Saturday, December 31, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot......

This has always been one of my favorite Dan Fogelberg songs, and it's appropriate to share as we bid adieu to another year. It's called "Same Old Lang Syne."

Friday, December 30, 2011

Memorable Sports Images of the Past Century

How many of these athletes can you identify? How many of these moments did you see yourself?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A white Christmas? Not just in my dreams!!

We had a white Christmas at the Finger farm this year, thanks to a winter storm that dropped at least 6" of snow in western Pawnee County.

That's Mom's estimate, at least. I suspect it was more like 8 or 9 inches, if for no other reason than there was still a nice blanket of the white stuff several days later:

I expected snow men and forts and a bounty of snowballs to have sprouted by the time I arrived late for Christmas Eve dinner Saturday afternoon. But the tykes were battling sniffles and coughs and were far more interested in what was under the tree than what was covering the ground outside.

I satisfied myself with a stroll or two through the snow, my footsteps crunching in the thin crusty layer at the top of the powder. I thought of my friend Amy, who responded to a snowstorm that hammered Minneapolis a winter or two ago by buying some cross-country skis. The homestead looked like a siren call to skiers - flat, open and covered with snow!

Somewhere, Dad had to be smiling about this snow storm, bringing desperately needed moisture to a parched region. He never complained about snow, unless it threatened livestock, because he knew what it would mean for the next growing season.

I remember many white Christmases as a child, but they've become less common in recent years. Then again, as Mom put it, "This winter is more like what we had years ago. It's like winter is winter again."

It's easy to feel that way when your Christmas is white.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Remembering those we have lost...... 2011, I offer this poignant music video.

I am not familiar with the music of Ryan Kelly. I think I need to change that.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Odpočívat v Pokoji, Vaclav Havel

I noted with sadness the news of Vaclav Havel's passing on Sunday.

The poet and playwright turned reluctant politician, whose stirring words ignited the embers of opposition to decades of oppressive Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, culminating in the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989 as communism collapsed across Europe, has died at the age of 75.

Because my mother is of Czech heritage, I have always taken a special interest in what's going on in her ancestral home. I was particularly delighted when the Czechs finally shed the crippling yoke of Communism, and loved my time in Prague while overseas visiting my childhood friend Andy Colglazier in the autumn of 1992.

The writer in me was thrilled when the still-Communist Czech parliament elected Havel president in 1989, even though he was not really a politician. He gave voice to freedom in Czechoslovakia, though, and his words rallied thousands - so he was the natural choice.

He was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and earned numerous other accolades as well. One of them was the Philadelphia Liberty Medal.

I was in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994, with my friend Tammi, when Havel came to the city to receive the medal. We happened to be sight-seeing in the area when we came across the throng that surrounded Independence Hall, where Havel was about to depart after having accepted the honor and delivering an acceptance speech.

Maybe it was the journalist in me, but I instinctively worked my way to the front of the crowd, which was being kept at a healthy distance from the door - and the dignitaries - by grim-faced security.

As Havel emerged from the door, I immediately recognized him from pictures I had seen. I snapped a few quick, blurry photos. Then - and I'm still not sure what compelled me to do it - I yelled a greeting in Czech. Mind you, I know very little Bohemian - picked up from Mom when I was young - though I can read the language well enough that folks in Prague mistakenly thought I was fluent.

Havel apparently wasn't expecting to hear his native tongue shouted from the crowd. He glanced my way, almost startled, and hesitated. For a moment, I thought he might break away and come over to talk to me.

It was a thought that both pleased and petrified me. As I mentioned earlier, I know precious little Czech. But he continued to the waiting limousine and was whisked away.

It is one of my enduring memories of that trip to Philadelphia, New York and Gettysburg in the sultry summer of 1994.

Havel goes to his final resting place a hero in the Czech Republic. Voices of freedom always resonate, regardless of the language or the era.

A stroll through the mall

Hugs and smiles.

Hugs and tears.

They were within a few feet of each other as I walked into Towne West Mall on Saturday night. The air was electric on this final weekend before Christmas.

One woman was ecstatic as she bought a calendar featuring local firefighters, her face beaming as she embraced one of the calendar's "stars."

