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Topeka Magazine

THE DVORAK HOME CAPTIVATING LINES & OPEN SPACES

Fall’ 12 | sunflowerpub.com

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Fall ’12

Vol. VI / No. IV

from the editor

Editor Nathan Pettengill designer/Art Director

Shelly Bryant

chief Photographer

Jason Dailey

COPY EDITOR

Christy Little

advertising Kathy Lafferty representative (785) 224-9992

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contributing Photographer

Bill Stephens

Contributing Writers

Carolyn Kaberline Susan Kraus Vernon McFalls Karen Ridder Debra Guiou Stufflebean

GENERAL MANAGER

Bert Hull

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By the time this edition of Topeka Magazine arrives in your hands, Bobbie Padgett (featured on page 42) will be the new Mrs. America or will have returned to her home in Topeka without the national crown. Either way, she will have accomplished much of what she set out to achieve—bringing more attention to adoptions and children’s foster care in Kansas and in the United States in general. The challenges and benefits of foster care are not traditionally associated with swimsuit, evening gown and other types of pageant competitions. But Padgett has adroitly translated her time as Mrs. Kansas into an opportunity to bring children’s welfare to the forefront of her public appearances. If this upsets any stereotypes of beauty and the crown, then perhaps it is all for the best.

In this edition of Topeka Magazine, we focus on Topekans who are giving new meanings to traditional roles, with an emphasis on service and community. Padgett is not alone in her example of transforming a traditional pageant into an advocacy role. Her example is repeated by two of the community’s junior royalty, 2012 Fiesta Queen Michelle Garcia Hubbard (page 40) and 2012 Shawnee County 4-H Fair Queen Abby Miller (page 39), both of whom are wearing their crown with an expectation of promoting education (Hubbard for Holy Family Catholic School and Miller for area 4-H programs). Even without a royal title, other Topekans in this issue are integrating service into their lives. Charles Moore redefines retirement by learning a new art and dedicating it to community projects (as well as to a few fortunate penguins). Constancio Garay helps Topeka not only adjust to rapidly changing demographics, but by working with volunteers to build bridges between new and old immigrant communities that allow Topekans to enjoy and appreciate the town’s expansion. Improving the quality of life in Topeka is not necessarily a task that comes with a title and a mission, as shown by Benjamin Bailey, an organizer of radio-controlled car races at Fairlawn Plaza. Who benefits from the roar and adrenaline-rush of tiny, mighty engines? Well, he does, his son does, and so do many families who enjoy these races as an opportunity to spend time with one another, learn from one another, then face off in an intergenerational revved-up showdown. As with our cover story on the home of Phyllis and Alvin Dvorak, who will open their private space for this year’s CASA Homes for the Holiday Tour, personal and community spheres often overlap—and we’re grateful for those whose personal lives make Topeka a better place for all of us.

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features TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ‘12

50 a step up Leaving the mountains of Colorado Springs, a couple discover a new perspective on height and space for their home in Topeka

58 Revving up the RC Enthusiasts of radiocontrolled race cars tout huge thrill of tiny motors

Nathaniel and Benjamin Bailey stand behind their radio-controlled cars at the Fairlawn Plaza track.

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departments TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’12 Ruth Powers works with fabric from her home studio in Carbondale.

notables

Meet&Greet Topeka Royalty

15 thinking outside the block New themes lead to new techniques and discoveries in the blockquilt art of Ruth Powers

39 Abby Miller 40 Michelle Garcia Hubbard 42 Bobbie Padgett

44 Smoke on the Water Shawnee County Parks & Recreation turns up the heat for annual grill competition

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The Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride Riding to remember—cycling enthusiasts, friends and family gather to honor a loved one and save lives

Getting Moore of Life For one former state worker, a retirement plan includes penguins, larger-than-life art displays and the chance to inspire young students

49 Aaron Douglas Art Fair Art to rejuvenate becomes focus of annual, grassroots arts fair

24 Putting the ‘VIDA’ in ‘Village’ A Topeka service organization seeks to build human connections across cultural and linguistic barriers

travel

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Clowns Inc. A brother and sister create their own business out of thin air

The Keys to My Heart The Florida Keys provide a magical vacation venue, where time is the only thing that can get lost

on the cover

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what’s happening?

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

Michelle Garcia Hubbard, 2012 Fiesta Queen

Topeka Magazine

Phyllis Dvorak leads her dog, Max, down the stairs at her home’s front entryway. Photograph by: Jason Dailey


notables TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

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thinking outside the block

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Getting Moore of Life

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Putting the ‘VIDA’ in ‘Village’

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Clowns Inc.

Meet&greet

Topeka royalty 39...................................... Abby Miller 40........Michelle Garcia Hubbard 42..............................Bobbie Padgett

Charles Moore stands in front of a mural he painted for the Topeka Zoo.

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Photography by Bill Stephens Story by Debra Guiou Stufflebean

thinking outside the block New themes lead to new techniques and discoveries in the block-quilt art of Ruth Powers Ruth Powers

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n eye for decorating set the pattern for a life of creative competition. “One room of our new house needed a large piece of art,” says Ruth Powers, who creates award-winning block quilts from her home in Carbondale. “I’ve always been artistic, drawing as a kid and later trying every kind of craft as fads come and go, but I’d never made a quilt before.” So she visited the library and took home

about the

writer

Debra Guiou Stufflebean is the author of four novels and the director of the Shepherd’s Center of Topeka. She and husband Mike live in the College Hill neighborhood with their four dogs and can be found cheering at their grandchildren’s ballgames.

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books on quilt blocks. After careful study, the native New Englander decided to attempt a quilt with a Kansas theme for what was then her new Kansas country home in 1989. She would place a design called “Kansas Stars” in the corners, the pattern “Kansas Sunflowers” across the bottom and the theme “Kansas Troubles” in the background, She also added a scene of the Flint Hills, which she drew free-hand and appliquéd. With this project finished, Powers joined a quilt guild to help develop her newly found talent. The guild, and subscriptions to quilting magazines, piqued her interest in competitive art quilting. Powers’ first submission was a small wall hanging to the Hoffman fabric company in 1990, but it wasn’t accepted. Undaunted, she decided she’d think more outside the box, or block, for her next project. In 1991, the Great American Quilt Festival held a national competition-exhibition sponsored by the Museum of American Folk Art. Its theme was “Discover America–500 Years.” Powers submitted a design showing a partially unfurled flag acting as a divider between the 1492 Santa Maria and a 1992 space shuttle. Powers says she was astonished that the 45”x 54” wall hanging was selected as the state of Kansas’ entry in the national exhibition. This quilt was also her first commercial success, sold to an art dealer who viewed it on exhibit in New York City.

