Joe College, er... Joe Tech School

This column was published Sunday, April 21, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


I am a college dropout. I am also a technical school graduate. Not surprisingly, the two are intertwined.

People spend their time and energy on things that have value in their lives, and I always managed to find something I valued more than going to class.

My career aspiration as a teenager was to be a Major League Baseball play-by-play announcer. At the time, there were 24 of those jobs on the planet, so I figured I would start low and work my way up. What did Keynesian macroeconomics have to do with the infield fly rule? How was sitting in a lecture hall listening to a windbag professor drone on about the nationalist spirit of post-revolutionary France going to help me identify the hanging slider?

A perfect storm of emotions got me out of college and into tech school. Impatient, in love and cocksure. I was following a girl from Wichita to the Twin Cities. Five years before Tom Cruise got down to risky business, I had the strong sense that Brown Institute in Minneapolis could use a guy like me.

BI close.jpg

Tech school not only taught me the basics of an industry, it’s where I began to refine a set of soft skills that I have carried with me since. Broadcasting is nothing if not precise, and the seed for the art and science of time management was planted.

In tech school, my God-given gifts were revealed, much quicker than they ever would have been in college. The ability to communicate, to use the written and spoken word in such a fashion that it impacts those on the receiving end, whether I was adlibbing a weather forecast on the radio or helping repurpose a statewide advocacy organization to be relevant in the face of massive demographic and cultural change.

My tech school education landed me a foot-in-the-door job running master control for midnight-to-dawn movies at a TV station in Wichita, which led, six months later, to an announcer’s job at a connected radio station, which led to a radio/TV news job in Hays, which led to more and better broadcast journalism gigs, which led to politics, speechwriting, which led to advocacy and systems work.

It took a couple of years before realizing the notion of landing one of only two dozen jobs calling balls and strikes on the radio for a big league ballclub wasn’t realistic. Plus, by then, I wanted to stay in Kansas and Denny Matthews wasn’t going anywhere.

For too long, it seems our society has defined success based solely on going to college. Today we face mounting workforce needs. Parents, mentors and school counselors can share the good word that many well-paying, in-demand careers do not require a bachelor’s degree. The pathway to happiness and success need not always run through a university.

In the fourth quarter of last year, 56,000 jobs went unfilled in Kansas. Imagine the economic impact of filling those if people had the needed skills. Of course, we badly need doctors, engineers and accountants. What we don’t need are those who spend ten years finding themselves, living on student loans, only to finally graduate with a degree in Precambrian Anthropology and $100,000 in debt.

Instead, we need them to learn a trade, fill jobs in our economy, earn some money, and then maybe later they can make an informed choice to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program when they know what they want out of the experience. 

Arguing this line in a community whose main economic driver is the propagation of college degrees may border on blasphemy, but the paths available for achieving successful careers should not be limiting. On-the-job training, apprenticeships, technical schools – and universities should be in the mix. Would I recommend my path to young people today, seeking a post-high school direction? Without a doubt, especially if, like me at the time, they’re facing a perfect storm, or even variable cloudiness.

Am I the white-collar tech school graduate outlier? Possibly, but maybe it takes a few outlier examples to help illustrate this fact. I am a living, breathing, column-writing, taxpaying example of how to construct a rewarding career, completely unencumbered by a college degree.

Young people going straight to work or attending a tech school out of high school are not a failure. Just the opposite. Kansas needs young people pursuing all paths if we are to meet our future needs. 

There’s no shame in being a college dropout. In fact, if you haven’t already picked up on this notion, I’m rather proud of it.

Transcendent Rex

It’s no wonder the song sticks with me. The timing and the title hit me right where I Iive. Released in June 1975, the same month I left home, a week after graduating high school, six months before my 18th birthday. Over the years, ‘That’s the Way of the World’ by Earth Wind & Fire sort of defaulted to a personal theme song. Like my father before me, I took pride in making my own way.

Plant your flower and you grow a pearl.

In my haste to escape a domineering father, a pair of high school chums and I moved across town into a swinging bachelor pad and proceeded with wanton abandon, to fulfill what I perceived society expected of me at that age.

During the last five years, I’ve invested a lot of time, burned a lot of energy, and climbed high on the Matson family tree. Since some of the branches showed signs of disease, I was determined to examine the roots. Once I got there, I looked only backward.

Through sheer will and independence, my father, Champ, closed the door on a shitty childhood and re-booted his life. The day after he graduated high school, Champ was on a train bound for San Diego and Navy basic training.

After some trial and error, heavy on the error, I managed to surpass Champ’s understanding of why his parents were the way they were. In his case, and mine, the sins of the father were not to be visited upon the son, because we cut our fathers loose and built some brick walls. At the end of Champ’s life, he and I were able to remove a few bricks.

My son, Scott, has transcended my shortcomings and is more empathetic, a much better listener and a quicker study. An anecdote from when he was about four: I was light on cash. Scott looked at me like I’m six kinds of idiot, “Well, let’s just go to the bank and get some more.” Through experience, my son has been quick to size up system norms and boundaries, and then apply that knowledge to achieve his desired ends.

The birth of Rex Michael Matson offers an opportunity to turn around in the tree and look forward.

Rex’s first chapter begins with a harrowing birthday, transcending traditional, template-driven OB/GYN expectations of a dozen hours of labor. Eager to escape the confines of the amniotic sac and begin crafting his own narrative, Rex’s head began to pop out before Mom even made it to the delivery room.

IMG_20190413_093716.jpg

Rex is a happy, healthy baby, born nearly two decades into the 21st century. All things being equal, he’ll graduate high school in 2037 and will live to see the 22nd century. I was privileged to be in Scott and Amanda’s living room this weekend, when, at nine weeks, Rex offered his first real smile to Mom and Dad.

A child is born with a heart of gold.

I drove home from Denver today and blue-toothed EW&F and other music of my coming of age. By the time I reached the border, it hit me that if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.

So, I don’t. Anymore. Claim to be a wise man. I do have experience, and what I hope is a pretty good handle on the way of the world, which nearly always traces upstream to human motivation. Once I figured that out, the way of the world learning curve plateaued a bit.

When he graduates from high school, Rex may join the Navy, or he may move across town to an apartment with some chums. But if he does either of those things, it won’t be because he wants to get away from his father.

If my grandson is anything like those who came before him, who share his last name – and he is – Rex will go beyond and above the limits each preceding generation has created. We created them, so we can change them.

It seems like the space around our heads and hearts gets bigger with each passing generation. Rex’s parents are two of the most loving human beings I know.

I have faith and confidence in young Rex. Gather courage, question everything, lead with kindness.

Take you high and higher, to the world you belong.

Crowdsourcing

This column was published Sunday, April 7, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Social media post at 5 a.m.: “Deadline for my next newspaper column is 36 hours away, and I’ve not a clue about what to write. Crowdsourcing ideas.”

Former state lawmaker/Kansas Regent: “How you learned from a mistake, governing should be from the middle, an act of kindness you saw by someone who didn’t have to.”

CEO of state government idea-sharing outfit: “When in doubt, always write about a dog.” Three likes.

Magazine publisher: “36 hours? Plenty of time. Aren’t you a journalist? Ha!!” Three likes.

Junction City school board member: “Oh, the winter we’ve had.”

Lobbyist: “It’s admin appreciation month. How about showing appreciation for employees outside of one month?”

Retired Kansas newspaper publisher: “This is the life I’ve experienced for the past half century. It’s why old writers go nuts.” Two likes.

Former state lawmaker/Kansas Regent (again): “Oh, or baseball.” Two likes.

Newspaper publisher: “Truth is, many of have this problem in our lives. We have to make it up as we go.” One like. From the aforementioned magazine publisher.

Kansas tech school president: “Hope is a four-letter word. Use it.”

6th grade girlfriend: “Writers block.”

Local non-profit champion: “Your heroes growing up and your heroes now.” One like.

Retired trade group honcho: “How about we’re all colluding in some ways?”

Insurance company foundation exec: “I agree on the baseball comment!! (with two smiley faces).

Current professional colleague: “Be in the moment. Show true joy. Express yourself. Insanely quick rebound time from something negative.”

