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A Kansas Childhood
I'm a Kansan, even though I've lived most of my adult life in North Carolina. I speak like a Kansan, in a flat Midwest voice free of any accent. I'm not quick to say aloud what's on my mind. I say what I think-just not everything I think-and some would say that, too, is speaking like a Kansan.
In Kansas the sky seems somehow bigger. Driving through, it feels like the longest state in the union, and it's a fact that the sun rises thirty minutes later on the western border than it does on the eastern. Lines of dark limestone hills crested by mustard-colored tall rippling grasses seem to go on forever, and so do the blacktop roads that roll up and over the hills. The monotony is broken every few miles by midwestern towns, each one much like the last. Among them is a place called Emporia, a university town of low-slung brick buildings, tree-lined streets of Victorian houses with inviting front porches, and a railroad track. That's where I spent the first fifteen years of my life, before moving to the capital of Kansas, Topeka.
The austere landscape of Kansas, its hills and prairies, belie its tempestuous history and even more tempestuous-some would say biblical-weather, which brings the state more than its share of twisters, blizzards, hailstorms, prairie fires, and locusts. I was never blown to Oz as a child, but I may have come close.
Once upon a time, as they say, a family named Smith settled in Kansas, and unlike some of their neighbors, managed not to become farmers. (Ninety-six percent of the land in the state of Kansas is devoted to farming, but farmers actually make up a small percentage of the people who live there.) I'm the son of schoolteachers.
My mother, Vesta Edwards, taught at all levels, from elementary school reading to college psychology courses. She was also our church's organist. My father, Alfred Smith, was a teacher and coach of the football, basketball, and track teams at Emporia High, as well as a church deacon. Teaching and coaching was all I ever thought about as a profession because it struck me that in addition to being very good people, my parents were also deeply happy ones. It seems fitting to me that Emporia is now the home of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
I grew up in a small stucco bungalow that was built by my parents with the help of my mother's father, a cement mason who also poured the foundation for one of the local Baptist churches. The house cost $3,500 when they put it up in 1936, which was actually a substantial price in those days. By way of comparison, you could wander down to Gould's Cafe and buy a chicken dinner with salad, three vegetables, and a roll for 35 cents. You got a choice of iced tea or coffee and dessert too. My parents were so happy in Emporia that when my father was offered the head football coaching job at Wichita North High School, one of the largest schools in the state, he turned it down because he and my mother didn't want to leave.
Five of us lived in the two-bedroom house, which had just a single bath with hardwood floors and a second-floor sleeping porch, which became my room. My sister, Joan, was born the year before the stock market crash in 1928, and I was born in 1931, and between us and my Grandmother Edwards, who moved in with us when she was seventy-two, the house was pretty crowded. That was what you did in those days: You took care of your grandparents. It wasn't unusual for three generations to live in one small house.
Emporia was a town of only about fourteen thousand, but it had prosperity and a cultural life unusual for a place of that size because we had two colleges, Kansas State Teachers College (later Emporia State) on the east side of town, and a Presbyterian university called the College of Emporia on the west side of town. Also, the legendary newspaper editor William Allen White was building a national reputation with his Emporia Gazette, and became a friend of my father's, who was a pallbearer at his funeral. All of this inspired someone to get a rather exalted view of the place and to name it "The Athens of Kansas." Emporia was the third largest feeding station for cattle and sheep in the nation at the time, and the Santa Fe railroad ran right through town.
The main avenue in town was Commercial, an old-fashioned main street anchored on one end by the campus of Emporia State and on the other end by a public park with a baseball diamond and bleachers, where we played American Legion baseball-and where I fractured my leg sliding into second base when I was fifteen. Also on Commercial, halfway between Fifth and Sixth Streets, was the Red X Pharmacy, a department store called Newman's, and three different movie theaters: the Granada, the Strand, and the Lyric. There was a barber shop where my father and I got haircuts every Saturday night, and a sporting goods store called Hassingers, where my father bought most of the uniforms and equipment for his teams. I purchased a baseball glove for a dollar and paid in installments, 10 cents a week.
Looking back on it, my mother was uncommonly strong opinioned and well educated for a woman of her place and time. At first glance she appeared quiet, perhaps, and she usually had the look of someone about to offer you a piece of apple pie. When you looked closer you saw a woman who radiated intellectual energy; her eyes were piercing and suggested that she didn't tolerate nonsense. My mother was meticulous, highly organized, punctual, and relentlessly frugal (the opposite of me, with the exception of punctual). She handled all the household finances like a drill sergeant, to my frustration. She earned her master's degree from Emporia State in educational psychology in 1946, the same year Joan graduated from high school, and she was an educator in the true sense of the word. She had one uncompromising rule: I had to read a book a week. I tried to satisfy her with sports books and stumbled onto a series by a writer named John R. Tunis, who wrote The Kid, The Kid Comes Back, and All American, now regarded as classics.