“I’ve always been artistic … but I’d never made a quilt before.” — Ruth Powers Twenty years after her initial foray into quilting, Powers regularly enters in the American Quilt Society shows in Paducah, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa; Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as well as in the International Quilt Festivals in Houston; Long Beach, California, and Cincinnati. In a year’s time, she can have as many as 32 entries traveling the circuit, including locally at the Topeka Art Guild Gallery in Fairlawn Plaza. Success in the wider industry allowed Powers to set up a small quilting business at her home. Here,

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TOP AND BOTTOM LEFT Powers sews and cuts fabric from her home studio in Carbondale. OPPOSITE RIGHT Powers’ work often requires her to attach pieces with curved seams, as seen in this detail from her quilt “Foxglove Fairy.”


her stash of fabric is protected on shelves behind fabric blinds to guard against fading. Row after row of materials is stacked to form a rainbow of colors. Each swatch is a slightly different texture, pattern or hue. Powers continually adds new materials and colors. When she sees something that will bring depth to her art, she adds it to her collection, such as the material that Powers envisioned as light filtering between trees in a forest, which she later used as the background in her quilt “Eve.” If Powers can’t find just the right material, she may create it through the process of discharging, removing color with dye. She has used this technique in order to make spots on a deer. Once, Powers hand-dyed batik in order to obtain the ideal shade of sky for her quilt “Spring Encounter.” She also enjoys embellishing with a restrained hand. She added a small piece of quartz for a tear in her quilt “I Remember Mama,” and gold embroidered glass beads to represent light being scattered into the world for her quilt “Raven.” With hundreds of quilts to her name, Powers finds it difficult to pick a favorite. But the quilt “I Remember Mama” has a special place in heart. It depicts Powers’ grandmother, Rose Cormier Casey, who lived from 1892 to 1982. “She was an immigrant from Canada,” says Powers. “Grandpa used to tell the story of giving her a .22 rifle so she could shoot rabbits for stew. The first time she shot one, she picked the rabbit up, sat down on a tree stump with it and cried.” When Powers began quilting, she made most of her quilts with straight seams pieced on a machine, but now many of her hangings feature curved-seam pieces, which require the seams to be snipped along each curve in order to lie flat. Often, Powers will modify and merge techniques in accordance to what she feels a particular project demands. “Sometimes my innovations come from the theme of a contest; other times, it may be an old photograph or something I see in the garden or pasture,” says Powers. “Or I may be inspired by a song I can’t get out of my head, like ‘Watermelon Wine.’ One line of the lyric says ‘there ain’t nothin’ in this world worth a solitary dime except old dogs, children and watermelon wine.’” Her one-of-a-kind works have led to a growing demand for replication. Enough so that Innovations, her own art pattern line, took off in 1992. Each of her patterns sells in the price range of $7-12. Locally, her patterns are distributed by Stitching Traditions in Holiday Square or Sarah’s Fabrics in Lawrence. People can also buy patterns direct from Powers’ home-based shop. It’s a bit of a drive to the country, but a wonderful way to learn and be inspired by the artist herself. Who knows when a budding new artist may walk through her door?

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TOP Powers was inspired to create the quilt “Colorado Kids” from a nature photo sent to her by a friend. BOTTOM Powers displays her quilt competition prize ribbons at her home.


Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Carolyn Kaberline

Getting Moore of Life For one former state worker, a retirement plan includes penguins, larger-than-life art displays and the chance to inspire young students about the

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writer TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

above Charles Moore

Carolyn Kaberline’s freelance-writing career began in 2006 when she wanted to show her journalism students that she wasn’t asking them to do anything


N

ow retired after 22 years of working for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Charles Moore likes to say that he is working on his PhD— “Playing Hard Daily.” And whether Moore spends his days back in the classroom as a substitute teacher, at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center as a volunteer or somewhere around Topeka as a mural painter, he’s living out his own version of retirement wherever he might be—that this is the time to do whatever he wants to do. One of the first activities that Moore decided on was to return to art. “I took art through high school and kept doing art throughout my life but nothing professional,” Moore says. In particular, Moore wanted to paint a mural. So he sought out people who might want to take a chance with an unknown senior artist. “I had approached a couple of veterinarians about painting their buildings but didn’t get any takers,” Moore explains. But then Mose Hugghis, the owner of K-9 Obedience Training Center in downtown Topeka, gave him a chance. “The deal was I’d paint dogs on the building, and if he didn’t like it, I’d paint over it.” Hugghis obviously liked it as the painting can still be seen on the south side of his business at Sixth and Topeka Boulevard Moore’s next canvas was an abandoned building on Kansas Avenue in the North Topeka Arts District. Once the site of an adult entertainment business, the building, now boasts a mural containing drawings of smaller objects and uses a variety of textures to intrigue both young and old. Not only does it give the impression of a new business about to open, although the building itself has long been gutted, it presents a challenge through a poem: “I spent my time to hide and conceal, now it’s your task to seek and reveal.” While working on this mural, Moore met Karen Taylor and happened to mention that he’d love to do some painting at the zoo. Little did he know at the time that Taylor was on the zoo board. She helped invite Moore to paint prairie and wetland scenes in the zoo’s educational building. Zoo officials then requested that Moore paint scenes for the penguin exhibit and the ape building. Since the zoo paintings were to be educational art, Moore found himself doing a lot of research before painting. “I had a responsibility to the ecology and to the ecosystems to tell about the oil spills, the guano fields and the overharvesting,” Moore says. “I wanted to give a general idea of what happened. I checked out every book in the library on penguins and kept rechecking them.” When it came time to do a Borneo rain forest scene for the orangutan exhibit, Moore found himself checking out more books and finding ways to adapt the building to his vision, which often meant finding ways to camouflage corners and other structural forms. Research and planning were also important for Moore’s next project, a mural next to the city hall in Perry, initiated by the nonprofit community group Perry Pride.

she couldn’t do. Since then her articles have appeared in local, regional and national publications. A full-time high school teacher, she enjoys reading and working with her horses.

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“They gave me a drawing of what was conceptually wanted, and between us we worked out the first sketch,” says Moore. The mural now boasts sites familiar to Perry residents, including the bridge on Old U.S. Highway 24 that leads into town, a memorial obelisk and a prominent tree surrounded by an outline of the state. “I wanted this to be a piece of art but educational, too,” Moore says. “It has the state outline and historical happenings. It will be a tool to get kids learning.” Getting kids to learn is important for Moore, which is why he also enjoys substitute teaching and volunteer work at the Discovery Center.