Children’s advocacy exec: “This kid who won free food for a year and gave it away to the Manhattan homeless shelter.” Two likes.

Another newspaper publisher (son of the retired one above): “Throw in an eclectic mix of trivia questions. Always makes for good reading.”

Chautauqua County cattle rancher/fellow columnist: “As I approach my 500th weekly column, I feel your pain.” One wow.

High school chum: “How the Shockers (were) the only Kansas college team still playing in April.”

Utah editorial writer (former Kansan): “You can write a column about how hard it is to write a column. But you can only do that once.” Two likes (one of them mine).

Guy from my Leadership Kansas cohort: “How your peace of mind is inversely proportional to your expectations.”

Then there was a wordy exchange between a self-described “retired liberal feminist social worker who loves KU” and a longtime Kansas GOP operative about health care politics, eloquently confirming why I studiously eschew such debates on social media.

Retired corporate p.r. exec: “Contrary to popular opinion, Mick Jagger is not immortal. This cannot be good for the rest of us.” Two likes and a haha.

Leadership Kansas dude again: “But obviously Keith Richards is.” Four likes.

Topeka art gallery owner: “Baseball. Stories of the good guys who played. Things they did off the field. Great friendships that started on the field.”

Hutchinson merchant: “The power of consulting your network.” Two likes.

New Mexico public radio exec: “What’s the matter with Kansas? Wait, sorry, that’s been done. How about, how to push through obstacles?”

shutterstock_144639305.jpg

Riley County Commissioner: “How about the obvious power of procrastination, both the pros and cons?” One like.

Media company marketing director: “How about Bill for President 2020. #emaw”

Former TV news rival: “Or, how about the 25th anniversary of the Kansas Legislature legalizing the death penalty?”

Fellow author/blogger: “My last-minute columns tended to be nostalgia with some sort of tie-in to the present. ‘Today is my dad’s birthday...’ and I went from there.”

Childhood next-door neighbor in Pleasant Valley, the Wichita neighborhood where I grew up: “The pleasant valleys of your life!”

Banker: “Thirty-six hours out and you’re already thinking about it? Have me beat.” One haha.

Non-profit entrepreneurial system pro: “Following, cuz ditto.” Smiley face and smiley face with tears of joy.

Small-town Kansas mayor: “Life of a small-town mayor!”

One-time Topeka political operative: “Why otters are so darned cute.” Smiley face with tears of joy.

Development manager: “Springtime in Kansas, it’s been a long, long wait!”

U.S. Army medic: “Yeah, otters. I know you can wax poetic about otters. That’s my vote.”

Retired radio general manager: “Why I always gain weight during March Madness.”

Creative services company owner: “Just list these answers. You’ve got your column!” Me: “Srsly.”

The Grubbiness of Expediency

This column was published Sunday, March 24, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


There’s danger in being a former journalist. The danger is you know more than the average news consumer about the judgment calls and other practical realities that, while a crucial part of the news reporting process, are not easily discernable in the final product.

Because of my days and nights in the trenches gathering, writing and reporting news, I can’t consume it without the additional layer of knowledge and experience that came with having actually produced it.

Every morning, I consume four or five online newspapers. Every morning I encounter more and more of this:

“The State Department declined to comment.”

“A spokesman for Bolton did not reply to a request for comment.”

“The RNC declined to comment.”

When I encounter these non-responses, I lapse into reporter mode and rhetorically ask the next logical follow-up question, “Why?”

shutterstock_315566375.jpg

Problem is, when you’re on the record with a journalist, everything you say is fair game. When all you say is you don’t want to talk, that’s what will get published and news consumers are left to draw their own conclusions about motivation.

In every newsroom, the very pragmatic aspect of the decision-making process is an innate understanding that every day, there’s a hole to fill. My daily newspaper will not deliver 16 blank pages of newsprint to my driveway. I’m not going to flip on the 6 o’clock TV news and have the anchorperson stare back at me for 30 minutes.

I’m reminded of a day when I toiled in the journalistic vineyards and was chasing down two stories, either of them, had they borne fruit, newsworthy. I’d gotten word from a source that the Attorney General of Kansas was to be indicted on perjury related to a sexual harassment case against him. Meanwhile, at the exact same time in the Kansas House, a cabal of restless conservative Republicans were plotting a leadership coup against the sitting House Speaker, a fellow Republican who did not share cabal ideology.

All day, I’m working sources, on the phone, in person, chasing two separate stories. The courts and legislative coup plotters are confirming nothing, much less commenting. Restless cabals, regardless of their ideology, traditionally don’t telegraph their coup-plotting moves. Sort of goes against the whole reason for plotting.

The clock’s ticking closer to 6 p.m., the assignment desk is breathing down my neck to fill the hole. Part of my duties was to work up a ‘bump tease,’ words the anchorperson says out loud, urging viewers to hang on through the commercial break. Only half-kidding, I turned in this:

“The Attorney General was not indicted. The Speaker of the House was not ousted. We’ll be back with more stuff that didn’t happen… right after this.”

My argument was an Attorney General not indicted and a House Speaker un-toppled are not news. The countervailing argument descends from the loftiness of editorial judgment of what is and is not news, into the grubbiness of expediency. Gotta fill the hole. Every day.

In a live shot from the Statehouse, I went on TV and filled my 90-second hole by regurgitating a day spent chasing two stories, neither of which panned out. Was it news? Did viewers gain new knowledge, allowing them to develop informed opinions? Did we fill the hole? No, I hope so and without a doubt.

Later In my career I switched sides and became a spokesperson. When approached by the media, I made it a point to say something, anything, even when I didn’t want to. Motivated by a fear of reading, “the spokesman had nothing to say,” I spoke, especially when it was bad news. Effective spokespeople can always deflect, obfuscate or rage against the machine, in the service of the system that signs the paycheck.

I do not believe the increasing spate of not talking when approached by journalists is pushback against a fundamental American Constitutional right, but I will admit to worrying that those not commenting may be using the ill-informed and incredibly dangerous sidetrack of “fake news” as cover for not talking.

My experience leads me to believe that there’s rarely a time when ‘no comment’ leaves the news consumer with a positive feeling. I’ve also learned that few of the bits of news I consume each morning are Pulitzer-worthy or even the way it’s taught in J-school. The hole filling, remember?

We will form opinions and draw conclusions. It’s human nature. It’s why we consume news.

A couple of careers ago, Matson covered politics and government for a Topeka TV station. Later he served as spokesperson for a governor of Kansas. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury.

100 Tacos

This column was published Sunday, March 10, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


My wife and I failed to eat dinner before the K-State men’s basketball win over Baylor a week ago, so postgame, we slid into Taco Bell. I stayed in the car, she went in. Twenty minutes and a new definition of “fast” food later, she emerged.

It took a while because the place was jammed with a few dozen green-T-shirted college kids, feeling no pain, apart from the pangs of hunger that tend to occur, as a matter of course, after a day of drinking. I’d been reminded it was Fake Patty’s Day earlier, when police barriers in front of the dry cleaners in Aggieville delayed a reunion with my lightly-starched Oxford button-downs.

After a dozen years, Fake Patty’s Day has long since become a thing. A reason for college-aged people to gather together in one centralized geographic area, break bread or cheesy gordita crunch and enjoy a cereal malt beverage or ten. When I was 19, I think we called it, “Thursday.”

It’s easy to chalk up partying to excess as a rite of passage for the college-aged. Most people learn from such experiences and make purposeful life decisions and choices reflective of that growth. Then there are a handful of us who struggle. A handful of us, who, because of genetics or just bad luck, become addicted and migrate, as a matter of course, into a downward spiral, often punctuated by heartbreaking loss. My own recovery experience began more than 25 years ago.

This is not a column about recovery, though to assume there are no problem drinkers among the universe of Fake Patty’s revelers, is naïve. The same equation doubtless applies to any collection of college-age young men and women, anywhere in this country. The experts say seven percent of the American population may be problem drinkers.

Because the excess is magnified during Fake Patty’s Day, the opportunity arises for some young people to engage in courageous introspection. If they surface at all, those thoughts tend to come the next morning and are often in direct proportion to the level of excess. If they’re anything like I was at that age, there may already be a nagging inkling that maybe they tally up among the seven percent.

