railroad life of larry wright
Springâ€™ 12 | sunflowerpub.com
Vol. VI / No. II
from the editor
Editor Nathan Pettengill designer/Art Director
advertising Kathy Lafferty representative (785) 224-9992
Anita Miller Fry Julie K. Buzbee Kim Gronniger Carolyn Kaberline Susan Kraus Vernon McFalls Karen Ridder Christine Steinkuehler Debra Guiou Stufflebean Barbara Waterman-Peters
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Folks around these parts get the time o’ day From the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. Chances are if you recognize these lyrics, then you probably recall a time in Topeka when these words were true. For Larry Wright, the subject of our cover story, this jingle also represents a living, a way of life and now a hobby in miniature scale. His career as a porter and then administrator on the railways stretches back to a time when rail routes were vital to a community’s growth and extends into the time when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe engines travel only toy-scale rails. It’s still possible in some areas of the city to tell certain times of the day by the arrival and departure of some passenger routes—but the connection between Topeka and rails, like the song that Judy Garland made famous, has a strong sense of nostalgia to it.
Folks around these parts get the time o’ day From the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. Of course … what’s old is also tried and true. That’s a theme that unites several articles in this edition. Debra Stufflebean’s profile of Rosemary Menninger and Christine Steinkuehler’s profile of Carolyn Litwin both bring us narrations of experienced community gardeners who innovate and experiment but also heavily rely on plants and techniques that have proven true to the growing conditions and climate of Topeka. Carolyn Kaberline’s story of two equine rescue ranches highlights the love that can be found in caring for horses and other animals that have been neglected or discarded, often because of age. Vernon McFalls brings us a story about a young dance instructor expanding on some of the most ancient dance techniques with her new tribal dance company. Barbara Waterman-Peters shares the story of an artist who postponed his career, and Karen Ridder tours the home of a non-traditional artist who doesn’t allow age or rust to interrupt his artistic vision. Kim Gronniger’s discussion with Larry Wright and his story of life on the rails might represent nostalgia, daily reality or a hint of a possible revival of rail transportation. But we hope the distinctions of past, present and future are irrelevant to a good story. Our goal is to bring you those articles that connect across the ages and spaces of Topeka. And though you don’t necessarily hear it anymore at the train station platforms, it makes perfect sense to tap the most famous railroad phrase here: “All aboard, Topeka.”
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ToPeKa arT Guild and Gallery A great place to shop for unique gifts by local Kansas artists. Open 11 am-5 pm Wed. - Sat. Join us every First Friday from 5 pm-8 pm for 10% off Serving Our Artists and Supporting the Local Arts Community 5331 SW 22nd Place | Fairlawn Plaza | Topeka, KS 66614
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Keep on Truckhenge’ing
Mr. Railroad Man
Creating art from trucks, beer bottles, boats and bumpers is part of Ron Lessman’s evolving talent of fashioning the extraordinary from the ordinary
Four decades of work (and not much sleep) took Larry Wright across the nation, face-to-face with presidents and dignitaries … and up close with one fascinating ice chest
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Art Lab’s Bottlecap Artist Make it a day or a life of recycled art
Speed Dreams They are possibly the fastest things in pajamas—the bedracing teams that take to the streets for a charity event each March
16 Seeing it Swain’s Way A Topeka artist sharpens a vision that explores the tipping point between reality and the sublime
Couture for Cancer Annual fashion-charity event strikes a pose
Harvesting connections Gardening advocate Rosemary Menninger matches her experience with a communitywide initiative to grow enthusiasm, education and greens
travel 60 Hot Springs and the High Life Central Arkansas offers delights of pristine nature, indulgent care and extraordinary fare
20 Riding to the Rescue Two Topeka-area ranches provide shelter, health, love and new beginnings for at-risk equines
Naturally Tribal Won over by a troupe that was ‘radiating energy,’ Cyndi Elliott seeks to cultivate the tribal dance experience in Topeka
Proven Longevity Growing ‘one thing to the next,’ a gardener shares her knowledge with community projects and younger generations
on the cover
Spring ’ 12
Engine 5700 pulls into Larry Wright’s model train station. Photograph by: Bill Stephens and Jason Dailey
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Spring ’ 12
Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Anita Miller Fry
They are possibly the fastest things in pajamas—the bedracing teams that take to the streets for a charity event each March
Capital City Bank’s
Irish Pot of Gold Team
Topeka agency gets off to a roll each year in its effort to help people with housing and consumer credit counseling, thanks to a unique community event. Called the Great Topeka Bed Race, the competition pits teams racing wheeledbeds against each other through downtown streets. Lynne Crabtree, director of Grants and Communications for Housing and Credit Counseling Inc. (HCCI), says the race first took place in 2009 and featured 20 teams. By 2011, 29 teams competed. At least an equal number of beds are expected to race this year on March 17, prior to the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Topeka.
* History: Capital City Bank has had a team in the event since the first race in 2009. * Strategy: The team tries to have the four people pushing the bed to have some running experience. The team has changed members from year to year, but one runner has always been on the team. * Unique qualities of bed: For the first race in 2009, the bed was decorated to match the Pot of Gold theme. The elaborate decorations hindered the runners and the speed of the bed, so they scaled back the design. * Plans for 2012 race: The team is considering a new design and keeping its focus on supporting a worthwhile community organization.
At least 30 teams are expected to compete in this year’s Bed Race, including the veteran squads featured on these pages. Entry deadline for teams is March 15. For more race information, including entry fees, construction guidelines, race videos and tips, go online to www.hcci-ks.org.
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Teams race head-to-head along Sixth Street, from Van Buren to Jackson streets, where a team member riding the bed must rise, change into a two-piece pajama outfit and return to bed. After the pajama-wearing rider is tucked back in bed, the team of up to four pushers dashes the bed back to Van Buren. Teams with the top times advance to the semi-finals for an instant-elimination run-off. All proceeds from the race benefit HCCI’s work of counseling and educating people on personal housing and finance goals. The HUD-approved comprehensive housing and consumer credit counseling agency has regional Team Schendel offices in Topeka, Lawrence and Manhattan, but the proceeds from this event are designated for work in Shaw* History: Has raced two years. nee County. * Strategy: Keep the small guys For those bed-racing teams that in front, big guys in back. don’t have time to build a bed, welding * Unique qualities of bed: The students at the Washburn Institute of team has fake bedbugs on the Technology built four loaner beds last bed, and the front of the bed is year that could be used for the race, and shaped like a bug’s face. they plan to contribute more in 2012. * Plans for 2012 race: Team Dan Stumpf, welding instructor Schendel plans to place bigger at Washburn Institute of Technology, wheels on its bed. brags about the students’ own entry, which included working headlights and taillights, as well as fender flares and other features to make it look like an old car. Stumpf says the loaner beds are functional and green, made from metal recycled from three or four trampolines, as well as other materials. The beds must follow strict conwestar struction and safety guidelines detailed by HCCI, but zany accouterments are highly encouraged. The volunteer organizers choose one team for a decoration award, and there are cash prizes of $25* History: Team has raced since $150 for the three fastest beds, though the first race in 2009 and won most squads participate for enjoyment two of the three years. The and to support HCCI rather than to win team is made up of linemen cash or to break the sound barrier. and one employee from the Crabtree says any team has a design department. chance to win top prize by relying on * Strategy: No real strategy. pure speed, strength or super-fast pajaSays one team member, “We ma-changing ability, but she encourages just show up and run.” new racers and spectators to attend for * Unique qualities of bed: The a family-oriented program. At the end team is still using the same bed, of the race, all participating teams are which it made the night before invited to join in the citywide St. Patthe first race and designed to rick’s Day parade. Even if their beds resemble a utility line truck. suffer a race performance breakdown, Each year, the bed is given a HCCI will have pit-crew teams ready to tune-up prior to the race. put them back onto the streets. * Plans for 2012 race: The “We’ll have plenty of duct tape on team is considering building a hand,” assures Crabtree. new bed.