“I wanted this to be a piece of art, but educational, too.” — Charles Moore While many would consider substituting a challenge, Moore is quick to say that it doesn’t seem like a job. He also is quick to note how much fun substituting can be, such as the day he read stories to every youngster in kindergarten and first grade at Perry Elementary as a substitute guidance counselor. “You just can’t get that much joy from other jobs.” Known at the Discovery Center as Doc Wood—a nickname combining Moore’s resemblance to “the Doc” from the movie Back to the Future with his role as a woodworking teacher—Moore has helped many a youngster with projects and insights. “I went from a junior volunteer to a birthday captain to PhD,” he explains. “My reward working with kids is more lasting than anything I ever did on the job. To think I worked so hard all those years to get my real degree.”

Moore’s work at the Topeka Zoo includes painting a Borneo rain forest scene, above, as well as art for the new penguin exhibit.

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Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Vernon McFalls

Putting the ‘VIDA’ in ‘Village’ A Topeka service organization seeks to build human connections across cultural and linguistic barriers

about the

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Constancio Garay, VIDA’s program director, holds a seedling from the organization’s community garden.

writer

Vern McFalls has worked as teacher, reporter, photographer, videographer, producer, gardener


W

e’ve heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” so many times it doesn’t register. But that cliché embodies a concept that’s central to what being human is about—shared social responsibility. Topeka has many organizations that aid people in need, and one of those groups is VIDA Ministry, a nonprofit organization supported by 12 Topeka-area Presbyterian churches. VIDA (from the Spanish word for “life”) provides free programs and activities, run by volunteers and focused on working within the Hispanic community. Its primary program is an ESL class, along with homework tutoring and a nursery. There are a host of other programs, including a nutrition class, basic computers, aerobics, back-to-school physical, kids’ karate, a community garden and spiritual care. VIDA began in 2006 against the backdrop of an influx of Hispanic immigrants to the Topeka area, the vacancy of a Presbyterian church in East Topeka and the return of a Spanish-speaking church missionary, Jane Daniels, from two years in Bolivia. In an organizational meeting with approximately 100 people attending, a visioning group identified the need for English-language training as the top priority. That mission gradually expanded, taking in volunteers and clients from across the city, people of disparate economic and racial backgrounds who have come together with a dream of community enrichment.

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and small-business owner. He lives in south central Topeka with a wife, an energetic dog and way too many books, toys and gadgets. Vern wishes he was fluent in Esperanto.

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One of those volunteers is Julie McCarter, a member of Potwin Presbyterian who works in the reading and conversational language program for VIDA. She says her involvement began from personal connections at a landscaping firm where she was employed. “I worked with people at my job and got familiar with them. They invited me to visit in Mexico. I started to think, ‘You are coming to this country and are expected to learn the language. I ought to do the same.’ I really respected the fact that these people have put in a lot of effort to learn the language so that they can have the opportunity to work here. The desire to help them started building in me, and through the church and some friends, I started hearing about VIDA,” says McCarter. “I am so completely in awe of these adults, people my age, learning this new language.” For McCarter, bridging the differences in language and culture has only heightened her sense of the common connections between people who recently immigrated and those who are grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants. “They have the same worries that everyone else does. Everything they talk

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about, is the same as us,” says McCarter. “They are trying to make a better life. We need to give them the opportunity.” VIDA, with its headquarters at 3186 SE Sixth St., has served more than 300 children and 600 adults, according to program director Constancio Garay. A native of Caquiaviri, Bolivia, Garay came to the United States in 1981 after winning a Fulbright Scholarship for graduate studies in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. He later taught in Topeka public schools at the middle school and high school levels and has taught Spanish and ESL for community colleges and universities in northeast Kansas. His two children have graduated from Topeka-area schools and now attend Vanderbilt University and Fort Hays State. Garay says the immigrant community has changed greatly since he first arrived in 1981. The late ’80s and early ’90s saw an influx of arrivals from Mexico and northern Central America. They arrived in a region whose resources were pressed to integrate them. Garay, who also works with Head Start programs, says he has seen some of the greatest progress in schools where teachers now take an active interest in the young immigrants’ language and culture, which in turn facilitates the students’ adaptation to their new home. Over the past decades, adds Garay, attitudes have also changed, particularly from within the business community, which recognizes and seeks to tap the growing purchasing power of the Hispanic community. The next step, believes Garay, is a slower process—social integration. “Culturally, we have a lot to do. I know that usually goes along with the language, but that’s not always the case.” In the arts and education spheres, notes Garay, the immigrant community is particularly vulnerable from cuts in grade school music and arts outreach programs. But Garay says he is encouraged by small steps that cast the immigrant community on more equal footing with its new neighbors rather than as a group that requires services. He points to the human, one-on-one connections established through VIDA programs and to events such as a recent Latino film festival, jointly sponsored with a local Topeka congregation. In these contacts, all community members are equals, benefiting from their contact, learning from one another and creating a community that is curious about and caring for one another.

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TOP Garay works with volunteers at the VIDA community garden. BOTTOM Some plants grown at VIDA’s community garden will be harvested by volunteers while others will be used as starter-seedlings for gardening projects by other organizations across the community.


Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Karen Ridder

Clowns Inc. A brother and sister create their own business out of thin air about the

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writer TOPEKAMAGAZINE

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Karen Ridder visits many interesting events as a writer for various publications, including Topeka Magazine and the


I

Family

t would be hard not to notice the balloon-twisting clowns who take up residence each Saturday at the Farm and Art Market in downtown Topeka. Their gleaming smiles never seem to waver as they twist and turn brightly colored balloons into fanciful treats that inevitably create smiles on the faces of waiting children. With a nearly constant “squeak, twist, squeak, twist” the duo, who call themselves Tooty and Lolly, sometimes stick to basic balloon designs such as flowers, monkeys and fish. But they also enjoy requests for more innovative creations like a double-headed alien, Spiderman or a monkey in a tree. The self-taught balloon artists can make up to 40 different designs, but Lolly says they prefer to do figures that use more than one balloon, just because it’s more fun that way.

