any Kansans know her as Senator Kassebaum. In Tennessee, she is usually referred to as Mrs. Baker. If you add her maiden name to the mix, it becomes Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker. Her preference? “Just call me Nancy,” she says. And “Nancy,” is how she was known for many years in Topeka. Born into a wellknown political family, Nancy was a child during both terms that her dad, Alf Landon, served as governor of Kansas and just a preschooler when he ran for president. “I don’t remember much about any of it,” she says. She does remember growing up in the country, just outside the city limits of Topeka. Despite the gas and war rationing in place at the time, she describes a carefree childhood spent with her best friend and neighbor, Betty, and brother, Jack, “We often hiked about two miles to the Kaw River and played on the sandbars. We walked the rails behind what is now the governor’s mansion,” she recalls. One summer, spurred on by a suggestion from her mother, the neighborhood children spent the better part of their vacation digging what was supposed to become a swimming pool. Despite all their efforts, they ended up with only a muddy hole. Nancy remembers gathering at the dinner table with the family for regular meals and being expected to join in on conversations that ranged from the war and local politics to everyday events. But for the most part, she notes, “It was a carefree time without many pressures and without an abundance of structured activities. We played games and spent lots of time in the woods behind our home. We even picked gooseberries along the bluff of the Kaw River and sold them at the grocery store.” For a couple of years, the young entrepreneurs ran Little Tots Pet Shop. Specializing in raising parakeets and canaries, they also sold snakes and turtles that Jack caught. Although Nancy deemed this early business a success,
she does recall one setback. “The tropical fish we purchased died after being put in bathwater.” Surely this tragedy would have been worthy of coverage in what would become Nancy’s first media venture. Never at a loss for ideas, Nancy and Betty used their budding writing skills to produce and distribute the Weekly News, a one-page newspaper that outlined local happenings. The grade-schoolers also honed their salesmanship skills as they went door to door, selling their hand-typed paper for five cents a copy to the few households in the rural neighborhood. While the subject matter included everyday matters, the one copy Nancy still has includes a humorous reference to OPA, the tokens issued by the Office of Price Administration for rationing such things as gas, tires and certain food items. Nancy, of course, would become more familiar with politics later in her life. Elected as the state’s first female U.S. senator, she served in that role from 1978–1997 and worked in key positions such as the chair of the Senate Labor Committee. She won the respect of colleagues across the aisle and earned the trust of Kansas voters, who returned her to Washington. After she left office, she lived with her husband, Senator Howard Baker, in Tennessee and abroad. A native of the state, Nancy permanently moved back to her Kansas farm in Morris County just about a year ago. “I never felt like I ever really left Kansas. The most I was gone was during the four years Howard was ambassador to Japan,” she says. Even then, the Bakers returned to Kansas each year for several weeks in December and August. During her years as a U.S. senator, she explains, “I was home every month.” When her parents were still alive, she spent weekends with them in Topeka and traveled around the state, speaking to and listening to her constituents. From neighborhood and local matters, to those of national and international importance, Nancy has always been inter-
When asked what she considers her proudest accomplishments in Congress, Nancy specifically mentions the passage of four bills that she sponsored that were eventually written into law. All set important standards, helped individuals in need, provided a boost to the economy, or helped protect the environment. Although she did not mention it, records indicate that Nancy worked tirelessly with others in the Senate to ensure bipartisan support for the passage of these pieces of legislation, as well as many others. 1. Orphan Drug Act of 1983, a law designed to facilitate the development and commercialization of drugs to treat rare diseases (termed orphan drugs) that affect a relatively small population of people. 2. General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) of 1994, which established time limitations on certain civil actions against aircraft manufacturers. 3. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, also known as Kassebaum-Kennedy Act designed to protect health insurance coverage for workers and their families when they change or lose their jobs. 4. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve of 1996, established a unique private/ public partnership between the National Park Service and the private sector that is dedicated to preserving the rich natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
Spring 2016 | TOPEKA MAGAZINE
The sights, sounds, drums, dances, regalia and food of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Powwow. Also in this edition: Meet Ian and Verniec...