Bedbug & Heat Division
(Topeka Operations) Linemen
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Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Barbara Waterman-Peters
Seeing it Swain’s Way A Topeka artist sharpens a vision that explores the tipping point between reality and the sublime
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above Robert Swain and his action-figure model stand behind Swain’s painting at his home.
Barbara Waterman-Peters writes, paints, exhibits, teaches, manages STUDIO 831 in the North Topeka Arts District (NOTO) and is part-owner
ou realize that you see things differently,” is Robert Swain’s response to the question of when he first knew he was an artist. Growing up in Topeka, the son of parents who worked for Forbes Air Force Base and Bell Telephone, Swain followed this alternative vision as a young student. First he doodled and created the ubiquitous posters that populate grade-school hallways, and then he began more serious lessons while attending Shawnee Heights High School, where he studied under artists Jan Van Meter and Ed Miller. Swain’s artistic eye also guided him away from tentative plans of learning architecture and watching basketball games at Kansas State University and to studying painting at the University of Kansas. There, Swain took classes under printmaker Rick Dishinger and the late Michael Ott, who taught painting and watercolors. Swain graduated in 1986, having won the Daniel MacMorris Scholarship for the top student in painting. Swain also left the school with a profound experience facilitated by the late painter Robert Sudlow, who arranged an anatomy and dissection lab. “I did fine in the class, but at night I went back to draw cadavers,” says Swain. “Life drawing helps you see better.” Swain’s Vision Even in his student years, Swain was developing a theme that would carry through to the present—a balance of reality and vision. An artist who can masterfully replicate the real world, Swain avoids the sterility of photo-realism and imparts an undeniable mystique to his images. It is a vision that he describes as “realism with personality.” For Swain, this combination is at the core of his understanding of art. “It’s not art unless it’s something discovering the truth about the human condition,” Swain says. Artistic vision is “specifically about how I see the world,” he adds. “I especially like creating paintings that show the beauty in the ordinary which most people overlook.” But an artist’s vision is not an isolated process for Swain. His tableaux of single or assorted items centered and strangely illuminated within the larger shallow-spaced framework evoke memories, provoke questions and demand scrutiny. “It’s interesting that people start psychoanalyzing you according to what you choose to paint,” says Swain. “They make up stories,” he adds, to go with the picture. This particular artist relishes such responses. “Artists want to communicate and are excited when a viewer ‘gets it,’” Swain says. But that doesn’t mean the viewer and the artist are always in agreement, as Swain finds with even his most immediate audience. Sometimes, while working on a painting, he will cut off a portion that doesn’t seem to work in the composition, an act that often causes his wife, Kim, to cringe. Critical thinking is an essential part of making art, and sometimes neither the viewer nor the artist has the final judgment. According to Swain, the painting itself must be allowed to dictate
of the Collective Art Gallery. Her occasional attempts to wear so many hats simultaneously create awkward fashion statements and cause total chaos in her very interesting and rewarding life.
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what it needs. And in these instances, Swain says the artist’s job is “knowing when it’s done and recognizing the happy accidents to avoid the trap of painting the life out of a canvas.” Back to Art One would think that Swain’s exceptional talent had been in constant use, but after some early struggles to make it as an artist, Swain went into banking and technology to support his family. The detour lasted nearly 20 years. Feeling like a fish out of water, Swain says he moved on to consulting and then began substitute teaching, primarily in art classes at Topeka High School. At this point, while reading a book on career management for artists, he was struck by the concept of an artist controlling his own exhibit space. It was a pivotal moment.
“Artists want to communicate and are excited when a viewer ‘gets it.’” — Robert Swain On a Monday afternoon in April 2005, Swain approached Paul Beauchamp, owner of Beauchamp’s Gallery and Frameshop in the Westboro Mart, and asked whether he was “interested in selling.” Swain recalls that everything became quiet as Paul Beauchamp, then 85, did not respond for long moments. Finally, Beauchamp replied that if he had been asked that question only a week earlier he would have refused, but that now—shortly after learning that his wife was in poor health—he would be willing. In September of the same year, Kim and Robert purchased the business. Exactly five years to the day, Beauchamp worked with the gallery’s new owner, teaching him valuable skills in art conservation, local art history and the craftsmanship that was a hallmark of the shop, which had been an institution in Topeka for over 30 years. Beauchamp was an integral part of the gallery until his death in 2010. Beauchamp’s passing has led to more hours in the gallery for Swain, who says he has grown to appreciate the phenomenon of people coming into his business to talk about art. “Watching them respond to a single painting that they love in an exhibition—I get to see that,” says Swain. “It’s deeper than love for other objects. Dozens of people who own original art have told me what a piece of art makes them feel.” Being a gallery owner has also allowed Swain to talk about and share work that he respects, including art by his two high school instructors. But it is Robert Swain the artist, known to most as “Bob,” with his soft voice and gentle mannerisms, who ultimately commands attention. Although modestly claiming to be still early in development, Swain has accumulated wisdom in his understanding of art, artists and art-making. “An artist can do many different things,” says Swain. “The key is to do them on your own terms.”
Swain works from his home, where he creates works of art that explore the boundaries between life and vision.
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Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Carolyn Kaberline
Riding to the Rescue Two Topeka-area ranches provide shelter, health, love and new beginnings for at-risk equines
areen Cain and Brenda Grimmett, owners of two separate equine rescue ranches outside of Topeka, will never forget the horses that have come under their care and, in some cases, found new homes with loving, caring families. They recall Pistol Pete, Little Man, Magnum, Rally, Gus, Beauty, Angel and many others. And while these two women know the burnout rate in their field is high, the emotional toll is great, and the financial gain is nonexistent, they say there is nothing else they would rather do. For Buckshot Cain’s involvement began while she was a high school social worker in 2001 and asked a group of her students about their life goals. As they responded to her request, the students were also quick to ask her the same question. Without hesitation, Cain told them she would like to open a horse shelter. “I have no idea why I said that,” Cain recalls. But the idea took root, and before long she responded to an emergency plea from county officials to care for 23 horses who had been removed from a large breeding operation that had badly starved them and left them without water. “I called everyone I knew and got a group to come and get them,” Cain says. She then began reading all she could on the care and rehabilitation of rescue horses and brought hers back to health. After operating as a private rescue on 40 acres overlooking the Wakarusa Valley southwest of Topeka, the operation
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above Gus, a 20-year-old Quarter Horse, came to the ranch in 2008 to retire from competitive jumping and show competition.
Carolyn Kaberline’s freelancewriting career began in 2006 when she wanted to show her journalism students that she wasn’t asking
was initially incorporated as Buckshot’s Legacy, Shooting Star Stables and Equine Rescue, Inc. in 2008 to honor Buckshot, her childhood horse. Currently Cain cares for 18 equines, including horses, miniatures and burros. While she admits her husband, Brent, “didn’t really know what he was getting into when he okayed my first horse after we were married,” she says he has been supportive of her efforts. Honoring Tony Grimmett and her husband, Cecil, began B&C Rescue, now home to 13 horses and four donkeys, on 14 acres near Carbondale in 2007. It was just after Grimmett lost her first horse to old age. “My parents gave him to me on my 16th birthday,” Grimmett says. “I named him Tony. He was my best buddy and lived to be 38 years old. He was saved from a kill-buyer slaughter lot. This is in his honor.” Since beginning their rescue, Grimmett says she and her husband have always taken in equines—whether horse, miniature, pony or donkey—in the worst shape, offering them a better life through rehabilitation and adoption.
