Unsung heroes. They can take many forms, from a hard-working single parent to an inspirational teacher to your local firefighter or police officer. Today we’ll learn about a Kansas-based educational center which is seeking to share examples of unsung heroes so as to improve our communities and our world.
Last week we met Norm Conard, a long-time social studies teacher at Uniontown High School. His students did many award-winning history projects through the years, one of which was a play about Irena Sendler. Sendler was a Polish social worker who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II. After the communists overtook Poland, they suppressed her story for another 45 years before Mr. Conard’s students became aware of it.
Three of Mr. Conard’s high school students did a play for National History Day about Irena Sendler. Eventually her story gained national recognition. The unsung heroism of this woman became known to a grateful world.
Having seen the transformative power of this work, Norm Conard thought about how to create more impact. During his teaching career, he was a USA Today All-American Teacher, Kansan of the Year, member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, and recipient of many other honors.
As he sought to enhance education using these stories of unsung heroes, he developed a grant proposal to the Milken Family Foundation to create an educational center based on this idea. Not only was the grant ultimately approved, Norm retired from teaching to become the center’s executive director.
Today the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes is located in Fort Scott, Kansas. Its mission is to “transform classrooms and communities through student-driven projects that discover unsung heroes from history and teach the power of one to create positive change.”
“Who changes one person, changes the world whole.” That quote from the Jewish Talmud was posted in a Kansas classroom where an idea took shape among an inspirational teacher and three high school girls. The idea would develop into a project which would have impact, literally, around the world. It began in rural Kansas.
Norm Conard was a social studies teacher at Uniontown High School. One of his teaching methods was to involve his students in the National History Day competition. Through the years, nearly 200 of his students received state history awards and more than 60 received national awards. One project in particular had global impact. It was chronicled in a 2011 book titled “Life in a Jar.”
Liz Cambers, Megan Stewart, and Sabrina Coons were students of Mr. Conard’s at Uniontown High School in 1999. He told his students to be thinking about a project on which they could do research for National History Day. Liz Cambers picked up a folder of news clippings to leaf through for ideas. She came across a small story from U.S. News and World Report.
In a few paragraphs, the article told about a Polish social worker named Irena Sendler who smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Liz had never heard of Irena Sendler and neither had Mr. Conard. They figured that perhaps the article had a typo. Maybe she saved 250 children, not 2,500.
Liz decided to look into the history of Irena Sendler. She was joined in the project by two classmates, Megan Stewart and Sabrina Coons. The more they looked into the history, the more amazed they were.
Let’s go to Super Bowl 50. Here on the sideline we find a man from rural Kansas. He’s not blocking or tackling, but instead he’s working on an innovative software system used by NFL football teams and others. Such high-tech systems are enabling these teams to perform at the highest levels.
Billy Fogo is the young man who found himself on the field of Super Bowl 50. Billy has rural Kansas roots. His father, Glenn Fogo, was a Methodist minister who served in western Kansas before Glenn and Carol retired to Manhattan where they live today.
Young Billy first lived in the rural community of Moscow, population 310 people. Now, that’s rural. The Fogos later moved to Leoti where Billy played football and graduated from Wichita County High School.
Billy went on to K-State and got a job as a student assistant on the K-State football staff. His role was to shoot video of the games and practices. The video was then edited for viewing by the coaches. These compilations of clips were called cut-ups.
After graduation from K-State, he joined the football program’s video services department full time under award-winning director Scott Eilert. They worked closely with then-head football coach Bill Snyder, editing and providing him cut-ups of video clips which could be analyzed to study an opponent’s tendencies in play-calling. “(Coach Snyder) was such an amazing person to work for,” Billy said.
“That shows a lot of pride.” This statement applies when we see a community that is clean and neat, with active businesses and busy downtown buildings. Today, we will visit a group of community volunteers who are utilizing their pride – and the Kansas PRIDE program – to benefit their rural town.
Kay Haffner is the co-chair of the Grainfield Community Development Committee, active members of the Kansas PRIDE program. In 2020, Kansas PRIDE is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding, so we will be highlighting Kansas PRIDE communities during the year ahead.
Kansas PRIDE is a partnership of K-State Research and Extension, the Kansas Department of Commerce, Kansas Masons, and Kansas PRIDE, Inc. Through the program, local volunteers identify their community’s priorities and then work with the resources of these partners to create their ideal community future.
The Grainfield Community Development Committee or GCDC formed and joined the PRIDE program in 2009. Kay Haffner and her husband own a trucking company here. She volunteers with the GCDC.
“We were a town that was dying,” Kay said. “Nothing was being done.” GCDC members decided to refurbish the community’s old, faded Christmas decorations. They got tinsel and lights and redid the decorations. It went so well that they decided to take on more projects.
“Old iron.” That’s an affectionate term that farmers have for the old tractors and farm equipment of yesteryear. Those durable old pieces of equipment can serve as reminders of our agricultural heritage and how agriculture still serves our food supply. Today we’ll meet a group of volunteers who are working to share this agricultural heritage with others.
Byron Githens is a founder of the Wilson County Old Iron Club in Fredonia. He grew up in Fredonia, hauling hay and working with farmers. One of the farmers for whom he worked was Rollin Vandever, known as “Red.” Byron appreciated working on the farm, especially with old John Deere tractors.
Byron became a rural mail carrier. He met and married Leanne and bought some used farm equipment of his own.