With the benefit of hindsight, when I reflect on 20-year old me, I rationalized my excesses by telling myself I was normal, tacking to the middle of the mainstream. By developing a personal narrative that I was simply living up to societal expectations of young Americans, I drove myself deeper into denial.

The dichotomy of Fake Patty’s Day is it offers the opportunity for everything we want our children to experience when they go away to college: Camaraderie, learning the ways of the world, developing lifelong friendships, navigating complex systems. Trial and error. Having some fun.

Deep into my youthful college-age experiences, I didn’t stay up nights thinking, “Gee whiz, maybe I should modulate my intake because it may affect my behavior and one day, I may grow up to be a member in good standing of the Greater Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce Business Advocacy Committee and my actions today may reflect poorly on my decisions then.”

shutterstock_10430404.jpg

After the early moralizing, hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, I get the sense our community has evolved over the dozen years of Fake Paddy’s Day. Green T-shirts fly off the shelves and we bring in extra cops from other communities. Taco Bell stocks up on the sour cream and Aggieville is contained with barricades.

Social media has given law enforcement a chance to manage expectations. Infusing humor, btw, is a stroke of p.r. genius. RCPD: “There is no best way to finesse your way out of a ‘urinating in public’ citation. Just utilize one of the many port-a-Johns throughout Aggieville.”

During our postgame Taco Bell experience, my wife estimated she saw a hundred tacos being prepared while waiting in line. In 20 minutes in one fast food restaurant. That’s a lot of tacos. And a lot of sales tax.

Let’s embrace Fake Patty’s Day. Let’s own it. Let’s monetize it for the good of the community and let’s continue to allow young people to learn by making choices and decisions. We’ll live with the few who lose their chalupas supreme on our front lawns. The tradeoff is the greater good. Young people finding their way. The creation of wealth, in the Keynesian sense. A college town living up to its bona fides.

Fake Patty’s Day appears to be here to stay. Our community’s regulatory systems have adapted. If this day, or any day of excess leads any individual, college-age or otherwise, to new personal insight, it seems like that’s always a good thing.

As a matter of course.

Matson is the author of Spifflicated, a creative non-fiction memoir chronicling generations of his family’s struggles with addiction. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

Destiny's Child

This column was published Sunday, February 24, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Her ascension to the governor’s office coincided with my start as a television news reporter covering Kansas politics and government. I had covered her successful 1990 campaign for a statewide radio network and was switching over to TV.

Covering Joan Finney’s campaign, I got to know her as a person. At one point she shared, “It's my destiny to become governor of Kansas.”

She really believed that.

Joan Finney came of age as a staff hanger-on to longtime Kansas GOP stalwart Frank Carlson, during a time when the expectations of women in those roles didn’t get much beyond running the mimeograph machine or making the coffee.

She ran for the U.S. House in ‘72 as a Republican and lost. When her former GOP mentors tried to block her from running again, she quit the party, turned Democrat, carried a chip on her shoulder and never looked back.

Getting mic’d up for an interview at Cedar Crest with the meanie reporter.

Getting mic’d up for an interview at Cedar Crest with the meanie reporter.

Finney was an old school pol, who thought if she just operated like Frank Carlson did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she would succeed.

She struggled as governor. She had difficulty connecting with legislators of both parties, who scoffed at her claims of destiny. The result was finger-pointing, name calling and not getting much public policy enacted.

Once, after a live shot in the Rotunda, during which I wouId report on the debacle du jour, she cornered me on her way out of the Statehouse.

“Oh, Mike, why do you have to be so mean?”

Mustering up my best Cosell-esque call ‘em like I see ‘em, I tried to engage her. “Governor, it’s not mean, it’s journalism. It’s my job.”

On occasion, Finney would invite reporters to her houseboat on Lake Perry. After knocking back a few cocktails she’d expound on her vision to fulfill her destiny. Joan Finney was a devout Catholic who enjoyed her libations, her gambling and believed in predestination.

For all her macro-communications challenges, Joan Finney had the most effective one-on-one connection with voters I have ever seen in a politician.

We would be in Baxter Springs or Osborne or Randolph or Spearville. Invariably, she would connect with those she liked to call “her people.”

“Oh, Myrtle, bless your heart. How are Frank and the children?”

The first couple of times, you would chalk it up to coincidence. But it happened all the time. Without fail. Everywhere we went. She had campaigned successfully statewide for state treasurer four times before running for governor. She got to know a lot of people. It also made her the poster child for political name ID. Clearly, Kansas voters recognized the name on the ballot.

She had a special place in her heart for the downtrodden. She felt Native Americans had gotten a raw deal and became the best friend of the four tribes with reservation land within the borders of Kansas. Her staff also lent a hand to the tribes as they maneuvered the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which paved the way for tribal casinos.

One year, she moved the Kickapoo pow-wow off the reservation to the south steps of the Statehouse, dressed in full tribal regalia and joined in the dancing.

16733.31969.jpg

After her inaugural address, I recall she made it a point to purposefully walk down the southwest Statehouse sidewalk to the statue of the Pioneer Woman, bow her head, whisper a prayer and then offer a salute. Three decades later, I remember those symbolic gestures, each meant to convey a message. What was I saying about macro-communications challenges?

It takes a little ego to believe you can be elected governor. At what point does ego transform into destiny? Is one person’s destiny, the next person’s ambition? Seems to me that’s an equilibrium each individual has to find between themselves and their Creator.

Joan Finney found hers. So, I guess in that sense, she fulfilled her destiny.

Time Management

This column was published Sunday, February 10, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.


“Oh, time! The beautifier of the dead, adorer of the ruin, comforter and only healer when the heart hath bled. Time, the avenger.”

--Lord Byron

I wrote this column more than a week ago.

The words you’re reading now were strung together on a drizzly, foggy Groundhog Day morning in the relative quiet and solitude of the Manhattan Public Library, comfortably ensconced between the reference section and the administrative offices. I’m at that 4-top table on the second floor. There’s a massive floor-to-roof window facing south, affording a generous view of the parking lot and the comings and goings of Saturday morning library patrons.

I could really go for a cup of coffee but have learned through time and experience that the writing of newspaper columns and coffee shop din don’t mix, so I’ll trade the caffeine jones for the creativity that tends to flow in relative quiet, also learned through time and experience.

Outa the library by noon. 12:30 at the latest.

Outa the library by noon. 12:30 at the latest.

Under normal circumstances, I’d brew a pot of Strong Enough To Walk and write from the comfort of the overstuffed easy chair in the living room, but we have a guy doing some interior wall repair/painting and he likes to manage his time knocking out a few hours on Saturday mornings.

When she was a pup, our youngest dog chewed a few chunks of drywall and we finally grew weary of living in a house with a few chunks of chewed drywall. The work is part of a long-term plan, which ends with a move. That time arc starts with a dream and ends with living in the country. Somewhere along that arc, the wife-husband conversation will get real and we want to have the house ready to sell.

My wife’s been out of town on business most of the week and assuming no delays, wheels down at MHK is 1:43 p.m. It’s a little after 10 a.m. right now. Before airport spousal retrieval, in addition to writing this column, I have a couple of errands to run, and I visualize the clock.

The grocery list in my pocket reads, “coffee, coffee filters, Kleenexes and trash bags,” so before the airport, I’ll need to allot some time for speed-dating in the paper products aisle. Twenty minutes should do it.

My car looks as though muddy dogs have romped throughout, owing to the fact that muddy dogs have romped throughout. Start to finish, that’s a 30-minute cleanup. Working the clock backward, I’ll want to be at the airport at 1:30, give myself roughly an hour for the errands, which means I need to be done here at the library somewhere between noon and 12:30.

The deadline for this column is 5 p.m. Wednesday, but I have a day job, this column is a side gig and when I examine the calendar for the coming week, blocks of time available for creative column writing are non-existent.

Tomorrow, we’re in Miami County for a family baptism, then it’s home for the Chiefsless Super Bowl, so Sunday’s out.

By the time you’re reading this column, we’ll be weekending in Chicago, something we simply would not do, absent twice-daily direct flights from Manhattan. Without that convenience, the cost/benefit analysis of weekending in Chicago will always come down heavily on cost, light on benefit.