“I give them all the time they need to heal.” — Brenda Grimmett “It usually takes awhile to get them back in good health, Grimmett says. “I give them all the time they need to heal.” Road to Recovery Rehabilitation in both rescues begins with veterinary care and some much-needed pampering. “Most need worming, and often the feet are critical,” Grimmett says. Both Grimmett and Cain provide the necessary shelter, highquality feed and daily contact needed to rebuild their charges’ health, spirit and trust in humans. They also provide training to increase the equines’ chances of being adopted. Their programs have worked: The two rescues have placed more than 100 horses in new homes since they began. While they hope these new homes will be forever, both rescues will take a horse back if it is unable to remain with a family. And for those animals they are unable to place because of age or health conditions, Grimmett and Cain provided a permanent sanctuary. “Most horses end up as unwanted because of changes in their owners’ lives such as finances, divorce or medical situations,” Cain explains. “Others end up as unwanted because of their owners’ loss of interest or not knowing what they are getting into.”
them to do anything 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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To avoid that scenario, both Grimmett and Cain teach owners and prospective owners about proper horse care. They also encourage prospective owners to visit the rescue ranches and learn about horse care firsthand. Until the time that their rescue horses find a new, loving home, both ranch owners see their daily mission in simple terms. “We want to be sure that they’re not going to be hurt anymore,” Grimmett says of the rescue equines in their care. “Getting them healthy and giving them love is what it’s all about.”
A Horse of Different Colors
On Their Side
Duni surveys his audience as he eagerly reaches for the paintbrush held to him by his owner, Careen Cain. Once the 16-year-old Appaloosa gelding has it gripped firmly in his mouth, he makes bold strokes of royal blue paint across the canvas. Cain rewards Duni with a treat as she offers him a new brush with a different color and a group of youngsters watching him shout, “Go, Duni!” Like many artists, Duni loves attention to his work, and his strokes become even more enthusiastic as the cheering continues. Duni’s performance art began approximately three-and-a-half years ago at the suggestion of Cain’s brother. “He said he had seen elephants paint and thought teaching a horse to paint could bring in funds for the rescue,” Cain says. Duni’s mildmannered temperament and love of one-on-one attention made him a natural representative for her ranch, Shooting Star Equine Rescue. “I tried teaching others, but some weren’t interested, and one kept trying to eat the brush,” Cain explains. Since then Duni regularly creates multi-colored “Horse Splash Paintings,” usually in front of a group. Each of Duni’s appearances allows Cain to talk with the audience about horse care and horse rescue programs. Duni’s outreach also helps fund Cain’s rescue operation. The ranch, like B&C Rescue—the other Topeka-area horse rescue—does charge a small re-homing fee, but overall funding relies on several avenues of support. That fund-raising aspect does not, however, lessen Duni’s apparent commitment to his art. After finishing a painting, he signs it with his signature hoof stamp. And then Duni—gentle, talented and prolific—grips the brush in his mouth to begin a new creation.
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TOP Rescue animals include Pistol Pete and Ruby. CENTER Careen Cain started rescuing horses in 2001. BOTTOM Brenda and Cecil Grimmett began rescuing horses in 2007. LEFT Duni stands with one of his paintings.
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Naturally Tribal Won over by a troupe that was ‘radiating energy,’ Cyndi Elliott seeks to cultivate the tribal dance experience in Topeka
yndi “Cryeigna” Elliott’s connection to tribal dance began when she witnessed her first performance at Pomona, California, in 1995. “I saw these gorgeous, colorful dancers, all different shapes, ages and sizes, moving as one, to the beat of this drum,” recalls Elliott. “They were radiating energy. My skin was prickling. Everything I thought was stereotypically beautiful—it was gone. I didn’t realize how limited I was until I saw them dance.” For Elliott, who had trained in ballet, taps, jazz and flamenco dancing while growing up in California, tribal dance offered new challenges. “There’s not only the physical, but self and mental. This is a huge core workout when you do it,” says Elliott. “It’s mental, too, because you work as a group. It’s not a singular dance at all;the dancers follow cues to work as a group. And while there is that mental element, you cannot over-think. The minute you over-think is when you lose it. You come in, communicate with the other dancers and just let your body do what it does naturally.” Moving to Topeka in 2008, Elliott brought with her years of experience in dancing and developing the tribal dance genre. In particular, her studies with
Cyndi “Cyreigna” Elliott teaches a blend of modern and traditional dance with Irie Tribal Dance Company.
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Topeka native Vern McFalls is a video producer who contributes regularly to Topeka Magazine and has always followed his mother’s advice: “If you don’t know how to do something, get a book and teach yourself how.”
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American Tribal Dance pioneer Carolena Nericcio led Elliott to found the Topekabased Irie Tribal Dance Company. Tribal dance is paradoxically a group performance that relies on spontaneous developments as a routine progresses. For this reason, it is often referred to as “improvisational choreography.” Some groups call the performances “urban tribal belly dancing” to emphasize their synthesis of modern and traditional dance techniques. If you look closely during performances by Elliott’s group, you will see various Eastern cultures reflected in the costuming, music and dance moves. Dancers often wear elaborate jewelry, makeup and yards of cloth, with costumes that can weigh upward of 30 pounds or more.
“I saw these gorgeous, colorful dancers, all different shapes and sizes, moving as one …” — Cyndi Elliott Amy Sullivan, a performer with Irie Tribal, says the routines offer a challenge even for those with dance experience. “It takes a surprising amount of dedication,” says Sullivan. “A lot of students will go in thinking it’s easy, and then when we actually break down the moves, it turns out to be a lot harder for them. If you want to dance and you want to dance well, it takes an amount of dedication.” But there are rewards. “If you put the dedication into it, you know you’re going to really enjoy the benefits that you‘re going to get,” says Elliott. “It’s great cardio, great muscle builder—you know it tones great.” Elliott recommends beginners attend a course once a week and practice on their own for at least one hour each day in order to develop a muscle-memory for the dance. “It depends on the person,” she says, “but I could have a student performing with a troupe in three-four months. It depends on what you want—it doesn’t matter if you have been dancing for 10 minutes or 10 years, it depends on what you want to give back to yourself.”
Spring ’ 12
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Greg Gathers, arborist and owner of Custom Tree Care, Inc.
What he does: Gathers and his crews prune, shape and—as a last resort— remove trees for residences, businesses and government departments. They also specialize in disaster recovery and respond to incidents across the nation, including clean-up work from Hurricane Katrina and from the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri. In all, Custom Tree Care has worked in 22 states. His business roots: Gathers started business by selling firewood in high school and began what would become Custom Tree Care as a student at Kansas State University in 1999. In less than 15 years, his one-man operation has grown to 15 full-time and up to 25 seasonal employees. Gathers has gone from working with a chainsaw and borrowing a trailer to owning six 60-foot bucket trucks, three debrisloading grapple trucks, a chip truck, a chipper, stump grinders, bobcats, pickups, trailers and more. His “best climate” for business: Gathers appreciates mild weather, but his operation does thrive when people need immediate clean-up from severe weather. “If we get a big ice storm, that would be nice,” he says jokingly. “Not to wish bad things, but it is job security.” His office habits: “We watch The Weather Channel a lot. There’s a buzz when it hits,” Gathers says of severe weather. His business allies: Alliance Bank has backed all his endeavors, including providing lines of credit for crews on disaster recovery jobs. On creating a team: “It’s always nice when someone can walk in and has the experience to do the job—for us it is tree-climbing and operating equipment. But attitude is more important. If someone wants to excel, they will do what they need and learn what they need. Both experience and attitude are important, but I would place the emphasis on attitude.” Story by Julie K. Buzbee Photography by Jason Dailey
Spring ’ 12
above Greg Gathers stands in a bucket, surrounded by his employees and equipment.