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They twist and turn brightly colored balloons into fanciful treats that inevitably create smiles on the faces of waiting children. When she’s not wearing her costume, Lolly is 21-year-old Sarah Langley, who thought up the business approximately three years ago after reading a blog about ways to make money at home and thinking she could give ballooning a try. Adding some internet tutorials and a research trip to the library, Sarah thought she was ready to begin—once she recruited a partner, her 17-year-old brother, John. But he needed little persuasion. “My sister and I have always been really silly together,” says John. “We like to be crazy. I like to make people happy.” It helped, perhaps, that John was allowed to choose his own clown name. Well, almost. John’s clown name is a toned-down version of his first­­—a body function that rhymes with “party.” He says, “As you can imagine that didn’t go over so well with some people. So, I had to go with ‘Tooty.’” Sarah says at least some of the kids quickly decode the name’s meaning anyway. Sarah originally wanted to be “Periwinkle” but decided that name might be too difficult for the preschool set. She settled on “Lolly” from lollipop. The siblings created Tooty and Lolly as clowns with minimal makeup in order to appeal to, but not overwhelm, their young audience. While most kids might be shy to approach a normal person (or an imposing clown) to ask for a balloon, they seem to recognize that Tooty and Lolly would welcome their request. “They feel like I’m not a stranger,” says Sarah.

travel blog for the Kansas Department of Travel and Tourism. She and her husband have lived in Topeka for 8 years and they have three young children.

educatiOn

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Lolly’s Guide to

Creating a Fish Balloon 1

Inflate a “260” balloon (these are long, slender balloons approximately 2x60 inches when fully inflated), without inflating the last inch

Fold the balloon in half; hold fold; at the top, grab 2 inches down and twist both sides together

3

Twist the 2-inch section in half to make the fish lips

Inflate a 5-inch round balloon

5

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6

Fold ends of 260 back along themselves and tie off the nozzle

Inflate a white 5-inch round balloon one-fourth full

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4

Attach the nozzle of the 5-inch balloon into the lips

Take the two long pieces of the first balloon, bring them around the round balloon, then twist to secure

Part of the clowns’ appeal to children is the interaction they give, asking kids about the things they like to do and encouraging them to talk as they fashion a balloon character. “I think the reason I like being a clown is that I really like kids and I really like helping,” says Sarah. She says she finds a lot of little kids seem like they just need a little encouragement to begin a friendly conversation. Though the siblings give away their balloons for free at the market, Sarah and John accept tips and hand out business cards, marketing their ballooning and clowning under the name “Airheads.” The siblings appear for birthday parties, school carnivals and other events. The work has them now airing up and twisting thousands of balloons a year. Their expenses are minimal, as balloons tend to be cheap, no matter how many you give away or inadvertently pop in the process. Like any business, the clown balloon business has its seasonal cycles and labor issues. John says he is currently

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Twist the five-inch round balloon in half and attach it an inch above the lips

Draw eyes and finishing touches with a Sharpie marker

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ABOVE Working as Lolly and Tooty, Sarah and John Langley sell balloon bracelets, left, and create balloon figures, right at the Saturday Farm and Art Market. RIGHT Like his sister, John uses a half-face clown appearance so his character appears festive, but not intimidating, to young children.


“My sister and I have always been really silly together.” — John Langley, Tooty

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“semi-retired” because his professional lawn-care business takes priority over ballooning these days. Sarah is happy being Lolly and does many of the jobs alone. She makes regular solo appearances at a local pizza restaurant for kids’ night. When she’s not ballooning, she takes care of the business side—balancing the books and advertising. The duo continue to expand their repertoire as well. John is trying to learn how to ride a unicycle, and Sarah is working on juggling. They also have a list of new balloons to create. “You really can’t stop learning balloons,” Sarah explains. Tooty and Lolly’s online presence continues to grow as well. Their blog features clowning tips, jokes, a new balloon of the week and often even small business tidbits. Sarah credits the success of Airheads in part to the fact that Topekans want more local entertainment and interesting things to do in their hometown. She has found the community has responded to their new ideas, and she offers other young entrepreneurs some free advice— think of it as tips from a successful clown rather than clownish advice. “You have to be creative. I think if you work hard you are going to do really well,” says Sarah. “It’s been really good for us.”

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TOP Working as Lolly, Sarah continually interacts with children as she creates both standard and made-to-order balloon designs. ABOVE LEFT These shoes do not necessarily help create better balloons, but they certainly enhance Tooty’s clown credentials. ABOVE RIGHT The dachshund, a Tooty and Lolly standard, requires three balloons to create.


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Abby Miller

meet&greet

Topeka Royalty

Shawnee County 4-H Fair Queen

Royal history: The Shawnee County 4-H Fair Queen is a relatively new form of royalty, with its first crowning in 1999. The queen is announced each year at the county fair exhibition hall, surrounded by dozens of supporters, fellow 4-H members as well as rabbits and chickens who are competing for a top prize in their own fair competitions. Royal trappings: Tiara and sash. Royal selection: Candidates must be nominated by the 4-H club they attend, then fill out an application, write an essay, present a speech and go through an interview with a committee of community members (this year’s committee of five included a state representative and three county commissioners). Royal burden: The queen, along with the king, represents the 4-H clubs in formally visiting and thanking county fair sponsors. The queen and king also plan the ceremony for choosing their successors at the following year’s fair. Between those two events, the 4-H royalty are encouraged to represent the fair at community events of their choosing— everything from parades to pancake feeds. Royal Self: Abby is president of her 4-H dog club and participates in the organization’s geology and dog-training events. Her dog Willy, a stray English pointer who jumped over the fence at Abby’s house to join her family, is also a champion—she won first place in the fair’s dog-show “Showmanship” category. Royal wisdom: “I really wanted to become queen so I could help promote 4-H and the fair and tell people that it is not all about farming anymore,” says Abby. “I think it is a really good program. It enables kids to learn life skills and you join a big family and they help you learn things that will help you later in life.”

Story by Nathan Pettengill Photography by Jason Dailey

TOPEKAMAGAZINE above Abby Miller and her dog Willy both won big titles at the most recent Shawnee County 4-H Fair.

Fall ’ 12

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meet&greet

Michelle Garcia Hubbard

Topeka Royalty

2012 Fiesta Queen

Royal history: Michelle wears the crown of one of the region’s oldest continuing queen competitions. She will join a grand reunion of queens from the event’s 80-year history at next year’s Fiesta Mexicana. Royal trappings: Crown, sash, scepter and cape. Royal selection: The road to the crown leads through tamales. Lots and lots of tamales. Fiesta queen and king candidates are charged with raising money to support the fiesta’s mission of providing funds to the Holy Family Catholic School of Topeka. Tamale bake sales are the traditional route, but Michelle also held garage sales and car washes. In all, the 2012 queen and king candidates contributed approximately $135,000 in donations. Royal burden: Michelle will represent Fiesta Mexicana at a variety of events—and carries the weight of eight decades of tradition on her shoulders. “All eyes are on you all the time, you can’t do anything wrong,” says Michelle. “You have a bigger responsibility to set an example for the younger kids.” Royal Self: After months of continual preparation and work, Michelle says she hopes now to balance queenly obligations with having time to return to her part-time job and saving money for college. She plans to attend Washburn University and become a criminal justice attorney. “But I honestly don’t think that title is ever going to leave,” says Michelle of the impact being Fiesta queen will have on her. “Even if I’m not queen for that year, everyone will still know me as the queen from 2012.” Royal wisdom: “I’ve done a lot of growing up through this time. It was hard, but in the end it was worth it. You know you’ll be supporting the children who will go there,” says Michelle of her work for the school that supports Catholic-based education of students from preschool to eighth grade.

