Tuesday, July 22, 2014

MELLINGER: Home sweet Kansas home

By GWYN MELLINGER, Insight Kansas | 7/19/2013

Stay here long enough and Kansas gets under your skin and worms its way into your heart.

I’ve heard Kansas described as a place to fly over, drive through and be from, but not go to. In the popular imagination, Kansas is the home of Dorothy and Toto, a place in the central United States with a very flat stretch of interstate highway and some good college basketball teams. Knute Rockne’s plane crashed in Kansas, the home state of Ike and Amelia Earhart.

Stay here long enough and Kansas gets under your skin and worms its way into your heart.

I’ve heard Kansas described as a place to fly over, drive through and be from, but not go to. In the popular imagination, Kansas is the home of Dorothy and Toto, a place in the central United States with a very flat stretch of interstate highway and some good college basketball teams. Knute Rockne’s plane crashed in Kansas, the home state of Ike and Amelia Earhart.

Ask non-Kansans what they know about the state and you might hear that we were once on the wrong side of history in a landmark civil rights case; of late, we are home to the Westboro Baptist Church. Some may remember Kansas as a place that didn’t get the memo about the end of Prohibition and, as late as the 1980s, made it extremely difficult for an outsider to buy a drink.

For many of us, Kansas is an acquired taste and our allegiance, which gradually replaces an initial resistance to this place, is counter-intuitive but enduring. For others of us, a love of Kansas is stamped into our DNA and we willingly accept the tradeoffs that life in Kansas demands.

We tolerate summer winds that seem to roar out of an industrial blast furnace because we have picked water cress from a cold Flint Hills stream in the lush green of early spring. We abide a certain amount of political extremism because Kansas’ Free State beginnings give us cause for optimism.

When I chose to return home after attending college in California, my friends there thought I was nuts. People expressed shock or remained dead silent at the news that I was going, by choice, back to a place it had never occurred to them to visit. Some assured me that it was only a phase that would last two years, tops.

As it happened, I stayed in Kansas for 34 years but now, and finally, it’s time to pursue an opportunity elsewhere. I have accepted a job at Xavier University and am moving to Ohio.

I might spin this and minimize the extent to which Kansas’ far-right political turn influenced this decision, but those who have read my columns for Insight Kansas and the Topeka Capital-Journal know that I have been deeply concerned about intolerance and dogmatism in state government, where contempt for the poor, higher education and the arts has become the norm.

As I contemplate the benefits of this move, the prospect of participating in a functioning democracy ranks high. Living in a swing state where a ballot counts beyond the Republican primary seems almost exotic, when in fact, that’s how the electoral process is supposed to work.

As a native Kansan who has joined the stream of outmigration, I am transformed into a statistic. U.S. Census data indicate that the Kansas population of just below 3 million derives its modest increases from a birth rate that outstrips both deaths and departures. These numbers get less attention than they deserve.

In coming years, as the population ages, people leave and in-state migration continues to shift from rural to urban, demographics will tell the Kansas story. Population will determine the future of school districts and the services offered by local governments whose tax bases have eroded. A lower birth rate would exacerbate these challenges.

I know that Kansas will beckon from time to time. How could it not? In all, I have lived in Kansas for 52 years and written for its newspapers for 20. The strands of my father’s family were settled here by the 1880s. Those who loved me best and who loved them best are buried here. This will always be home.

The thought that my husband and I may retire in Kansas a decade hence makes the move seem less dramatic. If we do return, we will again be statistics, counted on the other side of the migration ledger.

Perhaps by then we will be joining the homeward march of wayward Kansans.

Until recently, Gwyn Mellinger was professor of mass media at Baker University. She is a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.

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