Topeka writer Julie K. Buzbee spends most of her time behind the wheel of her Honda Pilot working as a chauffeur for her three teenage children. In her spare time, she writes.
Claire Friedman, owner of Scandinavian Imports, 1421 SW Sixth Ave.
Falling Scandinavianly in Love: Friedman was enchanted by all things Scandinavian more than three decades ago after seeing Nordic goods for sale in the Scandinavian-culture communities of Lindsborg, Kansas, and Rochester, Minnesota. “These were things I’d never seen before, and they captured my imagination,” says Friedman. Nordic Plus: Friedman’s store, now in its 36th year, also sells German nutcrackers, Russian nesting dolls, Austrian crystals and products from other countries and cultures as well. Whimsy: Friedman stocks an extensive amount of knick-knacks with offbeat humor: a nesting doll set featuring a Yellow Submarine and the Fab Four, a T-shirt reading “May the Norse Be With You,” and a carved Santa-on-a-motorcycle incense holder that allows smoke to waft out from Santa’s mouth and the cycle’s exhaust. Old World meets Old-School Style: Timeless European atmosphere complements traditional style for Scandinavian Imports. In the age of instant communication, the store features a wide assortment of customized and seasonal cards. Friedman’s favorite birthday card in stock plays on this old-tech, new-tech gap. It shows a picture of some ruby red slippers and reads: “May your every wish be no more than three clicks away.”
Story by Julie K. Buzbee Photography by Jason Dailey
above Claire Friedman sells international souvenirs, including this Russian nesting doll, at her store in central Topeka.
Spring ’ 12
new city downtown
Luis Guillén, co-owner of New City Downtown, 715 S. Kansas Ave.
Culinary provenance: The recently opened downtown location is the offspring of Guillén’s Latin and Caribbean fusion New City Café at Huntoon and Gage, but with a twist. “We’re trying to adapt what New City is to the downtown crowd,” Guillén explains. “It’s a faster pace.” Soup’s on: Part of what that downtown pace means for Guillén is an emphasis on freshly made soup. The new location will feature potato bacon, yellow squash, green bean parmesan and roasted red pepper tomato, just to name a few of his own personal favorites. Paired with soups are Guillén’s Cuban sandwiches, a ham and cheese sandwich variation he ate as a child in Venezuela. Guillén says with a smile he didn’t invent it but “perfected” the Cuban nonetheless. Small and Local Trend: “There is a little bit of a wakeup of appreciating small businesses right now,” says Guillén. “We need to ride this wave. That’s the money that stays in the community.” The soul of downtown: Guillén says he is excited about the influx of local businesses downtown. Though he knows chain stores and fast-food restaurants are here to stay, he believes a Topeka-centric downtown can thrive. “We need to make downtown Topeka the anti-Wanamaker,” Guillén says, smiling. “We want to keep the Midwest charm, but I hope little by little this city will mature.”
Story by Julie K. Buzbee Photography by Jason Dailey
Spring ’ 12
above Jocelyn Gonzalez serves New City Downtown’s lunchtime fare.
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home life TOPEKAMAGAZINE
A corner of Carolyn Litwin’s garden
Spring ’ 12
Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Debra Guiou Stufflebean
Gardening advocate Rosemary Menninger matches her experience with a communitywide initiative to grow enthusiasm, education and greens
opeka native Rosemary Menninger gardens with an eye on the long-term fruits of her labor. As volunteer executive director of the nonprofit Topeka Common Ground Inc., Rosemary works with community volunteers to establish and cultivate 11 community gardens across the capital city. “The program’s objectives are clearly defined,” says Rosemary, “teaching good nutrition and eating organic foods; gardening and putting food on the table, which will help reduce grocery bills; partnering with other service organizations to build communities; and empowering youth.” Citywide Initiative Southern Hills Mennonite Church began Topeka Common Ground with one garden in 1994. The Mennonite national and local volunteers then received grants and established as many as six gardens for public schools and community centers. Despite initial success, the program’s future, particularly funding for youth outreach, was uncertain until 2009, when Washburn University’s Center for Community Service and Civic Engagement provided full-time dedicated coordinators. The first of these Washburn Vista Fellows, Wendy Pearson and Cary Powell, played a pivotal role in seeking new grants and building a network of community volunteers. Since the
program began, contributing groups have included the Topeka Community Resources Council, Vida Ministry, Let’s Help, the Center for Safety and Empowerment (formerly the Battered Women Task Force), TARC, Sheltered Living, the city of Topeka, Shawnee County, the Kansas Neurological Institute, local Girl Scouts organizations, the Ward-Meade Garden Club and various neighborhood improvement associations. Though Topeka Common Ground works with gardeners and volunteers of all ages, it places a particular emphasis on working through after-school and summer programs to include youth. “They are so eager to garden,” says Rosemary. “It is a skill they can develop at an early age and teach their parents.” Planting a Connection Rosemary’s role with Topeka Common Ground has evolved from digging in the dirt as a volunteer in 1996 to consulting with groups who are interested in starting a communi-
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.
Spring ’ 12
ty garden. However, she is quick to emphasize that you’ll still find her gardening because it is in her system—as is social advocacy, an interest instilled by her parents, Dr. Karl and Jean Menninger. Though the renowned psychiatrist had a keen interest in gardening (serving as president of the Topeka Horticultural Society), another of her parents’ interests greatly affected Rosemary. Both Karl and Jean had lifelong interaction with Native American communities such as the Navajo in Arizona, where the Menningers frequently took Rosemary on family vacations. This contact spurred Rosemary to spend one summer during her college years working for Navajo Community College (now Diné College) in Many Farms, Arizona. Keeping in contact with the Navajo communities, Rosemary observed daily life and the community’s struggle to survive. For example, in order to irrigate corn in the Arizona desert’s red, sandy clay, the Navajo loaded water into barrels and drove these barrels through the desert on horse-drawn wagons. And they succeeded. Corn provided both cornmeal, essential to the community’s sustenance, as well as corn pollen, used in healing ceremonies. Rosemary would remember these achievements years later when she moved to San Francisco in 1972. Reflecting on the Navajo people’s stamina and ability to cultivate their crops, she thought: “If the Navajo can grow corn in the desert, why can’t we grow gardens in rubble-strewn, barren urban lots?” With this insight and determination, Rosemary collaborated with two others to establish the Institute of Applied Ecology that then worked with the city to establish San Francisco Municipal Composting Program and the San Francisco Community Gardening Program. In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown asked her to spearhead a statewide program for identifying vacant land, eligible resources, and coordinating volunteers from schools, churches, prisons, housing projects and service organizations. Rosemary documented her work, and the program’s success, in her book Community Gardening in California. Growing Urban Returning to Topeka in 1981, Rosemary soon made the acquaintance of Grant Cushinberry, who introduced her to his vegetable garden that he opened to the public. “His example got me started in Topeka,” says Rosemary. Another community member, volunteer English teacher J.B. Holland, told Rosemary about a greenhouse run by the Topeka branch of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) that grew seedlings and sold them at a low price to neighborhood gardeners, a practice that continues to this day. Inspired, Rosemary began to apply much of her gardening expertise to her new climate. Urban agriculture presents its own set of challenges regardless of whether the plot is in San Francisco, Topeka or a different municipality. In most urban environments, there will be older, established neighborhoods with an overabundance of shade. And there will be business districts surrounded by asphalt and with limited access to water. But the lessons learned
Spring ’ 12
“Gardening together builds families, communities and relationships with others and with nature.” — Rosemary Menninger from one urban area can be applied to others. For example, from her work in San Francisco, Rosemary knew it was difficult to plant seeds in urban conditions but that seedlings had a greater chance of thriving. Because of this, Topeka Common Ground has planted seedlings, currently donated by individual volunteers and the Shawnee County Extension Master Gardeners and sometimes purchased from LULAC. Though San Francisco and Topeka have very different growing climates, Rosemary says she has benefited from positive elements common to both cities. “I’ve found that the network of civic and social service agencies is unusually rich in both cities,” says Rosemary. “They are a good anchor for any community development.” Rosemary hopes that one day Topeka Common Ground can establish a dedicated space within an existing greenhouse to provide seedlings and year-round education. For now, however, Rosemary says the single greatest need for the program is volunteer hours. Each one of the seasonal garden sites needs an overseer who coordinates volunteers to work in the garden. The organization also needs teaching assistants to show children how to grow plants, tend to them and determine when it’s time to harvest. Cooks are in demand to demonstrate how to prepare the bounty. And the organization is seeking groups interested in developing new gardens, as well as corporate sponsors to help with finances. Rosemary says Topeka Common Ground provides benefits to the volunteers, participating youth and the entire Topeka community. “I think learning to garden and the experience of growing, cooking and eating your own food empowers youth to take responsibility for and enjoy what they eat,” says Rosemary. “The process of growing together leads more naturally to eating together—and we don’t do enough of that. Gardening together builds families, communities and relationships with others and with nature.”