Story by Nathan Pettengill Photography by Jason Dailey

40

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

above Michelle Garcia Hubbard, the 2012 Fiesta Queen, stands in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where she was crowned.


meet&greet

Bobbie Padgett

Topeka Royalty

Mrs. Kansas (Mrs. America Pageant)

Royal history: The current Mrs. America organizers have crowned a queen since 1977, with an emphasis, according to their official material, on promoting the “country’s Greatest Natural Resource and most important constituency—its married women.” Royal trappings: Crown and sash. Royal selection: State and national selection require a series of interviews, a swimsuit competition and an evening gown competition. The national competition—held at the end of August—also requires candidates to appear in a costume symbolizing their state. Bobbie, a Topeka resident for the past three years, will dress as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. Royal burden: Bobbie, who along with her husband adopted the fifth of their five children, has spent the past year speaking to groups about her personal experience with adoption and promoting the welfare of the approximately 5,500-8,500 children who are in the Kansas foster system at any given time. Royal Self: Raised by a single mother who turned to government assistance to get through difficult periods, Bobbie has worked as a teacher’s assistant and then as a full-time mother who has home-schooled four of her children at various points in their lives. Royal wisdom: Bobbie strongly advises people to take advantage of free, state-recognized training programs if they want to learn more about adoption or respite care for foster children. The website www.childally.org lists all state-authorized courses, called PS-MAPP programs, in Kansas. “There are just so many children out there that it is important to let people know about what the process is and how they can go about doing that,” says Bobbie. “That’s what I’m hoping to do, to encourage people to become more educated, know what the options are in Kansas and then move forward from there, because some people are called to do this, some aren’t.”

Story by Nathan Pettengill Photography by Jason Dailey

42

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

above Bobbie Padgett, 2012 Mrs. Kansas, stands with her four oldest children outside their home. Her youngest child, invoking the privilege of toddlerhood, decided to scoot himself out of frame for this photo session.


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What’s Happening?

Smoke on the Water Shawnee County Parks & Recreation turns up the heat for annual grill competition

For the first time in its four-year history, Topeka’s Smoke on the Water barbeque cookoff is official. The competition, October 12-13 at Lake Shawnee Campground, will be sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Entrance—and the chance to sample meats—is $5 for a group of four each day, with chef entry fees divided between

prize money and charity donations. Cooks will compete in four mandatory meat categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and brisket. Last year’s overall grand champion, Kode Pacha with Pacha’s by the Pound, explains what makes each category unique.

Chicken: “It is the most labor-intensive.

Briskets: “Brisket is the most challenging to

Chicken is very time-consuming to prep, but it has the least cooking time.”

cook because it is a very inconsistently shaped piece of meat. No matter how you trim it down, you are going to have some parts that are going to be undercooked or overcooked. Everybody always has trouble with brisket.”

Pork ribs: “Everybody loves ribs. So, it’s hard to compete. Judges want more of a firm bite verses people in restaurants who want it to fall off the bone.”

Pork butt: “Usually comes dried in

Story by Karen Ridder

44

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

Photography by Bill Stephens

restaurants. The bigger the chunk you have, the more moisture the meat is going to retain when you give it to the judges in competition.”

Crowd pleasers: While the official judging is for the pros, attendees can get into the action with voting beans they place in containers at their favorite grill stations. The chef with the most beans wins the people’s choice award, “Savor the Flavor.” Musical entertainment is provided by the Topeka Blues Society and Cleveland Blue.

ABOVE Kode Pacha, the defending Smoke on the Water Champion Chef, cooks up a practice batch before competition.


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What’s Happening?

the Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride Riding to remember— cycling enthusiasts, friends and family gather to honor a loved one and save lives

Story by Karen Ridder

46

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

Photography by Bill Stephens

Named in honor of a Topeka resident who died of an acute form of leukemia when he was in his early 20s, the Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride is a family event that brings together Topeka’s cycling community to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The money raised from the entry fees and donations goes to help patient financial aid in the Topeka area. This year’s 17th annual ride features a 6.5-mile family fun ride as well as 25- and 50mile lengths. It takes places at Lake Shawnee House #2 on September 15.

Brad Whaley (Bruce’s brother)

What length do you ride? 25 miles How many years have you participated in the Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride? 17 Why do you ride? “It raises money for leukemia research, and it’s just a good day for our friends and family to get together to remember Bruce. He always loved to ride and did a lot of the local rides. It is just a thing we could do to honor him.”

Hannah Whaley (Bruce’s niece) Helps out running the event “I like being there, and I like that it raises money for leukemia. They have pizza every year, and I help to serve it.”

Jay Nichols

What length do you ride? 6.5 or 25 miles How many years have you participated in the Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride? 12 Why do you ride? “Bruce and I grew up together and went into the military together. I ride to support the family and to support the Leukemia Foundation.”

Vance Nichols

What length do you ride? 25 miles How many years have you participated in the Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride? 13 Why do you ride? “I went to high school with Bruce, and he was a neighborhood friend. I’ve been close with the family. It is a way to remember Bruce and support the family.”

ABOVE Participants and supporters of this year’s Bruce Whaley Spirit Ride include, clockwise from top right, Jay Nichols, Vance Nichols, Hannah Whaley and Brad Whaley.


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What’s Happening?

aaron douglas art fair Art to rejuvenate becomes focus of annual grassroots arts fair Story by Karen Ridder

Photography by Bill Stephens

An interactive art booth will allow visitors to make and take home their own piece of art from the Aaron Douglas Art Fair. The free event started seven years ago as a project of the Topeka Turnaround team to support up-and-coming artists, such as the three introduced on this page. Invited artists will display and sell their work at the fair, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. September 22 at 12th and Lane.

Artist: Stacey Utech

Medium: Kiln Fused Glass Price range of works: $60-$650 What to look for: Black iridescent glass with texture that resembles Raku pottery. Utech’s contemporary style pieces are in blues, coppers and silvers.

Artist: Nancy Goodall

Medium: Glasswork Price range of works: $6-$400 What to look for: Every piece has an element of dichroic glass, which is a type of glass with a metallic coating. The Aaron Douglas Art Show was the first venue Goodall showed her work. Now, she travels to shows across the country.