All things being equal, we land at 3:04 p.m., this afternoon. Then it’s back home (in 15 minutes) to manage another 168 hours. This week will feature the installation of new carpeting and all the time-driven logistics tacked on.

Part of the home improvement schtick is minimizing, so using Facebook Marketplace, I’ve attempted to part with some stuff. Thought I had a TV sold, until the buyer agreed to three separate times for pickup, only to miss all three. I don’t have time for these kinds of shenanigans, so I cut her loose and re-posted the TV.

Only then, did I contemplate the socio-economic status of those who buy their TVs and furniture on Facebook Marketplace. Next came thoughts about the lives led by haves and have-nots in our community and the fact that the haves have time management frames of reference and proficiencies that the have-nots simply have not.

What I perceived as poor time management skills, may not have existed at all. Then I felt crappy. Especially, since a mantra to which I try to adhere is, ‘do the next right thing, do the next thing right.’ I failed on the TV transaction.

Byron and his latter-day counterpart, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, were wrong. “I thought that time was on my side, but now it’s time the avenger.” I don’t need to take vengeance or exact satisfaction from the clock. I do need to recognize not everyone sees it like I do.

The Real Education

This column was published Sunday, January, 27, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.


We were not exactly friends in high school. In fact, a generous description would be arms-length rivals. Grant Overstake was chorus and madrigals, I was orchestra and pep band. He was varsity football and spring musical lead, I was let’s cut Algebra 2 class and go pound some 16-ounce Budweisers. Grant was newspaper, I was yearbook. As fledgling teenage journalists, we trudged two similar, but very distinct paths at Wichita Heights.

While our yearbook faculty advisor encouraged a healthy spirit of competition with the newspaper staff, I’ll cop to not getting that deep or much past high school one-upsmanship. This manifested itself in short-sighted decisions. When the time came to select photos of the newspaper staff for inclusion in the yearbook, our goal was to find the most unflattering poses.

Sorry, Grant.

Out in the real world, we both pursued journalism, Grant as an ink-stained wretch, me wrestling the then-industry standard 1-inch videotape cassette decks, lights and cameras of TV news.

Not really surprising, I guess, that we each evolved into authors. His The Real Education of TJ Crowley is a young adult novel, drawn from Overstake’s own upbringing and surroundings in the heart of the civil rights struggle in 1968 Wichita.

What happens when what are perceived to be clearly defined and understood social boundaries are blown through by someone who doesn’t look like us?

My book, Spifflicated (a 1930’s slang term with dual meanings, the first translates to “plastered,” the second, to stifle, suffocate, ruin), is a creative non-fiction family memoir based on three years of purposeful conversations with my father at the end of his life about his troubled childhood with raging alcoholic parents. Spifflicated spans a quarter century (1931-1956) in Kansas and points westward.

Each book, at its core, is about dysfunction. TJ powerfully illustrates the dysfunction of racism, traced upstream to individual closed hearts. Spifflicated is based on an illness that centers in the mind and is characterized by self-driven thinking that results in choices that can destroy families.

The “cure” for each starts with awareness, which can open the door to willingness to change.

1.jpg

This month, we marked the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appearance in Manhattan, three months before he was gunned down in Memphis, six months before the story of TJ unfolds in Wichita.

In Manhattan, in January 1968, King told a packed Ahearn Fieldhouse that “…somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” I interpret that as change requires action.

Ordinances designed to prevent discrimination served as the impetus for a black family to move in next door to TJ in northeast Wichita in 1968. Meanwhile, across town where I lived, white kids, including my younger brother, were bused to schools in black neighborhoods and vice versa.

Fair housing laws and busing were the city commission and school board’s tactical answers to a larger communal strategy of integration, obliterating decades of separate but equal justification and rationalization – upended by a legal action that also had its origins in Kansas.

Fifty-one years later, people who look like me and Grant Overstake remain overwhelmingly the majority in Kansas, though as our society evolves, that trend line is descending. In fact, studies indicate within half a century, Kansas will be a majority-minority state with people who look like me and Grant comprising less than half our population.

The definition of the word, ‘majority’ won’t change, just 200 years of knee-jerking to deeply-ingrained collective assumptions.

I wrote Spifflicated for a broad general adult audience, but also for a narrower band of those who have experienced the heartaches that accompany addiction. That band is much wider than I imagined, based on feedback I’ve received.

In my book, I seek to illustrate the self-destructive behaviors of addiction through the lives of those from whom I sprang, whose DNA and blood I carry. It’s passive, in the sense that if a reader recognizes troubling traits and wants to do something about it, they’re free to knock themselves out. In fact, that’s the only way it works.

Grant Overstake’s book takes that a step further and builds in an action step. His target audience is “young adult,” generally recognized in the book publishing game as teenagers. Grant tells a compelling story, but he also wrote TJ to serve as a resource, to reach those young adults in the classroom and foster a conversation about race and social justice.

Every Kansas teenager should read The Real Education of TJ Crowley, for lessons on how it used to be, but more importantly, for the opportunity to realize how their thoughts and actions can shape the Kansas and America of the future.


Matson’s column appears in The Mercury every other Sunday. You can find his Spifflicated: A Family Memoir and Grant Overstake’s The Real Education of TJ Crowley at mikematson.com and grantoverstake.com, respectively.

Open Letter to Gov.-elect Kelly's Staff

This column was published Sunday, January, 13, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.


One of the first things I did when I sat where you sit was to mount a one-person crusade to subtly influence the way Kansans perceived the person they had elected. In news releases and anything official, I would capitalize the ‘G’ in ‘governor,’ AP Stylebook be damned.

At high noon tomorrow, the executive branch of Kansas government changes hands. After the Inaugural address, and before you don the formal duds for the Inaugural ball, you’ll settle into your new Statehouse digs. People will return your calls promptly. The Governor’s office is calling.

Your boss’s job is daunting. Governing a state founded amidst massive cultural change that finds itself on the first or second wave of another one, albeit less bloody, fueled by changing demographics and all their accompanying downstream complications.

As much as you admire and respect her today, as Gov. Laura Kelly grows into the job, your admiration and respect will deepen. She has a constituency of 2.9 million souls, you have a constituency of one. Your job is to help her succeed. It’s not a cult of personality, but she’s all that and a bag of chips.

Stay in-state for official gatherings. Shortly after taking office, a Cabinet retreat at an Oklahoma resort owned by my guys’ father-in-law became our first media poopstorm. On the upside, it did spawn the name of the Governor’s staff summer softball team: No Retreat.

Position a couple of colleagues in the House chamber to “spontaneously” start the clapping after the applause lines in the State of the State. If you can swing it, plant a couple of strategically-placed “woots.” Script them. Make certain their voices carry.

It’ll take six or eight months to find a staff rhythm. If you haven’t already, you will soon develop the ability to read the Governor’s mind. This skill, above all others, will be key to your success. You will have 99 problems, but the Governor ain’t one.

Push for more staff meetings at Cedar Crest. It is a lovely home and you’ll enjoy telling your friends you just got back from a high-level meeting there. You could tell them more, but then you’d have to kill them. BTW, it’s the Governor’s residence, not the governor’s mansion.

John Steuart Curry’s  Tragic Prelude  graces the wall just outside the Kansas Governor’s office.

John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude graces the wall just outside the Kansas Governor’s office.

While everything you do will be tinged with politics, resist the temptation to push the envelope on partisanship. You’re Democrats in a Republican state. You will find the sweet spot between politics and policy.

When traveling to western Kansas, go to places besides Dodge, Garden and Hays. Pay purposeful attention to the 96 counties you did not carry.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You serve at the pleasure of the Governor. When he was Governor, Bob Bennett was known to fire staffers by sending little notes which read, “you no longer please me.”

Revel in the ceremonial trappings. You’ll soon learn proclamation signings are a pain and they chew up the Governor’s time, but they’re also an efficient way for the Governor to connect with her constituents. Without ever leaving the office.

Be elsewhere when they’re casting about for an Easter Bunny for the Easter Egg Hunt at Cedar Crest.

Bring your family into the uniqueness of what you’re doing. One of my most treasured keepsakes is a photo of my then 9-year old son, sitting wide-eyed behind the Governor’s desk.