When we were small, my mother gave up teaching for a few years in order to be home for us in the afternoons, but she always worked. She was the church organist, and while I was in grade school, she was director of the weekday Bible schools for Emporia. For a salary of $75 a year she would line up the Bible teachers and choose the curriculum.
Later, when I was in the ninth grade, she became superintendent of schools for Lyon County. The gentleman who had occupied the position resigned before his term was up, and it's an indication of the regard in which my mother was held that she was chosen to complete his unexpired term. After serving eighteen months she had a chance to run for the job and win it in an election, but she said she wasn't the type to run for political office, so she went back to what she was best at, which was educating.
My father matched my mother's strong personality, although he also seemed unassuming. He was measured, slow to anger, soft-spoken, and easy to smile, but he was also implacable. He had a way of persuading people to do what he wanted them to. When he and my mother were in their eighties and disagreed over whether to move to North Carolina-my mother didn't want to leave Kansas-I predicted to my sister, Joan, "He'll win. It may take a while, but he'll win." And he did; they moved to Springmoor Retirement facility in Raleigh. I have my father's hooked nose, sharp chin, and straight line of a mouth. I think I got a lot more too. My father once said, "His mother taught him organization and to work hard; I gave him athletic desire and atmosphere." I hope so.
My father was the first real coach I ever knew, and I'm sure I was shaped by him in ways I'm not even conscious of. He taught hygiene and physical education, and in the afternoons he coached football, basketball, baseball, and track. He became head coach for Emporia High in the year I was born, 1931, and the job came with certain pressures. In those days perhaps even more than now the entire town was involved with whether the high school team won or lost. Emporia High was a relatively small school of about six hundred students at any given time, and we had to compete against much larger schools from the big cities like Topeka and Wichita, in which we took a certain pride. The atmosphere was a lot like the one depicted in the film Hoosiers-gymnasiums packed with crowds caught up in the fever pitch of regional rivalries. It was a different game then; the one-handed jump shot hadn't been invented yet, players didn't rise above the rim, and practically everybody used the underhanded scoop shot at the free-throw line.
During basketball season I spent most afternoons in the gym and went on every road trip. My father had three different classrooms and four different teams to keep abreast of. I was the kind of kid who was always on the sidelines, pestering the older players and trying to shoot the ball on one end of the court while they practiced on the other end, until finally somebody would run me off. I memorized all of the jersey numerals of more than thirty guys on the football team, and on the team car trips the players would quiz me and make sure I could match up names to the numbers.
"Thirty-four?" they'd holler.
"Jack Snow!" I'd shout back.
Some of my father's former players are still around, although most of them are in their eighties. They remember Alfred Smith as calm and in control on the bench, and his players seemed to exude the same attitude on the court. But he was a quietly staunch disciplinarian too, and one who wasn't afraid to do what he believed in. He made no big deal about his principles, no outward show, but his players understood very well that he would follow through on enforcing them-there was no doubt about that.
Certainly he was determined to take a stand when he thought it mattered. In 1934, for example, he decided that the integration of Emporia High's basketball team mattered. The 1934 Emporia High team coached by my father won the state championship, which was a major upset in and of itself, but more significant was that the roster listed a young man named Paul Terry, who was black. My father had a problem with the state coaches' association because of it.
Some people have given me kind but undue praise for integrating North Carolina's basketball team in the early 1960s. My father was the family's true reformer, however. In 1934 he chose to play a black teenager, the son of a janitor who swept the floors at the local bank, whom he had known as a junior high school student. What gave him the independence of mind to come to his beliefs and the courage to act on them? I can't fully answer the question because I was only three at the time, and I don't remember the involved discussions that must have taken place on the subject in our house. But I do know how we were raised.
My father said, "Value each human being." And we did. We were taught to believe in the "human family" from day one, and other than that there wasn't much talk about it. Racial justice wasn't preached around the house, but there was a fundamental understanding that you treated each person with dignity.
It's hard to evoke just how strange and unreasoning the old barriers of race were. There was only one junior high school and one high school in town, so all of Emporia's children were educated together regardless of color. But that often ended when you stepped outside of the classroom. We didn't have any black members at our Baptist church, and we were told by my parents that was wrong. In the summers we did play recreation-league softball with a relatively diverse population of Mexican and black kids, and I remember my parents speaking to us about that and insisting they be treated fairly and like any other children. My parents were determined that we see every person as valuable, unique, and particular-and equal before our Creator.
There is no intent here to single out Kansas for its segregative atmosphere. It was supposed to be a "northern" state, and many Kansans had a condescending attitude toward the South and its handling of racial issues. But prejudice was everywhere, and still is.
In 1934, Paul Terry entered the tenth grade at Emporia High. My father had known Paul throughout his time at Lowther Junior High School, because he taught Paul physical education from the seventh through ninth grade. When Paul got to Emporia High, my father suggested that if he wanted to try out for the varsity, he'd be welcome. Paul wasn't trying to break any barriers; he just loved the game. "What did I know about making a statement?" Paul said years later. "I just liked sports."