Artist: Jamie Crispin

Medium: Acrylic and canvas Price range of works: $25-$55 What to look for: Crispin’s work tends toward the abstract. She calls it “color and chaos” and says she paints because of a feeling. This is the first time she has been in the art show.

ABOVE The Aaron Douglas Art Fair will feature approximately 45 artists, including, from left, Stacey Utech, Jamie Crispin and Nancy Goodall.

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

49


The Discovery Growing up in North Dakota and spending most of their adult lives in Colorado, Alvin and Phyllis Dvorak had been in Kansas—but only once as far as they recall. And until 2000, when the car dealership that employed Alvin told him he was being transferred to the Kansas capital, the couple had never thought of moving there. The Dvoraks soon found themselves in Topeka driving around the rural southwest region on a late Sunday afternoon to look for a home. Seeing a “for sale” sign on an intriguing property, the couple turned off the road, walked from their car and approached the house. “We came to the front door and peeked in and then we saw the staircase and said, ‘Oh, my god, this is it,’” recalls Phyllis. Within a month, the house with the fabulous stairway became the Dvorak home.

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A Step up Leaving the mountains of Colorado Springs, a couple discover a new perspective on height and space for their home in Topeka

Story by Nathan Pettengill Photography by Jason Dailey

51


Opening her home Having worked 11 years as an elementary school teacher in Colorado, Phyllis turned to assisting nonprofit groups in her new state. She works as the special event manager for Easter Seal Capper Foundation and served on the ERC board for three years. This winter, she will open her home for the November 16-18 CASA Homes for the Holiday Tour to benefit CASA’s mission of advocating for the interests of juveniles in the court system. The Dvoraks will host CASA’s Patron Party to kick off the weekend tours, and their home will feature a boutique offering selections from approximately 40 local artists during the tour.

“It’s a way for us to give back to the community and help children.” - Phyllis dvorak

52


warmth The home’s kitchen, which Phyllis describes as her part of the house, is actually three separate areas: the main kitchen with an island, a sitting room with a fireplace and a small balcony, and a dining area surrounded by windows. It is an airy, open arrangement unified by white trimming and walls whose tone is somewhere between burgundy and cranberry. “I never would have thought to have that color and love it,” says Phyllis. “It’s warm, and you can decorate it with any color.”

53


Home surroundings Mountains—those tall, pointy things that spur some people to fall in love and adjacent real-estate prices to obtain ridiculous heights—are certainly a striking difference between the landscape in Topeka and Colorado Springs. But Phyllis recalls sensing something else, the difference in space. She had traded the packed housing of Colorado Springs for a town where homes came with generous plots. In the dozen years that she has lived in Topeka, Phyllis has concentrated on defining the space around the house, particularly with entryway plantings and more than 60 new trees, including pines that she brought in to remind her of Colorado. The back yard, however, has been left largely alone to provide a view of the trees along a creek bed that feeds into Lake Sherwood and an expansive, clear area where turkeys, deer and even fox wander across to graze, hunt or sun themselves in the grass.

54


Settling into the space Having raised three kids, Phyllis and Alvin moved to Topeka as empty nesters. People often talk about this time in life as a period of downsizing, but the new home’s open layout simply would not accept petite furnishings. In fact, even Phyllis’ regular-sized furniture seemed out of place. “The stuff that I had was too little,” explains Phyllis. So she tapped Martha Tucker, an interior decorator who owns Space Lifts, to right-size her furniture. Phyllis also brought in decorative plants, trees really, that matched the scope of the home. The main tree, however, is a towering Christmas tree set in this room for the holiday. Mostly, the tree is for the benefit of visiting grandchildren, who call the room “the Christmas room,” whether the month is December, March or June.

floral themes Phyllis loves to decorate with flowers, but she faced the same challenge of scope as she did with her furniture. Nooks and sitting areas were perfect places to show off bouquets and arrangements, but these same floral designs could become lost in the open layout of the home. So Phyllis took pictures of her room and fabrics and sent them to Arizona artist Karen Harris who brought blooms to gigantic-sized life on the canvas.


Shade

56

One major addition that Phyllis brought to the pool area was a shaded pergola, perfect for outside family meals. This is also Phyllis’ perch when the younger generations swim and dive in the pool, so it is appropriate that just on the edge of this shaded area is one of the home’s greatest treasures—a series of stepping-stone garden decorations, each one containing a foot or hand imprint from each of the Dvoraks’ grandchildren.


poolside When you stand next to the pool’s diving board and look toward the home, you can see how Phyllis and Alvin blended their additions into the home’s original shape. For example, working closely with Jason McCaffery of Midwest Remolding, Phyllis chose material for their pergola whose wood matches the original balcony and whose shape mimics the large first-floor window above it. This blending represents the Dvoraks’ approach of bringing their own adornment to a house they loved from the moment they first peeked through its windows.

57


Enthusiasts of radio-controlled race cars tout huge thrill of tiny motors

58


RC Story by Carolyn Kaberline

Photography by Jason Dailey

59


Every other Sunday from April to early October, the parking lot of Fairlawn Plaza Shopping Center transforms into a speedway. Underneath brightly colored canopies, 60-70 racing enthusiasts gather to fine-tune the engines and alignment of their miniature radiocontrolled, or RC, vehicles. And then they run their RCs through the course, on a razor’s-edge balance between top speed and total wipeout. Standing on a designated driving box, the racers control the cars with the pistol-style control device standard in the United States, where a left pointer finger controls the RC’s throttle and brake, and a driver’s right hand determines the steering. The rest, says veteran racer Rick Aldrich, is all in the brain. “That determines how fast you react,” explains Aldrich. “It’s all done in split-second decisions,” adds Fairlawn track director Benjamin Bailey. “Where I am on the track, what I’m doing—all that comes down to experience. I could get hit, taken out of a race, break my car. One small mistake can cost a couple of onetenths of a second and then I go from first to third.” For most RC formats, the clock is the opponent to beat in the preliminary rounds. Rather than competing head-to-head on the same track at the same time, drivers tally how many laps they can complete with their car in a given time period, usually six minutes for qualification rounds and eight minutes for finals class.