If the Adjutant General says it’s an emergency, it is.

You’ll develop a special relationship with the Kansas Highway Patrol. Plainclothes troopers comprise the Governor’s security detail, advance the trips and drive the vehicles. These men and women would take a bullet for the Governor. Seriously.

After leaving office, my guy would joke that he knew he was no longer Governor when he climbed into the passenger seat of the Crown Vic and it didn’t go anywhere.

It will be all too easy to get on the wave and simply ride it for four or eight years. Find a way to get knocked off, spend some time on the beach, admiring the vastness and grandeur of what you’re doing. My office was just down the hall from the Governor’s office, proper. I would hustle by John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude dozens of times a day and not give it a second thought.

I came away from the service you’re about to enter with a fully built-out sense that Kansas will always be home. That I would spend the rest of my life here. That whomever has the courage and fortitude to stand for election and win deserves to have the title of their office capitalized. Today, when I return to the Statehouse and stand before Curry’s mural, I think about my service then and reflect on what it really means to be a Kansan.

The necessity to purposefully recognize the honor and privilege of serving your home state at this level. At this time in history. For these scant few years. For this Governor.

The time will flee, all too quickly.

Take some time to tingle.

Matson served as Communications Director and Press Secretary for Gov. Bill Graves. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury.

Mike Matsons of the World, Unite!

This column was published Sunday, December 30, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert set for my name. It’s not that I’m so full of myself that I think there will be dozens of occasional Internet postings about li’l ol’ me. It stems from earlier career responsibilities when I was charged with speaking publicly on behalf of individuals and systems.

There was a time when it was not uncommon for me to speak daily to a dozen assorted news reporters, editors and/or assignment desk jockeys. Google Alerts seemed a quick and efficient way to keep track and manage accuracy.

Today, the only time I get a Google Alert pertaining specifically to me is when one pops up indicating this column has been posted online by the Merc. Even that is hit and miss. The Merc posts all the columns, to be sure, but I’m only Google Alerted about said posting maybe one in every six or eight columns.

So much for Google Alert accuracy.

An unintended, positive, or at least entertaining, side consequence is I get to learn what other Mike Matsons with online presences are up to. I receive regular updates on many of my namesake counterparts.

One Mike Matson, for instance, is a hotshot investment banker type who regularly weighs in on various and sundry medical technology/diagnostics stock opportunities. I was recently alerted and linked to a rather lengthy online q and a involving Wall Street Mike Matson.

“…just wondering if some of the growth acceleration that we’re seeing here… transseptal needles and things like that, which made me think of some of the structural heart procedures, TAVR and Watchman and then complex PCI as well, radial, these kinds of secular growth trends within the cardiology space – how much of your business is exposed to these trends and is that helping your growth?”

That’s a particularly penetrating question, Matson.

Judging from his website, his office is just south of the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan.

GA.jpg

On the other side of the country, we find Mike Matson of Mike’s Phat Frogs, an Orange County-based dealer in amphibious creatures. Apparently, there’s an entire reptile collecting cottage industry alive and thriving in North America with people trafficking in frogs, snakes, salamanders, newts and other miscellaneous slimy beasts. Like any such marketplace, I suspect, there are some charlatans and it turns out my man, Mike Matson of Mike’s Phat Frogs, may be one.

All manner of consternation and woe has been posted after dealings with Mike Matson:

“… this guy FLAT OUT LIED to me.”

“I did speak with Mike Matson at the Phoenix Repticon back in May. I distinctly recall him saying that his Madagascar Hognoses were farmed.”

“I emailed this Mike Matson guy about hedgehogs. He doesn’t even have the damn animals but will ORDER them for me once I pay for them. He really is the scam artist they are all saying!”

Then there’s Mike Matson, an elected alderman in Davenport, Iowa, who toyed briefly with the notion of parlaying his municipal government fiefdom into a run for governor, before encountering the cold, hard reality of a statewide crusade.

“What has become apparent in my travels is that my grassroots campaign will not raise the millions necessary to run a highly competitive race.”

The dreams of Des Moines die hard, Alderman Mike Matson.

Then there was Mike Matson, militant Texas secessionist fugitive from justice who rode like the wind to make it to the border of Mexico, only to be gunned down by John Law in the rugged terrain of west Texas.

Lest we forget Mike Matson, the outdoor enthusiast, who wrote some travel books about hiking in Utah. I’ll encounter him occasionally during online transactions involving my own book. I should send him a note, “Yo Matson, I’ll buy your book if you buy mine.” Perhaps I could pass along some suggestions for his future book titles, like “One Foot in Front of the Other,” or “Meandering to Moab.”

Then there’s me, mild-mannered columnist for a great daily newspaper in the middle of the country. Opining every other Sunday from my modest domicile on the upper west side of the other Manhattan. Keeping an eye on my namesakes spanning the continent. Fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice and reputation management.

Trendy Clothes or Offshore Banking?

AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION is pretty much what the words indicate. Actual words uttered by my wife and I in real life, real time. Verbal snapshots. When shared via social media, they’ve sorta become a thing. Here are a few 2018 faves:

Jackie: “Tomorrow before we leave town we have to swing by my office and pick up an apple pie.”
Mike: “Is it already made?”
Jackie: “Yes. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an apple pie.”

(Singing a few bars of ‘Uptown Funk’)
Mike: “That’s a catchy tune.”
Jackie: “It is when someone else sings it.”

Mike: “What’s the difference between onion rings and onion strings?”
Jackie: “One is rings, one is strings.”

(Culling her accessories/bling collection, dangerously close to bedtime)
Mike: “I can help you along if you like.”
Jackie: “No, thank you.”

(She whomps up real whipped cream in this hi-tech CO2 cartridge-powered gizmo)
Jackie: “Hey, do you want to learn how to make it?”
Mike: “Nah, if you get hit by a truck, I’ll just go back to Reddi-Whip.”

Mike: “I have the skills to be subtle.”
Jackie: “No. You think you do, but you don’t.”

(Sporting a week’s facial hair growth)
Jackie: “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll watch every game of the NBA Finals with you, if you shave.”
Mike: “You win.”

BR.jpg

(On the phone, walking me through an online transaction)
Mike: “It says the credit card is from a banana republic. Where’s the bank, Panama?”
Jackie: “It’s the clothing store.”
Mike: “Oh.”

(Shopping for duds)
Jackie: “My stuff’s cheaper than yours.”
Mike: “What’s that tell you?”
Jackie: “You’re higher maintenance than me.”

(Following my Obama impression)
Mike: “I need to work on it. I’ll hone it later this month when you’re on the road.”
Jackie: “It’s not getting better. Time to move on.”

(Reminiscing about careers)
Mike: “I was a damn good reporter.”
Jackie: “Is there anything you weren’t good at? Like being humble?”

(Strains of Salt-N-Pepa’s 1993 classic ‘Whatta Man’ wafting through the car)
Mike: “You prolly think about me when you hear this song.”
Jackie: “What is this song?”

Mike: “I could be wrong.”
Jackie: “You are wrong.”

Jackie's Retinue

From my bride of two decades I have learned many things, not the least of which is the value of friendship. Like so many things in our life to come, I would learn this by watching her.

The wedding itself was on a weekday evening. Driven by the calendar, a Bowl game and a host of other factors, we exchanged vows before God, family and friends at a poinsettia and holly-festooned St. Isidore’s Catholic Church in Manhattan, Kansas, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, December 23, 1998.

Her initial thought was a big church wedding, with a retinue of bridesmaids and corresponding groomsdudes. Upon learning this, my first thought was, gulp, not sure I have enough friends close enough willing to comprise a groomsdude retinue. Because my first thought was Vegas or City Hall.

In and out. Wham, bam. Not so much.

Family’s a given at weddings. But friends often have logistics and priorities that don’t include us. Or so I thought.

Her two best friends on the entire planet whom she wanted desperately to stand up with her, were each prevented, owing to challenges created by the latter throes of pregnancy. Michelle was under doctor’s orders not to travel and Dea was actually giving birth at the exact moment Jack E. McClaskey was walking his youngest daughter down the aisle.

Twenty years later, the bride flanked by her erstwhile bridesmaids at her mother’s funeral in Girard, Kansas. (Dea on the left, Michelle on the right).

