Front Page » Story Type: Profiles


Tom Page: A Man and a Legend

Tom Page, a soft-spoken guy who would be unlikely to stand out in a crowd, was a phenomenon who lived enough life for ten people in his 76 years. Tom, who died in August 2013, was a multi-faceted man, one of those people who, if you didn't know him well, you would think he was exaggerating his life story when he told it. The fact is, the man lived everywhere and pretty much did everything in the time he was alive. And everything he did was good.

Tom's family held a celebration of his life at Watermark Books and Café in Wichita, Saturday evening, Oct. 19, 2013. The event was well attended, as would be expected given that Tom touched so many people in so many different ways.

James Mechem--Super Hero to Writers

In the mid-'80s just after I completed an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University, I became involved with Women in the Arts. That group comprised several women poets, writers, artists, and musicians. Shortly after I joined, one of the members asked me to participate at a poetry reading. I jumped at the chance to do so. As a new poet, I wanted to get my work out there for the world to hear. I think James Mechem might have been in audience that Saturday morning. Somehow he found out about my work and approached me about publishing it in his journal, Collage. I was thrilled to think someone wanted to publish my work and even more thrilled when he asked if he could use some of my poems in another journal, Caprice, which he co-edited with a New York poet, Lynn Savitt. Of course, I agreed. For several years and several issues of Collage and Caprice, I saw my work published on a regular basis.

This July has been the month of turkey vulture nestlings.

In late May I noticed that every time I approached the Guest House, a vulture would fly up from the sunken patio. Was there a carcass nearby? In a cubby hole under the walkway to the front door, I found a different explanation. Lying on the gravel, amidst last-year's blown-in leaves, were two giant eggs, white with tan splotches. I had seen vultures going in and out of abandoned barns, and I had assumed that they nested up high, closer to where they soar, perhaps in the rafters or the hay loft. A little research enlightened me: Vultures nest in enclosed spaces, so yes, they do use old buildings, but also hollow logs, caves, burrows under overhangs, holes in trees. The nook under the walkway definitely fit their specs.

I was alarmed by what else I learned: When the eggs hatched, the carrion-eating parents would regurgitate food for the young, leading to noticeable aromas. This would not be a quick process, either, as the nestlings would take two to three months to fledge!

Uh-oh. Eco-tourists use our Guest House to reconnect with nature. We'd be offering them nature all right, nature with a capital N. Still, how could we justify killing only to avoid the aroma of what was already dead? We, the proprietors of a wildlife refuge, were not about to destroy a nest--or lose the opportunity to observe it closely. So first, a quick announcement on the web site: The Guest House is currently unavailable for rental. Next, a trailcam, pointed at the cubby.

So began my involvement with Family Vulture. Through trailcam videos, I learned that both parents brooded the eggs and that mice, songbirds, woodrats, and squirrels could approach the nest with impunity. But when a possum ambled into the cubby, it was a different story. The adult fluffed up and glared, and the possum, being a possum, didn't notice at first--but when it finally dawned on him what was in front of him, he backed out fast! Ditto for a raccoon, who developed a sudden interest in another location once he got a load of the vulture's stare. But one night when both parents were gone, the possum came back. I assumed that that was it--the next generation would have naked tails, not naked heads--and it was all because the parents were off gallivanting when they should have been protecting the eggs. But I was wrong. The possum nosed the eggs myopically and then began grubbing in the leaf litter, where he found something interesting, pulled it up, and munched it slowly. Then he turned around three times (what was that about?), and waddled off. I breathed a sigh of relief. Threat averted, but how? I had read that vultures use projectile vomiting as a defense against predators--not to disgust them but to distract them with an easier meal. Now I wondered if the adults had left some tidbits near the eggs for that same purpose. My criticism of the parents changed to admiration.

But at the end of June, while I was at a family reunion in Wisconsin, my husband called to tell me that the eggs were no more. My heart sank. I had visions of the possum finally claiming the prize. But then Ron laughed and said the eggs were gone because they had been replaced by two fluffy chicks! He sent me photos, and I saw the cubby now graced by what looked like two balls of white cotton stuck onto big black beaks.

Since returning to Kansas, I have watched the cotton balls grow into chicken-sized birds whose feet aren't made for walking, as the youngsters lurch and teeter and stumble wherever they go. They are still covered in fluffy white down, and when left alone they huddle in the back of the alcove, like giant snowballs. But when Mom or Pop shows up, they spring to life. They jump up and down and flap their undersized wings, looking a little like penguins as they stand up tall to reach their parent's bill. The adult puts his or her mandibles around the nestling's head and then brings up predigested food. Not every item on the menu makes it into the little gullet; it's that spillage that accumulates and becomes the source of stench. However, when the parents are away, the nestlings turn the leftovers into snacks and even allay their hunger by eating the food stuck to their nestmate's chest and back. The smell thus goes as well as comes, thanks to the little odor-eaters.