60

Dee & Mee Hobbies

Fairlawn Plaza Shopping Center 5331 SW 22nd Place (785) 228-9601 Hosts on-road races every other Saturday from April to early October


Race

Jake’s RC 1212 S. Kansas Avenue (785) 783-8995 Topeka’s only indoor off-road track Practice offered noon-8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday Hosts off-road races on Saturday evenings, starting in October

61


cost (price ranges courtesy Rick Zeller, owner of Dee & Mee Hobbies)

Basic cost for complete, entry-level race kit car, including initial replaceable parts

More advanced cars offering better servos, chassis with more precise steering, better radio equipment and four-wheel drive options

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All your home cAre needs under one roof


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Adding several vehicles on the track at once changes the dynamics substantially, say experienced racers. Competing cars must bob and weave around one another for positioning. Racers are expected to show good sportsmanship and yield if a lead car is set to lap them, but even with the most polite of racers it can get rather rough and tumble. To move from novice to experienced racer, says Bailey, means leaving behind a long history of wipeouts. “A history of broken cars and a whole lot of part support that can be expensive,” clarifies Bailey. “You can break a three-dollar part or an eighty-dollar chassis; some mistakes can cost you quite a bit in the pocketbook and on the track.” Of course the extent of the cost can depend on the type of vehicle. RC race cars come in a range of costs, categories and types (pages 62 and 64), just as the drivers who race them. “I used to be a motocross racer, but now I can get the same feel on a smaller scale without getting hurt,” says Jacob Schell, owner of an indoor track in downtown Topeka, Jake’s RC. “It’s a huge thrill when you’re on the driver’s stand and the adrenalin begins pumping.”

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RC Radio-controlled car races are usually divided into categories by type of track, driver’s skill level and the structure of the car. Below are the divisions typically available at the races held in Topeka.

On-Road competition

(races are held on a paved surface, and the course is often marked by cones or other tape or paint markings applied to the surface)

Novice (beginner drivers with any type RC vehicle) Stock (two-wheel drive vehicles) Vintage Trans-Am (Trans-Am styled body, motor, tires and wheels) U.S. GT (cars with modern GT styling) 17.5 Spec (cars use the same motor) Nas Trucks (vehicles with Nascar style truck body) Formula 1 (cars with narrow chassis) Open Gearbox (cars not fitting any other category)

Off-road competition

(races are held on a dirt course or a constructed course)

Novice (beginner drivers with any type RC vehicle) Stock 2WD buggy (open-wheel vehicles, using the same motors) Open Corr (trucks driven over a course that is often rough and tumble) Modified 4WD (4-wheel drive vehicles with any of a variety of motors) Open stadium truck (open-wheeled trucks) Stock Corr truck (enclosed-wheel trucks with slower motors)

For Bailey, part of this thrill comes from the realism of the sport. “These cars can be tuned and set up just like a real race car,” says Bailey. “Mechanically, these things have shocks and everything that needs to be set up like a real race car.” In the age of the Wii and the Xbox, the RC races also offer a unique connection to real racing—no pause buttons, no respawns and no second chances. Aldrich says RC racing strategy also resembles reality. The hardest thing for a novice to learn, he says, is “to accept that slowing down means you’re faster … to choose your point to pass them.” That lesson of balancing patience with an instinct to seize the moment can be learned at almost any age. Schell notes that it is not uncommon to see racers from 5 to 70 years old. Like full-scale

64

competitive racing, the miniature RC division sport is male-dominated, but some women also race the cars and compete. Many racers like Aldrich, whose Xray T3-12 NasTruck boasts a display of Angry Birds, make the sport a family affair: “My wife participates by helping at the races,” Aldrich says. “It was her idea to do a car with Angry Birds. My daughter did the drawing; I do the racing.” Bailey has since introduced the sport to his son Nathaniel, 6, now in his first year of racing in the novice class. “As long as he keeps it up, and he has me to help him, then it won’t be too long,” says Bailey in assessing his son’s chances of defeating Dad on the course. “I’m looking forward to the day he beats me. That will justify my last 21 years of racing.”


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The Keys to My Heart The Florida Keys provide a magical vacation venue, where time is the only thing that can get lost

Story by Susan Kraus

66

TOPEKAMAGAZINE

Fall ’ 12

Sunset on the Florida Keys brings a chance to enjoy beautiful scenes such as this view, above, of the beach from Islamorada, or a performance at Key West’s Mallory Square by Will Soto, upper right. Photographs courtesy Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman and Bob Krist.


S

ilhouetted against a setting sun is a street performer, a 60-plus, grey-pony-tailed, tightrope-walking-and-juggling comedian, who draws in an audience as surely as the moon brings in the tide. He is Will Soto, one of the fathers of this Sunset Celebration. Just steps away is another performer, Jeep, who does old-fashioned vaudeville with a well-dressed golden retriever. Over a footbridge is Dominque the Cat Man, a hyper-excitable Frenchman who sets the stage with house cats jumping through hoops (even fiery hoops) because they love him. You can see it in their adoring eyes. That’s the real magic: cats that love. And these are just a few of the many performers. Welcome to Mallory Square, on Key West, Florida, where the sun sets in style 365 nights a year. Here, locals and tourists share the square with entertainers, artists, musicians and vendors. Key West boosters like to describe their area as “close to perfect, far from normal,” and, from what I found, that’s pretty accurate. Come nighttime, you can walk up the block for the bar-crawl-onsteroids known as the Duval Crawl. It extends to dozens of clubs and pubs in Key West’s Old Town district. Just follow the music. Key West is both laid-back and pumped-up, depending on the time of day or night. At 2 a.m., Duval Street and its offshoots can be noisy and rocking, while the rest of the island is sound asleep. Afternoons are for napping, resting on the beach or sipping a cool drink under a palm tree or awning (must seek shade). This is a “flip-flop” lifestyle, so packing the suitcase is easy. One of my favorite features of Key West is its walkability… you really can walk everywhere. Or hop an ever-present trolley. Grab a bike. Or get wild and crazy and rent a moped. (I didn’t have the guts this trip but next time, for sure!) First timer? I suggest starting with a walk or bike tour. You’ll learn the history, events, notorious personalities and legendary gossip so useful in appreciating how Key West came to be what it is today. There are also specialized Ghost Tours (in the dark, with scary story-telling) and a variety of boat tours. I did a sunset cruise on the Schooner Western Union, a historic tall ship that was recently designated as Florida’s official flagship. As a former literature major, one of my Key West must-visit attractions was Ernest Hemingway’s home, where he wrote an estimated 70 percent of his published works and where descendents of his six-toed cats still prosper in the lush gardens. Just a block or so away is the Harry S. Truman Little White House, a retreat that the president used for 11 working vacations and that five other presidents visited as well. It’s Florida’s only presidential museum. If you were around in the ’40s or ’50s, the furnishings alone are a trip down memory lane. The Key West Cemetery, located on Passover Lane (Is that not too perfect?), tells even more about the city’s history, with eccentric epitaphs, beautiful statues and a polyglot of gravesites: veterans, mariners, indigent, millionaires, every ethnicity and religion. Not everyone puts local cemeteries on their “Top Ten” list, but I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I also got caught up on wrecks and history at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (more bang-for-your-buck than the adjacent Custom House), and I found the wildly exotic tropical birds as entrancing as the butterflies in the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. There are many other attractions, especially for kids and families, but with limited time I had to set some priorities

about the

writer

Susan Kraus is a therapist and award-winning travel writer who believes that travel can be the best therapy. She enjoys helping people create their own “travel therapy” by writing about journeys that anyone can replicate.