PREVIOUS PAGE AND ABOVE Rosemary Menninger works with a group of youths through the Topeka Common Ground gardening program.
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Contact Marsha Anderson at 785.272.6510 for more information or to schedule a tour of the community.
Rosemary Menninger’s Topeka Gardening Advice
4712 South West Sixth Street Topeka, Kansas 66606 www.justaskpresbyterianmanors.com
• Establish a compost pile and compost all nonfat items. • Plant in early May and harvest by July 4 (except for tomatoes). • Prepare bed and choose crops to survive the worst heat and drought. • Start with the soil. • Split the garden in half. • Take out one spade-depth of soil and move to the half you’re not working on. • Loosen one more spade-depth of soil, mix the removed dirt with compost and replace. • Repeat the process for the other side of garden. • Consider mound gardening instead of raised beds. Mound gardening holds water better. • Go with recommended crops: salad greens like lettuce and arugula; cooking greens like mustard, collard and bok choy; cabbage family like broccoli, red cabbage and kohlrabi; green beans (pole, bush or Italian); radishes; summer squash; cucumbers and tomatoes (Roma, cherry and slicers such as Jet Star).
• Don’t skimp on mulch. It reduces weeds and conserves moisture.
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Photography by Jason Dailey Story by Christine Steinkuehler
Proven Longevity Growing ‘one thing to the next,’ a gardener shares her knowledge with community projects and younger generations
arolyn Litwin became a gardener when she was 10. This was shortly after World War II, the year her parents—the children of immigrants— bought a home near St. Louis. “That was a big step for people of my parent’s station in life, to own their own home. We thought it was huge, just huge. But it was just a postage stamp really. They had no idea, they never owned anything, had a yard, never,” says Litwin. That small garden opened a world of plants and exploration. “I remember that I was intrigued we had some rose bushes in the yard and there was a back porch with spirea around it. I was just awed at this,” recalls Litwin. “I had a little rock garden there. We had a victory garden. We had tomatoes—that was my mother’s doing. I used to pick the dandelions out of the grass. I would have my friends come and work
for me and dig the dandelions. Something drew me to it, sitting in the grass. It was fun.” In 1953, Litwin and her husband moved to the Prospect Hills neighborhood on land they bought from Alf Landon. The couple finished building their home in 1956, one month before their first child was born. Then Litwin turned to her garden. “Right away I put in a vegetable garden. It was those green beans. They were so abundant. I just had buckets. Then it went from one thing to the next,” says Litwin. Pushing her baby in a stroller up and down the dirt roads, Litwin met a neighboring gardener who introduced her to asparagus, something she has planted ever since. The soil, which had been a golf course and a pasture, was receptive to Litwin’s efforts as if it had been waiting for her. Litwin says that if she was born later she would have become a horticulture therapist, perhaps through the Kansas State University program developed with Karl Menninger. Nonetheless, she has fulfilled this desire through years of volunteering. Working with the Capper Foundation in her capacity as a master gardener volunteer and educator, Litwin has developed multiple gardens for children with special needs who have taught her to adapt traditional gardening ideas. For example,
Christine Steinkuehler has contributed to Topeka Magazine since 2007. She lives in Topeka with her husband, twins and an ever-changing menagerie of pets. Christine likes old things, rainy days and books—especially if there is coffee.
Spring ’ 12
“We had some rose bushes in the yard and there was a back porch with spirea around it. I was just awed at this.” — Carolyn Litwin one of the first things Litwin created with the children was a tepee from willow branches with morning glories covering it. She had envisioned the tepee as a place for the children to go inside and play. But because it had only one small entry, many of the children, especially those in wheelchairs, could not enter. When the willow branches rotted, Litwin replaced them with painted PVC tubes and inserted two large entrances. Whether sitting in the tepee, zipping through, or stopping to view the morning glory blooms that grow along the pipes, all children can now enjoy the tepee. Other Capper projects include a butterfly garden, a flagpole garden, a garden for people with special needs at Gage Park, and a cotton garden that Litwin plants with children and the assistance of Gaylord Kelsey, the manager of the Gage Park Greenhouse. This unusual garden crop has become one of Litwin’s favorites. “Many people do not know it is really a beautiful plant, with green or purple foliage and big magenta blooms,” says Litwin. Somehow, Litwin has worked on and directed these projects while maintaining her own garden at home. Raking leaves is now her biggest task in a garden that didn’t have a single tree when she began. And Litwin is having problems with voles, a recent challenge for a garden that constantly evolves. Through the years, Litwin has seen tremendous changes around her plantings. The streets are now paved. Elm trees have come and gone, replaced by locust and linden trees that Litwin likes because their small leaves can be left in garden beds. But though Litwin says she is tempted to introduce more changes with novel seeds and new plantings, she has learned to rely on plants with proven longevity.
Spring ’ 12
Carolyn Litwin, top, walks through her personal garden that includes a solar-powered fountain, above center, and groups of daylilies, above left and right.
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couture for cancer Annual fashion-charity event strikes a pose Couture for Cancer, which is 4 p.m.7 p.m. April 21, features designer home and fashion items to raise money for the American Cancer Society in style. The eighth-annual event is a Topeka original. “We’re really proud that this is the one and only, and we offer it locally to our people in Topeka,” says Stacie Schroeder with the American Cancer Society. The event is open to approximately 300 women with 15 seats reserved for men—at a premium price. A silent and live auction of fashion items is also planned to meet the $80,000 fundraising goal.
Ann O’Bryan from Boutique Ten47 • Fourth year of participation • Boutique Ten47 provides models for the runway show, donates a $500 gift certificate and men’s shirts or jackets for the auction. • “For me it’s a no-brainer,” says O’Bryan in explaining her reasons to participate. “I’ve had people in my immediate family with cancer, and any time I can support a function that has to do with cancer research, I try to do it.”