Twenty years later, the bride flanked by her erstwhile bridesmaids at her mother’s funeral in Girard, Kansas. (Dea on the left, Michelle on the right).

Jack’s youngest grew up with Michelle in Crawford County. Big hair, head banging, Armaggeddon it, fast talking their way into the Frontenac bars.

Dea entered her life in high school. From opposing corners of Kansas, they side-eyed one another warily from arms’ length, competing against each other in FFA. They would bond as undergrads at K-State.

Even without Dea and Michelle, she still wanted a retinue. I can get two, I told her. My 13-year old son was to be my best man regardless and I could probably press my younger brother into groomsdude service. Anything beyond that is a crapshoot.

She knew my loner tendencies, but my inability to scrounge up a retinue of groomsdudes was, perhaps, her first confirmation in real time. It also provided an opportunity for her to do what comes naturally. Give. I would give on Vegas/City Hall. She gave on the retinue.

One maid of honor/best man. One bridesmaid/groomsdude.

Friendship requires cultivation and maintenance. Cultivation and maintenance require time and energy. At the time, I would blame genetics for my lack of friend cultivation. My old man was a loner, as was his before him, I was later to discover. I could count the number of close friends in my entire life on one hand. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Twenty years later, I watch her cultivate and maintain friendships. She collects people and friends like I collect dog hair in my 2012 Ford Escape. You can’t swing a dead cat in Kansas without hitting a friend of Jackie McClaskey. I often refer to those whom she has mentored as the Jackie McClaskey Young Leader Collection.

I have learned to adapt being her plus-one. I have tried to move beyond my lonerness. Genetics was just an excuse.

Michelle and Dea each gave birth to daughters twenty years ago. Maggie, Majken and their siblings adore Jackie.

Today, when our friends’ children matriculate to Manhattan, K-State and inevitably, Aggieville, I give them my business card. Here’s the number to call when you can’t call mom and dad. It’s what friends do for each other. And for their children.

Next generation retinue.

I learned this from my bride. It’s among the many reasons I am even more ape-shit-banana-cupcakes over her today, than that Wednesday night two decades ago.

The 17th Goal for Success

This column was among many published in a special Bill Snyder tribute section of The Manhattan Mercury on Sunday, December 16, 2018.


Viewed one way, Bill Snyder’s second retirement is nothing more, nothing less, than the inescapable march of time. All good things must come to an end. Snyder was not going to coach forever, and sooner or later, the day would come when he would step aside. Try as we might, we mere mortals cannot stop biology.

I’ve been in Kansas all my life and can think of no other human being in our state who commands respect at the level of Bill Snyder. Because of his accomplishments, certainly, but an equal measure owing to his character. Over his K-State career, the two became inexorably intertwined.

The family, work ethic, bootstrap culture that defines the middle of our country goes to the very nature of a land grant school. That’s what reflected back when Snyder looked in the mirror. He saw it, recognized it and capitalized on it. Our heartstrings were successfully tugged while we stood and cheered gridiron victories. Effective public relations lift up and magnify legitimate emotion. Let’s call it the 17th Goal for Success.

Does the same vibe exist in Ames and Stillwater? Maybe, but I don’t write twice-monthly columns for the Ames or Stillwater dailies and Bill Snyder coached here, not there.

A highway, a stadium, a cheeseburger, a half marathon, and a legacy.

A highway, a stadium, a cheeseburger, a half marathon, and a legacy.

In addition to this special newspaper section, the man has a highway, a stadium and a cheeseburger named after him. That stuff will last forever. Well, OK, maybe the newspaper will get recycled and the burger may become the Klieman club sandwich, but you get the picture. The man’s accomplishments will transcend his time.

My sense is, as much as he tries to portray otherwise, Snyder has a pretty good handle on reputation management. It doesn’t hurt that fans learn of the hand-written note, and then of the sentiment which motivates it. The conventional wisdom is he does not peruse the message boards, but I suspect for the first time in his career, he heard the whispers. He’s also smart and humble enough to recognize that unless carefully managed, whispers can transition seamlessly into out-loud conversations and then cacophonies that force Athletic Directors’ hands.

When Snyder hung up his Nike’s the first time, I thought then, the time was right. I soon found myself in the minority when I became a vocal Ron Prince guy. Gadget plays and all-purple uni’s couldn’t save him when the losses began to outnumber the wins and the whispers leapfrogged out-loud conversations directly into a cacophony.

Did Bill Snyder retire at the right time? Did he leave on his own terms? Does he have peace of mind? Judge for yourself, clearly and I hope so.

I’m a big believer in the notion that the humility, loyalty, hard-work-begets-success culture will remain at the bedrock of our lives in America, and that it will be closer to the surface here in the middle of the country. But I also believe it will manifest itself differently as each succeeding generation brings new blood, new ideas, new ways of thinking into our football program, community and society.

When I stop and think about it, at age 49 in 1989, that’s exactly what Bill Snyder did.

Objection Overruled

Got a call recently from my wife’s nephew, asking me to be Godfather to their newborn second son. Honored and humbled, do my best to do right by the kid, came the response.

Couple days later, another call, from one of my wife’s sisters. Their mother died that morning. It was not unexpected. She was 91 and since the summer, the chronology was predictable, sadness notwithstanding: Hospital, rehab, nursing home, hospice. Doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve Godfathered before. The son of some good friends in Nebraska. He’s a teenager now and if you set aside his Husker gusto, he seems to be turning out just fine, though clearly, we need to ply the young man with more purple.

By the book, the Godfather presents the child at baptism and promises to take responsibility for their religious education. My interpretation of Godparenting is that it’s one of those Catholic traditions whose depth and import varies with the depth and import of your Catholicism.

I’m Catholic because my wife wants me to be and I like to make her happy. Born Protestant, but my life experiences have put me solidly in the ‘I’m not so much religious, as I am spiritual’ camp. My interpretation is organized religions are the infrastructure that allow those who choose them to express their faith.

And I’ve buried parents before. We lost my wife’s father nearly six years ago. My father died three years ago after an accident. When my older sister entered Pop’s hospital room in Wichita and sized up the enormity of the situation, she asked, “Where are the grownups?”

Uh… that’d be us, now.

This week, my own mother, who suffers from heart trouble, just like her father before her, enters a clinical trial, which may or may not buy her some extra time. Note to self: Pay attention to the genetics and step away from the cheeseburger.

On a recent visit, Mom loaded me up with a padded manila envelope full of family photos. She said I’m gonna get ‘em eventually anyway, so why not get a head start?

All manner of memories, many of which I had not seen or felt. Photos of my Mom as a child in Rooks County, her parents, grandparents, gathered for holidays, parties, Sunday dinner. The photos serve their express purpose, as I travel through time to witness my grandparents and parents as young people.

First cousins at their grandfather, Fred Bemis’ funeral, Hays, Kansas, May 1963. (L-R) Tom Bemis, Guy Bemis, Perry Bemis, Geri Ordway (my mom at 28), Linda Ordway and Bob Ordway.

First cousins at their grandfather, Fred Bemis’ funeral, Hays, Kansas, May 1963. (L-R) Tom Bemis, Guy Bemis, Perry Bemis, Geri Ordway (my mom at 28), Linda Ordway and Bob Ordway.

I’m struck by one particular photo of Mom, her siblings and cousins, who had gathered for their grandfather’s funeral in Hays in the spring of 1963. Mom was 28. I would have been 5. It was my first funeral. Thought about that last week as we buried my mother-in-law.

My son and daughter-in-law are expecting their first child around Valentine’s Day. Rather than opt for the gender reveal lollapalooza popular with many of their generation, they’re old schooling it. When the child emerges from the womb, then they’ll know, sans lollapalooza.

On the west coast, my younger brother’s daughter recently gave birth to her second daughter.

Babies abound. On both sides of the family.

This summer, my mom wants her three kids, her grandchildren, all the spouses and great-grandchildren under one roof. Our family is scattered throughout the land with busy, hectic, 21st century American lives, but in July, we’ll all gather at Tahoe.

