Twenty Years of Change

This column appeared Tuesday, July 3, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


When my wife and I made the decision to get married in 1998, I was living and working in Topeka, she was doing the same in Manhattan. The logical question arose. Where we gonna live?

We thought about it for five whole seconds, looked at each other and said in unison, “Manhattan.”

When I first left Manhattan, I was two years old and 40 when I came back. I was born here while my father earned an agronomy degree on the G.I. Bill. We lived in a dinky trailer in what is still the Blue Valley Mobile Home Court. Two pine saplings he planted back then remain, today towering like protective sentinels over the socio-economic reality of a trailer park.

Upon graduation, we returned to the Rooks County farm where my mother grew up and my father applied the science he learned at the land grant. When he could no longer apply the economics of the debt needed to operate, the folks had the courageous conversation and sold the farm. He went back to college and we transplanted to Wichita, where my father applied his graduate degree, teaching high school physics and geology.

I think about how much our society has evolved in twenty years and the impact it’s had on Manhattan. The land grant vibe is not as resonant today as in 1998. The 2000 census was the first in our state’s history where urban and suburban Kansans outnumbered their rural brethren. A generation later, the downstream ramifications for small-town Kansans and the land grant community where their sons and daughters matriculate, hit home.   

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This may border on blasphemy, but the once bright cultural line that separated Mass Street in Lawrence from Aggieville fades with each passing year. Today, in Aggieville, you’re just as likely to see a kid with gaged ears, tats and a man bun fade, as you are one wearing Wranglers, square-toed boots and a ballcap.

How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve sampled the pleasures of a double skinny macchiato, while balancing their chakras and asanas doing yoga in the heart of Aggieville?

Over the last two decades in Manhattan, I’ve become a big tipper. Not that I’m a bigshot, just a realization that the pizza delivery dudes, waitresses and coffee shop baristas are working their way through college.

My career has been spent in statewide venues and that used to be my excuse not to get involved locally. A few years back I recognized it as an excuse and began to make different choices about how to spend my idle hours. It has opened my eyes to our community’s potential and put flesh and bones on poverty.

For me, it’s simple. If God expects me to love my neighbor, then maybe I should climb out of the overstuffed easy chair and do it. Bring my lamp out from beneath the bushel basket. To those whom much is given, much is expected. That’s enough Biblical admonition-mangling for one bi-monthly newspaper column. You get the picture.

Twenty years of change. The growth into Pott County, NBAF, a seemingly recession-proof local economy. The ebb and flow of troop strength at Fort Riley has engendered a new appreciation for defense appropriations. A four-lane superhighway catapulting me to points westward. Twice-daily flights to Dallas and Chicago. Today, when the big ol’ jet airliner taxis to the terminal, I’m 15 minutes away from my pillow.

Ray’s Apple Market exits, HyVee enters. Last Chance cheeseburgers go away, in comes Five Guys. It’s as though greasy cheeseburgers abhor a vacuum.

More change looms. Richard Myers is 76. Bill Snyder, 78.
 
I travel frequently and one of the best things about it is coming home from the east. When I cross the Konza and begin the descent into the Kaw River Valley, familiar landmarks enter my view: Kistner’s (which reminds me, better send some flowers to my wife), the massive cottonwoods on the banks of the Kaw, the Blue Earth Plaza and Flint Hills Discovery Center.

A feeling of calm, of familiarity washes over me. These places, old and new, have meaning and value in my life. I never had this feeling in Topeka or Wichita, my priorities were different then. Look at the subtitle of this blog. I get it now.

The definition of hometown is as variable as those who seek to define it. Wichita is where I grew up, graduated high school, found and lost my first true love, came of age. Those memories will never fade.

Twenty years after returning, the arc of my life descendant, the place of my birth has become the place of my rebirth.