Kimberly Marney from Branded by Style • Seventh year of participation • Marney is a previous event chair. She currently procures items from national and international designers, and she develops and manages the runway show. • “I feel like the American Cancer Society is a tremendous organization that provides valuable services,” says Marney. “This particular event is the best way to use my skills to help that organization, and it’s a whole lot of fun.”
Rebecca Lange, model and cancer survivor • Fourth year of participation
Story by Karen Ridder
Photography by Jason Dailey
• Lange, who survived thyroid cancer, models in the runway show, recruits volunteers and assists at the auction. • “I just think it’s an extremely unique event,” says Lange. “This one particularly gets a lot of response out of the community. I’m just baffled every year by how much they are able to raise. I like seeing all the items they are able to bring in to auction off and seeing the stories that come out of it and people who are helped by the funds raised.”
Stacie Schroeder, American Cancer Society and coordinator of Wig Closet • In the past three years, the event has raised nearly $16,000 for the Wig Closet and its mission of providing a modern, quality selection of wigs and hats for women of all ages as they battle cancer • “It’s a big concern for women going through treatment, how they are going to look and if they are going to lose their hair,” says Schroeder. “This is an easy thing we can provide to them to make their cancer journey just a little bit easier. If they do lose their hair, this is an opportunity to still feel beautiful while they are doing their treatment.”
ABOVE Stylist Kimberly Marney and model Rebecca Lange demonstrate some of the items to be included in the Couture for Cancer event. Photo location courtesy SOHO Interiors.
Spring ’ 12
Karen Ridder (who also wrote “Keep on Truckhenge’ing,” p. 48) has lived in Topeka with her family for the past eight years. She writes for a variety of publications, including the state’s official travel blog, www.travelks.com.
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artlab bottlecap day Make it a day or a life of recycled art Story by Anita Miller Fry
Photography courtesy of Michelle Stitzlein
One woman’s trash may be another’s treasure. To Michelle Stitzlein, those recycled or “found” items are art. Stitzlein is the guest artist at the Mulvane Art Museum this spring and will be in Topeka March 7-10 to lead a community art project: the creation of a large plastic bottle cap mural. Stitzlein invites the public to join her March 10 in the Mulvane Art Museum’s ArtLab in the basement of Garvey Fine Arts Center, SW 17th Street and Jewell Avenue. Ohio-based Stitzlein estimates the mural will
use 5,000-7,000 colorful plastic caps from water and soda bottles, orange juice and milk jugs, yogurt, sour cream and margarine tubs. Stitzlein’s own art exhibit, “Industrial Nature,” will be on display at the Mulvane through April 15. It features moth and lichen found-object sculptures that encompass all types of recycled materials, from piano keys, license plates, electrical wire, roofing metal and bicycle parts to broken china. For more information, call (785) 6701124 or go to www.washburn.edu/mulvane
Pre-event and post-event creations
Michelle Stitzlein says there are a lot of creative possibilities of working with plastic caps. She has written two books of ideas (available at the Mulvane Art Museum) for do-it-yourself art, including Lollipop Flowers (lawn ornaments) and Chillin’ Flower Magnets (refrigerator magnets).
Anita Miller Fry is no stranger to Topeka and Topekans. She has been writing about them for many years. Even so, she still finds there is much to discover about her hometown.
Spring ’ 12
S t ory by K are n Ri dder Ph o t ogr aph y by Jason Dai l e y
Creating art from trucks, beer bottles, boats and bumpers is part of Ron Lessmanâ€™s evolving talent of fashioning the extraordinary from the ordinary
Ron Lessman’s birth as a creative artist came in 2000,
Ron Lessman’s artwork includes the outdoor fence sculpture Bumper Crop, top, and a series of paintings on tent canvas. Face, bottom, was his first tent-canvas painting.
when county authorities directed him to “pick up” some old trucks from his land north of Topeka because of the potential they would enter the Kansas River in a flood. Complying with the directive in a literal sense, Ron lifted the ends of five trucks (and one bus) and anchored them in so much concrete (42,000 pounds on each truck) that they wouldn’t go anywhere. “Truckhenge was born of conflict but raised with humor and creativity,” says Ron. And it was a feat that flipped on some kind of switch for him. “They brought out the artist in me,” he explains. Ron, 59, started creating art from recycled materials with Truckhenge and hasn’t stopped since. The trucks are now just a part of the numerous pieces of nontraditional art situated on 63 acres of land just east of the Philip Billard Municipal Airport that has been in Ron’s family since 1879. Ron and his wife, Linda, moved to the land after they married 33 years ago. After facing repeated repairs to the mid-19th-century farmhouse and numerous years of flooding from the Kansas River, which horseshoes around their property, the Lessmans decided to build a home that would beat any flooding problems. The answer was a Quonset hut— the half-cylinder, metal-framed hangar-like structure used by the military in World War II. The Lessmans live in the upper portion of the structure and leave the floor level open as a garage and storage area. Ron, who has done a lot of demolition work through the years, used many unique recycled pieces to transform the simple storage structure. Beautiful red oak floors in the main living area are repurposed from old pallets used during a World War II rubber collection drive. An elevator that takes visitors from the entry to their upper-front room is made from an old forklift. A bench and cage constructed from recycled materials is used for seating. A hydraulic motor powers the elevator. A spiral staircase salvaged from an old home in Topeka wraps around an upside-down concrete mixer to provide rear entry into the home. Linda contrasts the open floor plan of their Quonset hut to their old farmhouse, where the kitchen was placed in the back, away from the other areas. “I was always in the kitchen, and all the party was always in the living room,” she says. “So, I wanted to be a part of the party.” This is no longer a problem for her in the Quonset, where the main living space now includes a huge kitchen and living room. In fact, the only other rooms are a bedroom and a guest room. The area is so open Linda hung hundreds of baskets from the ceiling in order to dampen the echo. Ron, who gets bored with “normal painting,” has done his portion of the interior decorating by covering the front room walls with complex designs.
In the spring, wildflowers bloom around the hut, calling attention to the trucks and other newer works of art they surround. Several boats upended into the earth are decorated with graffiti and lights. A tall tower is constructed of beer bottles, and a row of car bumpers along a fence is what Ron calls his Bumper Crop. Ron is happy to take visitors on a tour of his outdoor studio. It doesn’t cost anything, but he does gladly take donations. In 2011, the Lessmans hosted approximately 1,000 visitors from around the world, taking them past boxcars filled with fossils and ancient stones, as well as the trucks, boats, “beer bottle city” and a 30-acre aquifer water pond stocked with perch, channel cats, blue cats, crappie, bass, carp and blue gill.
“Truckhenge was born of conflict but raised with humor and creativity. They brought out the artist in me.” - Ron Lessman Ron will point out the tree topped with shoes he calls his Tree of Lost Soles. Then as you walk past a pile of rocks, he is likely to explain that his art is about where we have been. “There is something extraordinary about just being ordinary,” he says. “These ordinary rocks have been flushed through here, so why not just put it on display? You can’t have a Mona Lisa without having a few warts.” Ron says he likes to turn things upside-down with his art. “Michelangelo painted on the ceiling, so I paint on the floor,” he says. The “floor” he refers to is the entire first floor of the home. After passing a beer bottle wall that portrays a Cheshire cat and a dancing man on the front of the house, visitors walk over a painted four-part collage that Ron names Inspiration, Perspiration, Curiosity and Creativity. Hanging on the walls of the lower level are his canvases: recycled tents. The paintings on the tent fabric depict a variety of subjects, from his wife as The Sunshine of My Life to a picture of The Seat of My Pants, from which Ron says he gets all of his ideas. “We’re trying to have some fun here,” he adds. “That’s the whole idea, to try to put a smile on people’s faces.”
