Harper’s little empire is located seven and a half miles South of Sitka, which is west of Wichita and south of civilization. He calls it a ranch, probably because it includes some 20,000 acres. He calls it a good ranch, because it has 35 producing oil wells.

“I’ve got the most successful breeding secret ever known on this ranch,“ chuckles Harper, a comparative stripling of 71. “I’ve crossed Hereford cows with oil wells, and you can’t beat that.”

Continue reading

JFK Tops for Intentional White House Humor

Topeka Capital Journal
Aug. 12, 1991

In this country we like to say that anybody can grow up to be president, but that’s like saying anybody can win the lottery. The odds are against anyone who has the White House in mind. That goes even for a vice president, particularly if his name is Dan Quayle.

All most of us can do about the presidency is hope we vote for the winner, and then hope he does a decent job. We also can hope he has a sense of humor, because when you consider the shape the country is in, it is clear the head man needs to be able to laugh and make others laugh with him.

jfkIf you were to rate presidents by their sense of humor, you would have to admit that, despite all his weaknesses, John Kennedy was the best ever. Throughout his career, his wit stands out like no president before or since.

Asked how he became a war hero, he said, “It was easy. They sank my boat.” During his presidential campaign he said his wealthy father would finance a victory, “but he flatly refuses to pay for a landslide.” Continue reading

Mantle’s Legend Born in Topeka

Topeka Capital Journal
June 14, 1995

In his second year in professional baseball, Mickey Charles Mantle, at age 19, played the entire season for Joplin, Mo., in the Western Association, a Class C league that included Topeka, Hutchinson and Salina. The year was 1950, and Mantle had the kind of season that left no doubt he was headed for fame and fortune in the majors.

It would be wrong to say he led the league in everything but stolen towels, a popular swift phrase of that day. In fact, he led only in runs, hits and batting average, but that gave you some idea of what he could do with a bat.

In 137 games, he hit .383, scored 141 runs and drove in 136 more. He had 199 hits, 26 of them home runs, and was walked 94 times. Obviously, he was a productive young man, very dangerous at the plate, so why didn’t he lead the league in homers, runs batted in and walks?

Considering the career he had, why didn’t he light up this minor league?

And if he didn’t, who did? Continue reading

On Assignment from the President

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 1, 1992

I ended the month of May with a blooper, and probably I’m starting June with another one, but some of us never learn. Last week I wrote that State Senator Frank Gaines of Augusta, who has announced his retirement, was a good man. It turns out he was a better man than I gave him credit for being. I should have known .

He was in the Legislature 24 years, and I noted that if he signed up for the plush pension plan legislators voted for themselves, he would qualify for about $25,000 per year. I added there was no reason to believe he hadn’t signed.

Since then I have been informed by a good friend of his, who would know, that Gaines didn’t take advantage of the souped-up pension. He deserves this apology and the respect of all of us.

I also have sentenced myself to do severe penance for this mistake, but not before I start June on the wrong foot by giving in to the irresistible urge to drop big names. It comes over me occasionally, and I am a pushover.

Maybe this one was caused by the recent new evidence from the two doctors that president John F. Kennedy was killed by two shots, fired by one man. Maybe it started me thinking about him and about my days as a dedicated public servant in Washington.

The story goes back 30 years, to the days when all public servants were dedicated and all Kansas State football fans were long-suffering. The story doesn’t have anything to do with K-State, but it does have a little to do with football. Continue reading