Noted, notorious Kansans recalled

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January 28, 2016 - 12:00 AM

On Tuesday, Roger Carswell mounted the podium at the Iola library and delivered a lecture called “Noted and Notorious Kansans.” Looking out across the crowd of four, the longtime librarian set himself the maximal task of describing 80 famous Kansans in under an hour. Which he did — with intelligence, with wit, with slides.
To the person easily swayed by popular opinion, which still regards Kansas as a place of tremendous boredom and conformity, Carswell’s talk was a luminous reminder that across our largely blank skies, occasionally, a bright star goes streaking past.
Of course, among Kansas’ notable offspring, some are the sources of great pride  (George Washington Carver, Amelia Earhart, Jack Kilby — who invented the microchip), while others still make us cringe (Carrie Nat Fred Phelps, Don Johnson).
For someone as saturated in the history of the Sunflower State as Carswell, he’s not merely a “professional touter,” as one historian has called those hyper-patriots whose obsession is to prove that their state is best. The librarian dipped frequently into the unpleasant parts of Kansas’ past, even allowing his attention to rest briefly on its most macabre chapter : the case of the Bloody Benders.
The Bender family, who rejected normal American recreation in favor of serial murder, operated a jumble store and inn near Cherryvale. “Well, in the early 1870s,” explained Carswell, “bodies began turning up in the area, with crushed skulls and slit throats.” As suspicion turned toward the Benders, the family of four skipped town, never to be heard from again. “Their house was searched and the searchers found eight buried bodies on the grounds, all with their skulls crushed, throats slit. The searchers found a trap door and concluded here’s how they did it:
“They would seat the unsuspecting traveler at a table beside a curtain. Kate, the teenage daughter, would distract them, and then somebody, the father or brother, would be behind the curtain with a hammer or mallet, and then” — Carswell raised the invisible weapon over his head and made one swift, downward swipe — “they would crush in the back of their heads. Then, they would come out and slit their throats, open the trap door, and drop them underneath the house until they had a chance to bury them.”
The Benders fulfilled only the “notorious” portion of Carswell’s speech — the bulk of Tuesday’s talk was far cheerier.
In the run-up to Kansas Day, the librarian probed the worlds of culture and commerce, politics and business, science and entertainment, setting into motion a regatta of fact and anecdote that was, in its presentation, a mini-history of the state.
In the arts, Carswell pointed to the landscape painter Birger Sandzen, whose work among critics and appraisers continues to appreciate; to the regionalist painter John Steuart Curry, who, despite the noisy philistinism of members of the Kansas Legislature back then, managed to daub the rotunda walls of the Capitol with what is still probably the most indelible image of the state, the mural “Tragic Prelude,” which depicts John Brown at his most messianic; and Gordon Parks, from Fort Scott, who in the course of a single life managed to write the tender autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” and direct the seminal blaxpoitation film “Shaft.”
Among writers: Langston Hughes, William Allen White and William Inge, from Independence, were cited. As was Hiawatha’s Bill Martin Jr., who wrote the children’s books “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” the audiobook of which was narrated by Ray Charles.
Speaking of musicians: Melissa Etheridge and Martina McBride are from Kansas, and so is Charlie Parker, as well as the less well-known Eva Jessye, from Coffeyville, a notable figure in the Harlem Renaissance, who went on to serve as musical director, with George Gershwin, on the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Among the many figures from the world of sports, Carswell cites: the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, who was the only coach in the history of KU basketball to own a losing record; Humboldt pitching star Walter Johnson; and the lesser known former NFL safety Nolan Cromwell, who during his years with the Los Angeles Rams was advertised as “Hollywood handsome and Dodge City-tough”; and Jim Ryun, who was the first high school athlete to break the 4-minute mile.
Carswell name-checks a list of Kansas businessmen whose last names are synonymous with the high-water mark of mid-century American capitalism: Walter Chrysler, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, William Coleman and Charles Koch.
The state has produced actors of such uneven fortune as Kirstie Alley, Ed Asner, Vivian Vance (“Ethel Mertz” from “I Love Lucy”), Paul Rudd, Dee Wallace (the mother from “E.T.”), the silent film star Louise Brooks, and Gordon Jump, who played the radio station manager in the TV series “WKRP in Cincinnati” and was for years the “Maytag Repairman.”
Carswell covered politics, too — a list which included, besides the obvious candidates (Landon, Dole and company), Georgia Meece Clark, the first female treasurer of the United States (appointed by Truman), and Susanna Salter, who became the first female mayor anywhere in the country when she was elected to that post in Argonia in 1887.
The hobo clown Emmett Kelly was from Sedan. Erin Brockovich was from Lawrence.

CLYDE TOMBAUGH was from Burdett. “He was the discoverer of Pluto,” said Carswell. “His plans for college were frustrated when his family’s crops failed.” Still, Tombaugh, a young man working from the barn, constructed homemade telescopes and produced drawings of distant planets and other astronomical bodies. He sent sketches of Jupiter and Mars to the Lowell Observatory, in Arizona, who eventually offered the young man a job. It was here, working late in the lab, taking photograph after photograph of the same distant patch of night sky, that Tombaugh spotted Pluto.
Tombaugh died on Jan. 17, 1997, at the age of 90. In 2006, some of his ashes were placed aboard the New Horizons spacecraft, which last summer flew above the surface of Pluto, making it the very first spacecraft to explore the distant dwarf planet.

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