Lessman shows off his floor painting Yellow Brick Road, top, inspired by his grandchildren playing MASH with a folded paper fortune-teller. An old bus, bottom, forms part of the Truckhenge ensemble.
Award-Winning Self-Expression While Ron Lessman says his art is simply “self-expression,” he has started to receive some recognition from the arts community. In spring 2011, Lessman was the first recipient of the ARTSConnect Topeka ARTY award for the Non-Traditional Artist category. ARTSConnect Executive Director Kathy Smith explains the award was designed to recognize people who embrace unusual materials and apply them in a way that no one else has thought about. Lessman, Smith says, “embraces his environment.” The Grassroots Art Center in Lucas also recognizes Lessman as one of the unique “Environment Builder” artists in Kansas. Lessman, who ran a lawn service and operated a hog farm, says art was always something that came naturally for him. However, life took him away from creating for many years. He believes the work he does now is better than when he was younger because his life experience helps make better art. Lessman’s wife, Linda, agrees that her husband’s art has improved. But she keeps the creator’s ego in check. “The art has matured,” she says. “The artist has not.”
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Truckhenge, at the end of Kincaid Road, two miles east of Philip Billard Municipal Airport, is open to visitors all days of the week. No advance reservations are required, but to request a tour and ensure that the grounds will be open, call (785) 234-3486 in advance.
Larry Wright, above, retired from his railroad career to spend time building up his own model rail system at his home in Topeka.
Railroad Four decades of work (and not much sleep) took Larry Wright across the nation, face-to-face with presidents and dignitaries â€Ś and up close with one fascinating ice chest Story by Kim Gronniger | Photography by Bill Stephens
Kim Gronniger has contributed to Topeka Magazine since 2007. Her railroading past includes tourist excursions and a problem-plagued spring-break trip to St. Louis (sans movie star sightings and good china) that fortunately didnâ€™t derail her love for locomotion.
Working as a business-car porter for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in the 1950s and 1960s, Larry Wright set many lovely tables with poppy-patterned dishes and fresh flowers. As his train rattled from Chicago to the West Coast, he catered to the culinary whims and comfort considerations of railroad executives and dignitaries in a travel era when elegance matched expedience. Affable and professional, Wright was a popular porter whose car was chartered many years to serve former president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, on annual trips from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Palm Springs, Florida. Wright even cared for Eisenhower’s family on the beloved politician’s funeral train, recalling “crowds night and day paying their respects to the general” as the train passed by. Wright also had the opportunity to serve another president. During one of Ronald Reagan’s early political pilgrimages, Wright accompanied Reagan and his wife, Nancy, on a trip from California to Independence, Kansas, which also happened to be the hometown of Wright’s wife, Betty. Wright’s photo collection from his years of work is replete with famous politicians, first ladies and gorgeous sunsets snapped with “a cheap camera” during rare idle moments. However, one photo especially shows how pluck and luck converged to transform his singleminded focus on taking a photo of a Santa Fe ice chest into a rare peek at Hollywood royalty. “I saw the ice chest—that’s where the Pullman porters would get ice for the sleeping cars when we stopped—and I wanted a photo of it, so I hurried up and took that picture,” recalls Wright, pointing to a perfectly centered ice chest flanked by Natalie Wood on the left and Robert Wagner and Elizabeth Taylor on the right. “I had to get back to my business car to work. I was so focused on that ice chest, I didn’t even see the movie stars,” he chuckles. “I was showing the photo to a friend later, and he had to point out what I had captured.” Climbing Aboard Growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Wright often swam with his friends under a railway bridge, even climbing up the trestle and playing chicken to see who would be the last boy to jump in the water when the train approached.
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A Model Railroader Retired from his nearly 40-year career with the railroad, Larry Wright continues his connection to the railroad world by spending countless hours in his Topeka basement painstakingly putting together an impressive model railroad, including Santa Fe business, freight and passenger cars. “The most fun was putting everything together,” says Wright, “but the most gratifying thing about this hobby is sharing it with others and reminiscing.” Neighbors, friends and relatives, sometimes with kids and grandkids in tow, often come to Wright’s home to see the locomotives zip around the track as Wright pushes control buttons to make the magic happen. “I love seeing people’s reactions to the railroad,” he says. “And I like to see other people’s railroads and check out what the competition’s been up to. We all like to pick up pointers and see what we might want to add to our own displays.” Wright likens the competitive, collaborative nature of a serious model railroading to an incurable fever and meets monthly with members of a model railroad club. Wright muses that the majority of the club’s members became smitten with railroad nostalgia not because they worked on the rails, but because they received a toy train set as youngsters. “Some of them envy those of us who worked on the railroad, but they’ve got the fever all the same,” confirms Wright, noting that club meetings at Ward-Meade Park often entail programs about train adventures and tips for the avid collector. Though pleased with his expansive collection, Wright says, “I’ve got plenty, but I still just go crazy for it. I keep my options open because I never know when I’m going to find the next piece.”
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“We always thought the engineers were having such a big time waving their arms,” recalls Wright, shaking his head. “They must have been scared to death by our stupidity.” After high school graduation in 1952, Wright moved to Topeka to attend a vocational technical school on a scholarship and learn tailoring. He also waited tables at the Jayhawk Hotel, where a chef who worked for the railroad encouraged him to apply for a porter position. As a porter, Wright was responsible for cleaning rooms and serving meals for six to eight people at a time. He became so familiar with the routes and routines that he could anticipate the curves based on the time of day and the driving styles of the engineers. Trained to deliver the best of everything, Wright says he also had to anticipate or at least fulfill the whims of his VIP passengers. “If a passenger needed something, then we would call the agent to get lamb chops in Winslow or wherever we might be,” Wright says. One perk of his position entailed accompanying an executive to the Rose Bowl several years in a row. But it was work, not pleasure, for Wright who “got sick of roses because I had to leave Christmas night, which would have been the best time to spend with my family.” Promotion and Retirement Those weeks of travel away from his wife and three children prompted Wright to pursue opportunities as a claims adjuster and a human resources manager so he could be home more often. As a claims adjuster, he oversaw 500 miles of territory and investigated shop inju-
ries and crossing accidents. His most gratifying company role, however, was working as a human resources manager, “a whole new world” of setting up interviews with officers and going to college campuses to interview candidates. After nearly 40 years with the railroad, Wright now spends his retirement organizing an impressive array of railroad trinkets, crossing signs, artwork, company magazines, photographs, uniforms, train cars, china and an enviable model railroad display replicating small-town storefronts and daily life glimpses travelers would have seen from their windows. Among his favorite possessions are several President Barack Obama train cars his daughter gave him and a lighter that still plays “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” jingle. Wright began collecting some of these items several years before retirement. He cultivated a reputation as a receptive repository for maps of former routes from the 1940s, proposed merger routes, belt buckles, ticket key punchers, date nails for replacing railroad ties, even a model of a commuter train equipped with two B-52 engines that never advanced beyond prototype because of the outcry from sleepy suburbanites in Chicago. One of the most important framed pieces in his collection is an enlarged copy of his original job application with the railroad, the catalyst for his fulfilling career. “Looking back on where I’ve been, I see a lot of work and not a lot of sleep,” says Wright, laughing, “but I’ve had an interesting life.”