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to Shining Key’

‘From Key


Photographs courtesy Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman, Rob O’Neal and Bob Krist.

… like sipping an iced fruity drink on a shady patio while chomping down on a fish so fresh I swear it winked at me. Plus, there was people watching, my sport of choice. (Hey, some folks watch birds. I do people. It’s legitimate. I make notes. P.S.: The birding, by the way, is exceptional in the Keys.) There are also several theaters, a symphony and musical events. Art festivals happen several times a year, and there are over 30 art galleries year-round. I’m not a shopper, but friends reported boutiques that made them squeal. Key West is the obvious hot-spot for culture and nightlife in the Keys. But if what you crave is more Caribbean-esque (the Keys are closer to Cuba than Miami), like wiggling your toes in sand as you step out your door, or lounging poolside while watching the waves, then one of the other Keys may be a better choice. Stay in Marathon or Islamorada, with less

expensive lodging, and drive down to Key West for day-trips. On Islamorada, six little islands, actually, you can choose from multiple oceanfront properties, mostly non-chain. I spent two nights at the Postcard Inn, with a sweet beach, ocean-view pool, oodles of options for fishing, scuba, kid-camp, kayak and jet-ski rentals, and more. It has a retrofeel, rustic with modern amenities, plus unique touches like beach-inspired quotes painted on the walls in every room. (I wanted to peek in other rooms to read their walls.) With bars and restaurants on-site, it was a postcard-perfect place to unwind. A short stroll from the Postcard Inn was Theatre of the Sea, which opened in 1946 and is still family-run. I found it to be much more personal and up-close than the big marine attractions. It centers on shows (dolphin, sea lion and parrot—the parrots are a hoot), a marine life boat tour through huge sea turtles and rays, and

First were the Tequesta and Calusa Indians, their lives and culture devastated by colonial invaders. Then the Seminole Wars, those pesky pirates, the intervention of the U.S. Navy, and the strange reality that, during the Civil War, while Florida was Confederate, Key West stayed Union. It is a fascinating history that deserves far more attention than a paragraph. Go get a book or at least a guidebook with a strong history section—and a Florida Key beach to read it on. For centuries, the Florida Keys were inaccessible except by boat, and that involved navigating tricky and often treacherous reefs and shallows. In fact, the big business of the Keys for decades was the rescue-and-rip-off of foundered ships, the accepted practice of saving lives in exchange for keeping whatever goods could be salvaged. Henry

options to “Swim With the Dolphins,” or sea lions, or rays. At $185 per person, it is pricey but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Their marine theater shows are a cut above, integrating conservation, anatomy and natural history, while being interactive and fun. The swim sessions are in saltwater lagoons, not pools, and are closely structured and managed by caretakers who make it clear that the dolphins, not the customers, come first. And here comes my travel-writer confession: Sometimes travel writers get perks. Specifically, in this case, a complimentary opportunity to swim with the dolphins. Since I have a Flipper affinity and always wanted to cuddle a 500-600 pound marine mammal, I was as excited as a 10-year-old, giddy with anticipation. I could write pages about how surprised I was that dolphins feel like silk, and how cool it was to hug one, to feel actual flippers, to hold a fin and be pulled through the water, to be

Flagler’s railroad (the impossible dream that worked—a railroad over water), completed in 1912 after eight years of construction, made the Keys accessible … until August 1935, when a monster hurricane devastated the islands and destroyed much of the railroad. It could have been a total bust, but the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, which opened in 1938, brought even more tourists to the string of islands, pineapple farms and lime groves, changing the economics and landscape forever. Conservation, with preserves and reserves, and development both evolved. In 1982, in protest of a U.S. Border Patrol blockade of the highway to the Keys, Key West and the Keys briefly and symbolically seceded from the U.S. to form a micronation called the Conch Republic. One of Key West’s biggest annual festivals is now the Conch Republic Independence Celebration, complete with a Conch Republic flag raising, music concerts, potluck dinner and drag queen races.

Key West beaches offer spectacular access to the sea, as you can see in this photograph, previous page, of Smathers Beach in Key West. While other beaches in the region might be the place to enjoy peace and quiet, the Key West beach scene tends to offer more nightlife and events, such as the annual Great Conch Republic Drag Race, left. Other attractions include daytime swordfishing, above left, bonefishing, above center, and tours of the Harry S. Truman Little White House museum, above right.

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treated gently by an animal that could break my kneecaps with one swish of a dorsal (a slight exaggeration), to look into dolphin eyes and know that there is something intelligent, even evaluative, going on. And those dolphin eyes raise some tricky ethical issues of capturing and training wild animals for human entertainment, although Sherry the dolphin looked pretty good for her 48 years, as did her splashing daughters (life expectancy is 25-28 years in the wild, but dolphins can live much longer with human care and protection). In that sense, Theatre of the Sea is clearly a second-generation family business for more than one species. So, my childhood fantasy trumped lingering ethical reservations. And the positive aspect of “swim-with” experiences is that once we humans connect on a personal level, we tend to become advocates for the animals we have encountered. It happened to me. Sometimes we think we know about a place because of what we’ve heard over the years…and then it turns out we really don’t know much at all. Like I didn’t even “get” that Key West is actually west of the west coast of Florida. Sure, I’d seen maps, but it never registered. But Key West is way out there in the ocean, and the Keys are a long bananaline of little islands. What makes the Keys workable as a destination for Midwestern folks is that we can fly to Miami and then drive, getting both ocean-fix and island-Caribbeanfeel without another expensive flight south. It’s hard to convey the spirit of a destination in a short article, to share what makes a place unique or worth a trip without sounding trite. With the Florida Keys, there really is something for everyone. It’s a place to let down, lose the “to-do” list, turn off the cell phone. It’s impossible to get lost (picture a two-lane road over a lot of water) but easy to lose track of time. And you are always surrounded by ocean, that ubiquitous teal-to-turquoise sea. Which, for those of us in a land-locked state, can be enough in itself.

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This aerial photo of Key West emphasizes the city’s boast of being at the very southern tip of the continental United States.

Photograph courtesy Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman.

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Topeka Magazine fall 2012 edition  

The fall 2012 edition of Topeka Magazine. Topeka Magazine is the premier publication on people, places and style of the Kansas capital.