My mother, from whom I inherited a deathly fear of heights and will have just celebrated her 84th birthday, wants to go up, up and away in a hot air balloon. Knock yourself out, Mom. Search the clouds for a star to guide us. I’ll be down here on terra firma, clinging desperately to Nevada, secure in my acrophobia.

As a grownup, my experience has taught me to keep it pretty simple. After the settlement conference in Religion v. Spiritual, I have learned that courage and humility come if we seek them and that our capacity for grace may well be limitless. That complacency, though a default, is not my friend.

Grandparents and parents grow old and die. Your children have children. Grownups emerge from ne’er-do-wells. I have a padded manila envelope chock full of evidence, your honor.

Perhaps when I’m 84, and by then a grownup emeritus, I’ll ignore a lifelong fear of heights and ascend to the heavens in a hot air balloon. I can visualize my son, nieces, nephews and their spouses, who will have become the grownups, scratching their heads, wondering if the old man has lost his mind.

Or maybe, just like his mother before him, he will have learned a valuable life lesson and will have come to recognize and offer testimony to the fact that fear can be overcome.

Fifty Years Later

This column was published Tuesday, November 20, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


I was a little hesitant to just drive up, ring the doorbell and introduce myself, but in the end, that’s exactly what I did.

“Hi, you don’t know me, but my father built this house in which you’re living.”

Pop helped design and build the house in 1959-60, just across an oil lease road and bluegrass pasture from my mother’s parents’ home, the one in which she was raised, five miles north of the Saline River on the northern incline of the river bluffs, five miles southwest of Plainville.

When he graduated from K-State with an agronomy degree, earned on the G.I. Bill after four years in the Navy, my father cut a deal with his father-in-law. Come back to Rooks County and farm.

My father was not a farmer or even a native Kansan. He grew up west of the continental divide and landed here when his mother married a guy from Rooks County. My parents met in study hall at Plainville High. Khaki chinos meet pleated skirt and bobby socks. They married halfway through his Navy hitch.

The current owner of the house was as hospitable as could be and invited me in. We entered through the garage, and I swear I walked right by my Mom’s ’65 metallic blue Pontiac Bonneville station wagon.

Pop fell in love with limestone at K-State.

Pop fell in love with limestone at K-State.

As we stood in the dining area, I glance down and pretty sure I saw my father bolt from the dinner table, uh… supper table (we were not yet city folk) fetch his rifle, stand on the back porch and take dead aim at a thirteen-lined ground squirrel standing upright, surveying what he only thought was his domain. Ground squirrel splattered across the prairie. Now get back to your minute steak and green beans, kids.

The house had a basement, and a damp, musty sub-basement with four bunks. When Dorothy Gale needed protection from severe Kansas weather, none was available, and look what happened to her. The house was built at the apex of the Cold War, so draw your own conclusions about the old man’s sub-basement motivations.

When it was built, the house was a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art rancher. It had these touch-plate light switches and a couple of master panels from which you could control any light in the house. As I wandered around the house for the first time in more than 50 years, I felt a distinct mid-century retro vibe.

The current occupant showed me to the living room. I look north and can hear the hailstorm. I’m four years old, half asleep, walking down the hallway in my jammies. On the north wall of the living room, my father struggles with a tarp to cover what is now a picture window-sized hole in the wall.

A golf-ball sized hailstone zooms toward me on the hardwood floor. I stop and pick it up. Cold to the touch. Mom is holding my baby brother in her arms. She’s rousted the baby, my 6-year old sister and we are bound for the musty sub-basement.

Over on the east wall is the limestone fireplace with a smooth concrete slab hearth. Nothing’s changed. Pop fell in love with limestone at K-State. After I cracked my skull on that hearth, Mom measured, cut and whipped up some hearth-sized vinyl and foam rubber pads.

The man who owns the house my father built moved us into the kitchen. I can hear our party line ring (three longs, one short) from the flesh-colored rotary dial wall phone. Mom struggles to contain her enthusiasm as she learns of the birth of her younger sister’s firstborn.

At the end of the hallway, I see myself dropping my little brother through the laundry chute, making certain there was a big pile of laundry upon which he would land, though it likely would not have mattered. The kid was indestructible.

In the 1960s, Pop struggled with the debt involved with farming and preferred a steady paycheck. Our departure from that house became imminent when he and Mom decided to sell the farm. That transaction financed a graduate degree in education from nearby Fort Hays State and my father took a job teaching high school physics and geology in Wichita.

When I travel to or through Rooks County, invariably I'll get off the highway and drive past the house my father built. Just to see if it’s still there and reminisce, wondering if I’ll ever screw up the courage to drive up, knock on the door, and introduce myself.

Election Night Expectations

This column was published Tuesday, November 6, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


If you’ve just fetched the hard copy version of this newspaper from your driveway, plopped down in the easy chair, and thumbed your way to the opinion page, but forgot to vote, there’s still time. The polls close at 7:00 p.m.

That’s the problem with an evening newspaper on election night. It goes to bed long before the polls close, let alone the tabulation and reporting of any votes. So, the election night coverage in an evening daily will be long on structure and process stories and short on actual election news.

You’ve already doubtless devoured the frontpage news article and accompanying art (newspaper lingo for “photograph”) of a Manhattan polling venue and the requisite comments from local election officials offering thoughtful, cogent remarks on turnout while studiously dodging the inevitable perfunctory follow-up question, asking them to speculate on what today’s turnout means for either party’s chances.

I’ll be following tonight’s actual news online, trying to glean a sense of what the results in Riley County mean, compared to the results in Wichita, Johnson County and western Kansas. If we see tabulation glitches, a thought may creep into the back of my mind, one unimaginable a generation ago. Is this anything nefarious, or is it an easily correctable human error?

I’ve looked at election nights from both sides, from behind and in front of the cameras and microphones. For the news story that will run before we know anything (see page 1A), I’ve had the duty to ask the election officials about turnout and the inevitable perfunctory follow-up on what it means.

“…election officials refused to speculate on what today’s turnout means for either party…” or “…leaders of both parties are eager to spread the impression that today’s turnout bodes well for their candidates…”

shutterstock_1114578908.jpg

Tonight, I’ll plop down in my own easy chair and follow the results online. Probably switch on the Topeka TV news at 10, especially if by then, it looks like we’ll know who our next governor will be. The winning gubernatorial candidate’s election night speech will be gleaned from talking points, not a verbatim speech, because if they can’t communicate extemporaneously by this point, we’re all in trouble.

Tonight’s a turning point in the life of the person we will have just elected governor. Two grueling campaigns are over (primary and general), they’ve won them both and you can’t blame them for feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment and relief.

They’re no longer a candidate. They are governor-elect of the state of Kansas. Stuck, for the next couple of months, in a murky middle between the grubbiness of the campaign and the noble hard work of governing, yet to come. Plenty of work to do between tonight and that frigid January day at noon, when they’ll place their hand on a Bible, swear an oath and deliver an Inaugural address, or Inaugural Address, depending on how you feel about it.

Tonight, the winner is no longer a candidate for governor. It’s their first chance to introduce themselves to the largest audience they will have faced so far. They’ll be surrounded by a hotel ballroom full of really happy people who love them dearly and will make noise and cheer, regardless of what they say. That’s not, or at least that shouldn’t be, their primary audience tonight.

How much of the governor-elect’s remarks will be aimed at the rest of us – the Kansans plopped in our easy chairs, clad in our jammies and slippers, fighting to stay awake? Those are the remarks I will be listening for. Are they gracious and magnanimous in victory? After thanking family and supporters, how quickly do they pivot to even the broad framework of a vision, or a plan to govern?

It won’t be a policy proposal-by-policy proposal State of the State address. Tonight’s will be the wrong venue and the wrong audience. Tonight’s message from our next governor should be lofty and brief. 1. Thank supporters. 2. Here’s our challenge. 3. Here’s how we’ll meet it.

I also hope, desperately, the winner says something nice about their opponents.

This is the moment that will begin to solidify the winner of the election in our hearts and minds as our next governor. If we voted for the winner, we will sleep well. If our candidate fell short, the depth of our restlessness will vary in direct proportion to how much we care and our own individual capacity to deal with it.

Sacrifice and Decency

This column was published Tuesday, October 23, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


I’ve never been a very good golfer. Goes to time management and priorities, but my game was never sharper than in the late summer and early fall of 1998.