Spring EvEntS March 19-23
Spring Break Activities At area community centers
Tulip Time Festival at Lake Shawnee, Old Prairie Town, Gage Park
April 13 (Opening Day)
Gage Park Mini-Train and Carousel in the Park
Pools Open for the Season
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Hot Springs and the High Life
Story and photography by Susan Kraus
Central Arkansas offers delights of pristine nature, indulgent care and extraordinary fare
t was 1541. Hernando de Soto was searching for gold when his group of Spanish explorers was led by native guides to deep, clear pools of hot water secreted in the mountains. The land around the thermal springs was considered sacred, shared by all the tribes in the area. The explorers remained for almost three weeks, restoring themselves with daily soaks. So, when Hot Springs, Arkansas, markets itself as “America’s First Resort,” the city has some history to back up the boast. The oldest federal land reserve in the National Park System, Hot Springs became known during Prohibition for drink, gambling and, of course, “taking the baths.” Today Hot Springs echoes years past, with its legendary Bathhouse Row, racetrack and casino, streets lined with shops and restaurants, a brick-paved, landscaped promenade, and lakes offering every water sport. No need to pay for bottled water in Hot Springs; there are free fountains of pure mineral water on street corners, and locals pull up with a dozen gallon jugs to fill up for their weekly stash. My husband and I had come through Hot Springs a few years back. Twenty-seven years, actually. We’d camped for several days on the edge of Lake Ouachita outside Hot Springs and still retained strong memories: water so clear we could see our toes; trees outlined against the setting sun; serenity. I wanted to go back to the lake, to find the campsite. I braced myself that it all could have changed, that what was stored in my memory might not exist anymore. But it was, remarkably, as we remembered. We sat on the same rocks, swam in the lake and watched our toes wiggle in the incredibly clear water. We spent three afternoons of our Hot Springs week lounging on a quilt and pillows on the rocky shore of the lake, alternately swim-
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Lake Hamilton, top, and Lake Ouachita, above, are two attractions near Hot Springs.
Susan Kraus is a therapist and awardwinning travel writer who believes that travel can be the best therapy. She
ming and dozing and reading and swimming and dozing. It was early October, the last week of the season still warm enough to swim. The air was sweet, and the atmosphere soft and enveloping, a cashmere wrap of quiet. Abundant Attractions The rest of the time we played in Hot Springs. First stop was McClard’s Bar-B-Q, a 1928 hole-in-the-wall that still hasn’t gotten around to accepting credit cards. Every booth was packed, and the ribs dripped with a secret-recipe sauce, made famous by Bill Clinton’s devotion. For the most part, we dined in the historic downtown. Breakfasts were at The Pancake Shop (also no credit cards), open since 1940 when coffee was a nickel. Adjacent, same owners, is The Savory Pantry, an upscale shop of domestic and imported goodies (which happily took my credit card). We dined on the Cuban and Latino cuisine of Rolando’s, on a shaded and twinkle-lit back patio that feels like it is carved from the mountain, and on Italian at Belle Arti Ristorante, with over-the-top, gilt-and-wood décor, a step back in time. Café 1217 is a deli-café that also packs fabulous picnics.
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A popular choice of charity with an international bent, Heifer International provides animals (cows, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, water buffalo, etc.), along with guidance in farming, to indigent families. The charity, based in Little Rock, requires each recipient to then share the offspring with others in their villages. The organization’s headquarters sponsors Heifer Village, an interactive museum on diverse cultures and the challenges toward self-sustainment faced by communities around the world. Heifer Ranch, in nearby Perryville, provides tours and multi-night programs for students (often church and school groups), adults and families to directly experience the challenges of hunger and poverty. www.heifer.org
An unexpected gem is the Museum of Contemporary Art in the renovated Ozark Bathhouse on historic Bathhouse Row. The featured artists were edgy, and their work kept us longer than planned. Garvan Woodland Gardens, owned by the University of Arkansas, is a delightful 210-acre botanical garden, known also for the Anthony Chapel, a glass chapel with a ceiling almost 60 feet high. Another must-see is the Fordyce Bathhouse, one of the original bathhouses now operated by the National Park Service as a historic site and museum.
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Getting Chummy With
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Kids love the Mid American Science Museum (hands-on, covering life, energy, matter, perception and fun), National Park Duck Tours (amphibian-wheeled vehicles), Pirates Cove mini-golf (an original) and the Arkansas Alligator Farm & Petting Zoo (creepily unforgettable). Visits can be timed to annual events such as the spring horseracing season from January to April (with the Racing Festival of the South in the last weekend of April) or the Documentary Film Festival each October. Bathing Heritage A visit to Hot Springs is probably not complete, however, unless you experience the baths along with the tours. We spent a morning at the Quapaw Bathhouse, recently opened, the only downtown bathhouse with modern European-style thermal pools and adjacent chaise-lounges for naps. It also features private bathing and specializes in couple massages. For the authentic-and-historic, we hit the Buckstaff, the oldest continually operating bathhouse, where a traditional bathing experience involves getting naked in a whirlpool mineral bath in an old bathtub (each tub sectioned off with white sheets) as a bath attendant does a loofah job on your body, followed by a sitz bath, vapor cabinet (right out of the 1920s), needle shower, hot pack wrap and 20-minute full-body massage. It is all very therapeutic … and very effective.
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above The Buckstaff Bathhouse is one of several bathhouses in Hot Springs. right Chelsea, Hillary and Bill Clinton keep close ties with central Arkansas.
Every section of the world has its hometown heroes and local royalty. In central Arkansas, particularly around Little Rock, this means Bill and Hillary Clinton. The former president and current secretary of state maintain close ties to the region, and we happened to meet them as the couple, along with their daughter, Chelsea, returned to their hometown to mark the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s announcement that he was running for president. Banners announcing the anniversary hung from light posts across downtown Little Rock, where a weekend of workshops with dignitaries, historians and “just plain folks” was scheduled. A pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River and a wetlands park were to be dedicated. The entire town seemed to buzz with excitement; even the mallard ducks that parade every day through the downtown Peabody Hotel to their lobby fountain had a little extra zip in their waddle. My husband and I had no clue, until we saw the banners, of course, and ads and brochures. Having done no homework, we arrived on a Thursday to a city booked to the rafters starting Friday at noon. But the next day we stumbled upon the dedication, skirted past darksuited Secret Service, and found ourselves shaking hands with Bill, Hillary and Chelsea. When the Clintons are not in town, their presence is still large with the city’s main attraction—The Clinton Presidential Library. It features two levels of exhibits with photos, video and interactive monitors. I liked the 100-foot-long timeline of the presidency and exhibits on life in the White House. Without any of the Clinton magic, Little Rock is a low-key but still charming city. Its compact downtown contains high-end hotels, diverse restaurants, music venues, and a trolley that runs through town and across the river. The Historic Arkansas Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center with galleries and theaters, and a kid-friendly Museum of Discovery are all within walking distance. Just blocks away, after a stroll through the River Market District, is a nature center, expansive riverfront park and Heifer Village (see pg. 61). You have to drive to the zoo, but it’s a must-see (particularly the penguins) for families. We splurged on a night at the posh Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock. Visualize a beautiful, glass-domed lobby, spacious rooms with elegant, dark-wood décor, a classy bar crammed with local politicos and professionals. We dined at Ashley’s, the hotel restaurant, indulging in a six-course tasting menu, each with a wine pairing, presented with a theatrical flair that only the most seriously professional waiters can pull off. For those who do not associate Arkansas with gourmet cuisine, dinner at Ashley’s will change their minds.