In 1994, a vacant lot became available next to the city hall in downtown Fredonia. Byron and some friends decided to put on a tractor show so kids could see the old time equipment. It went so well that they decided to do it again the next year. In the following year, they added a threshing machine and a rock crushing demonstration. The annual event continued to grow.
Recognizing the need for more volunteers, Byron and others decided to form a club. In 1999, the Wilson County Old Iron Club formally organized with 25 charter members. Through the years, the annual equipment show was held in several locations around Fredonia.
“The captain of the ship wants to see you.” That statement could sound a little ominous – like being called to the principal’s office. In this case, the summons was an indication of the remarkable listener connections which one particular farm broadcaster established through the years. This encounter demonstrated how this farm broadcaster was so important to his audience through his decades of service.
Kelly Lenz recently retired as farm director of WIBW radio in Topeka. His retirement marks almost 50 years of a radio career.
Kelly grew up on a farm in Iowa, listening to the radio in the milking parlor. When he was 10 years old, Kelly got a transistor radio for Christmas. “I would climb under the covers, turn on the AM band, and tune in to different stations from all over. It opened a whole new world to me,” he said.
Kelly decided to pursue radio as a career, did his broadcast training in Minnesota, and got a job as news director at a station in Illinois. “The news department was me and a cat,” he said. Kelly filled in when the farm director was gone and found he liked the work.
Kelly became full-time farm director and was working his way up through the ranks of farm broadcasting when WIBW called and wanted him to apply for the job in Topeka. He turned them down – twice. “The third time they didn’t call – they sent a plane ticket,” Kelly said.
“I’d like a non-smoking room for one night, please – with plenty of prairie hay in it.” That probably doesn’t sound like a typical request at your local lodging establishment. It demonstrates the unique needs of someone traveling with horses.
When going across country with a horse in a trailer, that equine can’t just check into the room next to you at the motel. Today we’ll meet a rural Kansas woman who has built a business by hosting equestrian travelers.
Terri Anderson is the founder and owner of the SlideonInn Horse Hotel near Goodland. Terri grew up at Oberlin. Her parents had been involved with horses, but her dad was killed in a tractor accident when she was little.
“I begged my mom for a horse every single day,” Terri said. “She finally gave in. I think she figured I would get tired of doing chores pretty quickly, but it didn’t work.”
Let’s go to the 2019 National Restaurant Association Expo in Chicago. Food suppliers are displaying products from across the nation. Only one of these suppliers is a producer of a healthy, fermented drink called kombucha that promotes health in a person’s gut. This remarkable business is owned by a Native American woman who lives in rural Kansas.
Melinda Williamson is the founder and owner of the business called Morning Light Kombucha, the only such business at this 2019 national foods show. Melinda was born and raised in Topeka. She is of Native American descent, specifically from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.
“I always dreamed of having my own business,” Melinda said. “I think I started a little cleaning business when I was in the fourth grade.” As she grew older, she became very interested in science. She got a B.S. in natural history biology at K-State and then worked as a senior research specialist in a laboratory at Oklahoma State where she got a master’s in rangeland ecology and management, all while raising her daughter.
“School days, school days, dear old golden rule days.” That nostalgic song describes good memories which many people have from their school times of yesteryear. One author has captured the history of many schools from the past across the state of Kansas. It’s today’s Kansas Profile.
James Kenyon is the author of a recently published book which describes the history of 109 closed Kansas schools, including one in each county. James is himself a product of rural schools. He grew up on a farm in Graham County and graduated from Bogue Rural High School in 1966, one of a class of six people. James went on to Kansas State and became a veterinarian, eventually practicing in the state of Iowa. He was named state veterinarian of the year and served as president of the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association before retiring.
James came back to Kansas for a 50-year reunion of his graduating class at Bogue. As he traveled through western Kansas, he thought about the various other schools where he had played ball. He looked into it and found that, of the 32 communities where he had played ball, all but one had lost its high school. That led him on a quest to capture the history of these rural schools. His goal was to cover the entire state.
Come back to Kansas. That phrase might sound like a state tourism advertisement, but it would also describe the journey of college football players who grew up in the Sunflower State, moved away, and found an opportunity to come back home. Today we’ll learn about one such player.
Harry Trotter is one of those in-state talents who went away and took the opportunity to come back. He grew up at Atchison, Kansas and played high school ball at Maur Hill – Mount Academy. He had an outstanding prep career, rushing for 2,940 yards and 36 touchdowns, plus 87 yards and a touchdown catching the ball. During his senior season in 2015, he ran for 1,657 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Harry Trotter’s performance on the field earned him all-state honors from the Kansas Football Coaches Association, plus all-state honorable mention accolades from the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Wichita Eagle. However, it did not earn him scholarship offers from the major Division I colleges. Instead, he accepted a community college offer in hopes of going to a higher level in another year.
Harry chose to go to Fort Scott Community College. In his first year there, he rushed 146 times for 503 yards and eight touchdowns, while he caught 14 passes for 86 yards. His best rushing game of the year was against Central Methodist when he had 159 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, a game that featured a season-long run of 52 yards.
After that season, his journey took him to the Division I level and the Atlantic Coast Conference. Harry attended the University of Louisville, where he played in nine games. After that, his journey brought him back home to Kansas. He chose to transfer to Kansas State where he had to sit out one season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University writes Kansas Profile. The weekly posts highlight individuals or companies in rural Kansas who are making a difference to their community and state.
The Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is a public / private partnership between Kansas State University and the Huck Boyd Foundation. The mission of the institute is to help rural people help themselves. Learn more at www.huckboydinstitute.org.