Twenty years ago, I had taken a formal leave of absence from my job as political/policy message-meister for Gov. Bill Graves. He’d enjoyed a very successful first term and it was time to gear up for the re-elect. I moved from the governor’s staff to the campaign.

The reason I had time for all the golf was re-election in the fall was all but assured. The heavy lifting that year was vanquishing a threat from the right in the Kansas GOP primary election.

As the early June candidate filing deadline approached, only one Democrat had filed for governor. Fred Phelps, the homophobic, hate-mongering Topeka Baptist preacher. Organized Democrats needed a credible candidate, and were buttonholing warm bodies in the hopes of find one willing to fall on their sword, to rescue the party from the damage Phelps would doubtless wreak as their standard-bearer.

Their white knight came in the form of then-House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita. In running for governor in what everyone knew would be a lost cause, Sawyer was not only sacrificing his leadership position, but his seat in the Kansas House.

Sawyer also did us a huge favor. His decision put an end to our internal strategy sessions about how to run a campaign against a blatant purveyor of vitriol and hate.

Graves and Sawyer at the 1998 Kansas State Fair debate.

Graves and Sawyer at the 1998 Kansas State Fair debate.

A little history helps here. Kansans have not been shy about electing Democratic governors. In my lifetime, eleven people have been elected Kansas governor. Five of them Democrats. I’m no math whiz, but I think that’s almost half. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, however, Republicans were firmly in charge in Kansas. It was a good time to be governor.

A thunderous economy jet fueled by the tech boom meant massive revenue surpluses, an embarrassment of riches. In his first term, Graves and the state legislature cut car taxes in half, lowered property taxes two or three times and reduced income tax rates. Before it was over, nearly $3 billion in tax relief was returned to Kansans. We couldn’t shovel the money back to taxpayers fast enough.

In addition, Graves was and remains an enormously likeable guy. Naturally humble, he got into politics when he was casting about for a life purpose after his father sold the family trucking business, setting him up for life. A mentor whispered in his ear that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Friends involved in his first campaign, for Secretary of State in 1986, recalled having to peel him off the wall and push him toward the voters.

He and his wife became parents during their first year as governor, so my job was easy. Direct the photog to point the camera at the family and get out of the way. There was simply no reason not to vote for the man.

The national Democratic party and their like-minded deep-pocketed sugar daddies saw all this and invested elsewhere. Sawyer’s was a shoestring and shoe leather campaign. His slogan was “Tom Sawyer. For Kansas. For Governor.” As we honed our short game that Kansas autumn, those of us on his opponent’s campaign staff added some cynical value: “Tom Sawyer. For Kansas. For Governor. Forget it.”

I don’t know if Graves privately encouraged Sawyer to run, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They were friends and as Minority Leader of the Kansas House, Sawyer could deliver the votes of his caucus to join with moderate Republicans, forming an effective governing coalition. Many was the time I’d be walking in to the governor’s office and encounter Sawyer walking out.

In November, no surprises. Graves was re-elected with 73 percent of the vote, the highest percentage of any candidate for Kansas governor since the dawn of man. After the campaign, the golf clubs went back in the garage and I went back to my old job on the governor’s staff, spinning second term tax relief and highway plans.

Tom Sawyer went back home to Wichita, politically shellacked and out of office. He won back his old House seat in 2002 and was re-elected three times. After a stint on the Kansas Parole Board, Sawyer ran again for the House in 2012 where today he continues to serve with distinction. He represents the 95th Kansas House district, working class neighborhoods south and west of downtown Wichita, a district that would not grace the Chamber of Commerce’s tri-fold glossy brochure.

With the gift of time and distance, life experiences like these tend to take on additional qualities of depth and fullness. You approach the memories from a different plane. Tom Sawyer’s decision was borne of decency, self-sacrifice and doing what he knew in his heart and gut was right.

I reflect on today’s politics and wonder whether anyone could ever again be as selfless as Tom Sawyer two decades ago. Twenty years after the fact, I feel honored to have played a small role in his 1998 narrative. In every possible way, it is a story indicative of the Kansas character and deserves to be remembered and re-told.

Larger Farms, Fewer Farmers

This column was published Tuesday, October 9, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


As the Wichita Rotarians were diving into their rubber chicken, I asked for a show of hands. How many here have spent at least part of their lives on a farm or ranch?

From where I stood, scanning the audience of some 250 Rotarians, more than half the arms shot up. Mine, too. My father farmed until his capacity to withstand the debt involved in production agriculture exceeded his ability to live with it. When that day came, he sold the farm, changed careers and we moved to Wichita. That rural-to-urban arc typical of many in my generation in Kansas.

Writing this column is a side gig, so it was just a matter of time before column fodder would bump up against the day job. The business card reads Director of Industry Affairs and Development for Kansas Farm Bureau – the farm organization. We do what any self-respecting trade organization does: Lobby, educate, communicate and when invited, go home to the city where we grew up and remind urban-dwelling Rotarians that things are changing in the places they came from.

Within my existing portfolio is a two-year strategic planning effort, aimed at ensuring the farm organization is lobbying, educating and communicating optimally. This assumes we know the future. Or at least enough of it to get started on the work. We did the due diligence, read the reports, examined the prognostications and came to an inescapable conclusion: the future of Kansas agriculture is larger farms, fewer farmers.

In Kansas, we grow wheat, corn, soybeans and milo. We raise cattle. We’re good at it. We have an entire economic, transportation, storage, marketing, regulatory and I will argue, emotional and cultural infrastructure in place to support the growing of these raw commodities.

Many of the factors impacting the future are financial. Operating loans on a handshake over bacon, eggs and white bread toast slathered in strawberry preserves at the coffee shop are no longer that simple. This often spells trouble for the younger producer, who, unless he or she has a family connection willing to partner, finds the pathway to enter farming, nearly impossible.

Photo 1.jpg

Farmers with the wherewithal to expand the physical size of their operations, tend to do that. Those without, tend not to. Here’s a troublesome fact that sums up the culture and illustrates the limitations of impacting these trends, especially those without the wherewithal: We won’t know until it’s too late. We don’t ask our farmer/rancher members about their finances. This is an independent, work ethic, save it for a rainy day, bootstrap culture. Their bottom line is none of my business. Because I respect their privacy and their pride, I’m not about to ask.

It means hard decisions loom. As the rural population base declines, watch for increased pressure on local taxing authorities to maintain equal, if not more, services. At what point does the local property tax burden begin to exceed the capacity of those left to pay it? Or maybe a better question: At what point do rural Kansans grow weary enough of higher locally-levied taxes and dwindling services that they grab their 21st century technological equivalent to a pitchfork and descend on the county commission, town council or the school board?

Throughout the middle of the country, we’re seeing steep drops in mainstream denomination church attendance. It’s not that they don’t believe in God or no longer love their neighbor. I’ll argue it’s just the opposite. You don’t put a wheat seed in the ground or inseminate a momma cow without a deep-seated faith that something good will result.

It’s not just churches. It’s service clubs and county Farm Bureau boards. People will give of their time if they feel it’s worth it. Expectations change with demographics. Our cultural and emotional infrastructure needs to keep up.

What can be done? Glad you asked.

Imagine if systems in rural Kansas with existing membership infrastructures, human/financial resources and decades of tradition came together to design, build and implement an effort aimed at enhancing the capacity of the people who have made a conscious and purposeful decision to stay in rural Kansas.

Systems that acknowledge their individual agendas and recognize that when more people in rural Kansas develop more problem-solving skills, better understand what it means to think critically and gain knowledge on how to collaborate. A rising tide lifts all boats. A good stiff south wind can carry us all to a better place.

In that future, when the inevitable rural challenges arise, we will be able to manage them, instead of the other way around. Absent such an effort, my fear is, the trends that frighten us, that lead us to stick our heads in the sand because it’s all we know how to do, will one day soon eclipse our capacity to manage them.

That’s the conversation we hope to start in our state. So, I guess it only makes sense that a guy who spent his early childhood on a Kansas farm and his formative years in a Kansas city, would return home to the city and talk with a room full of similarly-situated Rotarians about the past… and the future.