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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.”

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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

Ending Tulsa Silence, Better Late Than Never

Topeka Capital Journal
March 6, 2000

The state of Oklahoma was the site of one of the worst race riots in history in 1921, but for almost 75 years the chances are you wouldn’t have heard about it, even if you lived there, studied state history in its schools, or read newspapers and periodicals in its libraries. Oklahoma covered it up and treated it like it never happened.

On June 1, 1921, the riot erupted in Tulsa and resulted in 40 blocks of an upper class black neighborhood being looted and burned. The Oklahoma National Guard said 26 blacks and 10 whites died and 370 were injured, but eyewitnesses said at least 100 blacks were killed, and the correct figure probably was more than 300.

For 75 years, no memorial of any kind was erected, no city sponsored commemorative services were ever held, and not a single person ever was charged with the killings or the fires. In the library’s, every mention of the riot, the fires and the organized white lynch mob was deleted from the Tulsa newspapers.

I was one of the know-nothing’s in the riot’s aftermath, despite having taken two courses in Oklahoma history, one in high school in the late 1930s, and a forced repeat in college in the 1940s.

If there ever was a mention of the Tulsa riot in either course, I don’t remember it. In fact, from kindergarten to college diploma, all of it in Oklahoma, I don’t remember hearing a single word about it. I believe I would remember, because I like history, even down to taking an elective course called, “U.S. relations in the South Pacific,” or as I called it, “An Okie in Bora Bora.”

And, if I can remember Bob Wills doing “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” couldn’t I remember a riot?

I’m not alone in not hearing anything about the riot until recently. When Tulsa finally got around to remembering it, in 1996, the New York Times carried a couple of lengthy stories about it, and Susan Schaefer of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library resurrected them for me.

Tulsa mayor Susan Savage told the Times she grew up in Tulsa, but it was not until she was an adult that she learned about the riot. She said, “it just wasn’t something people discussed.”

The Tulsa County District Attorney in 1996 was Bill LaFortune, who said, “I’m 39 years old, born and raised in Tulsa, and I never really learned about the race riots until the last several years.”

The riot was sparked by a mistake. A 19-year-old black shoeshine man was arrested for supposedly assaulting a white teenage elevator operator. Police later would determine he stumbled into the girl accidentally, committing no crime, and charges were dropped.

But before that happened the afternoon newspaper headlines screamed, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and the story said angry whites were gathering in the courthouse to lynch the man. More whites joined the mob, blacks armed themselves, and the riot was on.

The Greenwood section of Tulsa was known as the as the “Negro Wall Street of America” because blacks who lived and worked there enjoyed a higher than average measure of prosperity. But many lost homes and businesses, and the city never paid a dime of reparations.

The final tally was 23 churches and more than 1,000 homes and businesses leveled. When it was over, witnesses said, trucks loaded bodies of black victims and took them to two local potter’s fields and common graves. Hundreds of black families fled Tulsa, never to return

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One who survived was J.B. Stradford, who owned a hotel in a rooming house in the doomed area. When he heard that armed men, black and white, were heading for the courthouse, he went there to try to talk the blacks into returning to their homes. But shooting started, and Stradford was charged later with inciting the riot.

He jumped bail in Tulsa and went to Chicago, where he became a successful lawyer. His descendants include a lawyer who is a former U.S. ambassador, a Circuit Court judge, and a college professor.

When the judge, Cornelius E. Toole, Stradford’s great-grandson, heard Tulsa had decided to remember the riot, he contacted an Oklahoma legislator, Don Ross, and asked about clearing Stradford’s name. Lafortune took care of that, and in all, 62 blacks indicted by an inflamed white grand jury in 1921 were cleared.

So, 75 years late, in a ceremony in the Greenwood Cultural Center, across the street from the spot where Stradford’s hotel was burned down, he received an honorary executive pardon from the governor of Oklahoma. His descendants said, better late than never.

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(Editor’s Note: This column is posted as written 20 years ago. In 2018, Tulsa World Managing Editor Mike Strain wrote: “In our newsroom, we have begun using the term massacre. We also will use the term riot, but it often will be in the context of explaining that the events of 1921 had commonly been known as the Tulsa race riot.”)

The Summer Wind of 1942

Topeka Capital Journal
May 8, 1998

I saw Frank Sinatra perform live with the Tommy Dorsey band on the stage of a Washington DC theater in 1942. I stood in line with hundreds of others to get tickets to an early matinee, and when the show was over I was a fan of his, and I’ve been one ever since.

When he died this month I thought about that day, and before long I was drifting through memories of the years before and after it and reliving the chain of events that got me to Washington in the first place.

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Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, 1942

By the time I saw Sinatra, I had been there more than a year, and had seen the Glenn Miller Band on the same stage. I thought at the time that nothing ever would top that, but I suppose Sinatra did. He was one man, and maybe there never has been another single performer who could move an audience like he did.

I was in Washington working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I was there because the FBI, expanding rapidly to handle the problems of impending World War 2, had gone all over the country interviewing candidates for clerical jobs. Salary: $1,440 per year, or $120.00 per month.

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Remembering mom

Topeka Capital-Journal
May 11, 1986

The nuns who taught us in the grade school saw to it that we learned early and well the importance of Mother’s Day. Like we always did at Christmas and Easter, we hauled out the crayons and drew a special card for mom.

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Leona Frances Shively

We spent so much time with the crayons, doing those cards, that it’s a wonder we learned to read and write and do our ciphering. But we did, and the cards were, in our minds, works of art.

I remember sister Mary Chrysostom best. She was my teacher in the 4th or 5th grade. She would draw a sample card on the blackboard and we would copy it as best we could.

She would come around and help the less gifted, and that’s one of the reasons I liked her. She spent a lot of time with me, so my card always came out looking pretty good.

The cover would have maybe a hill or two, some birds, a tree and a flower, and above it or below it or across it would be the word, “mother.” I was best at drawing hills and the sun. I was fair with the birds, terrible with trees and flowers.

Inside were two things. One was the message, expressing our love for mom. The other was called a “spiritual bouquet.” It was a list of prayers we had offered – or we were promising to offer – in mom’s behalf.

Even way back then I was into deficits. I’m afraid I padded my bouquet.

We would fasten these crayon-covered sheets together with colored string, or brass paper fasteners and then, at the proper time, present the card to mom.

She would express genuine pleasure at the total effort, an equally genuine surprise at the numbers button being promised. She never said anything, but I probably wasn’t fooling her.

I probably never did fool her. I know I didn’t the day a couple of other foolhardy adventurers and I skipped school to go downtown and hang out for awhile, and then go to a special high-noon baseball shootout between the Oklahoma City Indians and the Tulsa Oilers. Continue reading