Indeed, the chicks' destiny is to transform the loathsome into the benign. The pathogens that flourish in putrid flesh are killed by a vulture's digestive tract. Sacred in some ancient cultures, vultures certainly live up to their genus name Cathartes, the purifiers.

It's true that while working in the guest house I sometimes have to close the windows and turn on an air cleaner. When that happens I find myself counting the days until September or October when we can bring in the powerwashers. But in the meantime, it's not bad to be reminded that nature, which renews our spirits, is not all gorgeous sunsets and blooming flowers. In fact, "renewal" depends for its meaning on something old, past it, done for. Carrion being fed to growing chicks reminds us that all stories are connected, and that when one thing is too far gone, another is just getting started.

My Friend Colleen

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WICHITA, Kan. - When my friend Colleen Kelly Johnston died on August 18, 2012, she left behind a huge void that will likely not be filled.

She also left behind her husband James, six children, and many grandchildren and great-children as well as a large circle of friends, all of whom loved her.

More importantly, she left behind her influence on those of us who looked to her for strength, guidance, and inspiration as we became involved in the many liberal and feminist movements that have marked the years since the '60s.

MANHATTAN, Kan. - I first met Usha Reddi some 13 years ago, when I was a PhD graduate student at K-State's College of Education and she was working on her ESL endorsement as she entered the job market after being a stay-at-home mother.

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Reddi has lived in Kansas for over 20 years. She arrived here when her former husband came to teach and conduct research at K-State. She is the mother of three children, all of whom went to Kansas public schools. Two are now pursuing medical degrees at the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City while her eldest is finishing his graduate degree in social work at Columbia University. It was during her children's education here in Manhattan that she became a school volunteer and discovered her love for working with children.

Joe Collins Shared What He Loved

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Kansas lost a remarkable and gifted person this year with the death of Joe Collins. I knew Joe as Kansas's foremost frog and snake guy, the author of Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas. But he was much more than that. Amazingly, he created an illustrious scientific career for himself without ever graduating from college. He skipped the whole credential thing and simply started doing science. He published the first of his scientific papers when he was just 19; he was later to author over 300 articles and 28 books and co-author the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. In 1996, the governor of Kansas proclaimed Joe Collins "Kansas Wildlife Author Laureate."

Joe's career is an object lesson to young people who think they have to choose a boring field because it pays well and is therefore "practical." Sometimes just doubling down on what you love can be the most practical thing of all!

Joe's love of wildlife started early. As a little boy in Ohio, he spent as much time as he could with turtles, reptiles, and amphibians. Every day seemed filled with wonders as he learned more and more about his shelled, scaly, and moist-skinned friends. It hurt him, therefore, when he noticed something horrible about his own species: Behind the wheel, some people swerved to hit turtles on the road. Little Joe devised an ingenious revenge. He put the road-killed turtles back together but filled the shells

Dave's Dilemma

Let's call him Dave. Yes, that'll do. Dave, whose laugh always stayed with you.   Even today, it echoes in my Kansas Wesleyan hallway memories, resonant as Tom Durkin's lectures on John Locke or Ben Fuson's conjuring of Hester's Scarlet Letter.
 
Real life echoed the drama of our studies, and vice versa, as we returned to campus the fall of '63.  Our Methodist Student Movement got word of the Birmingham church bombing and the deaths of Addie, Carole, Cynthia, and Denise.  We decided our MSM should act.   Bob Blackerby took a plane South, but escaped Bull Connor's fire hose.   He was arrested the moment he stepped off the plane.   
 
No matter.  Bob's jailmates--and Stokely Carmichael--stoked our imaginations.  Our dedication to peace and justice was heightened by David C. Monk's presence in our Student Movement. 
 
Movement should have been Dave's middle name.  He brought unusual energy and laughter to every action.  Although quick to find humor, he was staunchly and loyally serious about our movement, KWU, and the Methodist Church. 

The Bird Runner Art of Betsy Roe

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Much of artist Betsy Roe's work centers on the contact zone between humans and other animals. Now Betsy is creating an outdoor installation at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, and this time that zone is a bloody one -- the place where animals meet our vehicles on the road.

Betsy! Why are you making us think about this? Roadkill? Yuck! Sad -- but what can we do about it? People aren't going to stop driving and animals aren't going to stop trying to cross the road. So why dwell on it? What's the point?

Betsy's art makes us think of one answer after another.

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