Just outside a casket store, another woman had tears sliding down her face as she hugged a friend. Obviously, one of them had just lost a loved one.

Even in the midst of holiday excitement, life - and death - go on. I thought of the profound dichotomy of their grief surrounded by almost a giddiness of gift purchasing. Amidst the joy, devastating loss.

As I continued my walk, dodging the shoppers surging pellmell as if on an urgent mission, I noticed a woman in a wheelchair watching wistfully as young children strapped into a bungee apparatus shriek with glee has they bounded high up into the air. She couldn't have been more than 35, and her eyes were a mix of wonder and longing.

Around another corner, I saw a man holding packages as he stood perhaps four feet from the entrance of a women's clothing store. You'd have thought an invisible force field was keeping him out, even though it was obvious family members were in there. But I could tell he wasn't about to enter that mysterious, unsettling jungle.

All around me, children were darting into and out of stores, their harried parents trying to keep track of them. One boy came running out of a store, turned sharply into my path and looked up at me, his startled face wearing the expression "What are you doing here?" You'd have thought we were standing in his living room.

One of the final sights that caught my eye before I left was that of an elderly couple, walking slowly, resolutely. They each held bags filled with purchases in their hands. I wondered how many Christmases they had celebrated together. I wondered how many they had left.

Their pace told me they realized the greatest gift they likely had ever been given was each other.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Photo from wartime Germany a poignant reflection of war's cost

They were somewhere in Germany, early in the spring of 1945. My father, Marvin, is the lanky lad on the far right, facing the camera, in both photos.

The dark-haired man on the left in each photo is Private Lester Dillard, of Pacolet, S.C.

Dad was the only person in each photo who would not be killed or gravely wounded on the front lines - and, based on what he would later share, I estimate he could or should have died about 7 times.

Private Dillard was killed on April 6, his family was told by the U.S. War  Department. Based on what my father shared and official accounts indicate, that would mean it was somewhere in western Germany. He was riding on a tank when another GI was thrown off the tank. The fallen soldier's rifle went off. The bullet struck Lester and killed him.

Dad was on a special mission behind enemy lines on the day Lester died. He was also riding a tank, as the American forces were racing to break up pockets of German resistance. The tank he was on took the corner of a cobblestone street too fast, skidded over a wall and into a deep ditch. The tank's long gun barrel jammed into the ground, bucking several soldiers off.

Dad would have been one of them, but as he flew up his shoulder hit the gun barrel. That smacked him back down on a grappling hook, crushing a testicle and fracturing a vertebra in his back. The back injury would leave him temporarily paralyzed several minutes later as he tried to push forward into a German city. It would also plague him for the rest of his life.

But Dad never mentioned one of his close buddies being killed by a dropped rifle on the mission behind enemy lines, so I am not sure where Lester Dillard died. I'm certain Dad would have talked about it had he known, because Lester was one of his six closest buddies in the outfit.

"We were closer than brothers," he often told me. "There wasn't anything we wouldn't do for each other."

I haven't been able to unearth where Lester was killed, and his family doesn't know, either. I still hope to discover the location, though.

The others in the photo were killed or gravely wounded on April 25 - just a couple of days after Dad collapsed with a bad case of pneumonia and was shipped back to the Army hospital in Nancy, France. He always told us the pneumonia came from the poison gas he inhaled as a result of a booby trap unleashed when he was clearing a building in Bamberg a few days before. His lungs, too, would never quite be the same.

Dad always blamed himself for not being there with his buddies when they were ambushed by snipers in the streets of Augsburg, a suburb of the Nazi stronghold of Nuremberg. "We'd been through a lot worse and made it out," he told me.

"That may have been God's way of saving your life," Mom told him.

I tend to agree with her.

Lester had a twin sister, Lizzie, back home in Pacolet. He was a good boy, she said, nice to folks and fun to be with. But time had dulled her memory so much, she told me late last year, that she barely remembered what he looked like.

When we unearthed these photos in the family archives, I hoped to get them scanned and sent quickly to Lizzie so she could see her brother again after so many years. Sadly, she died in October at the age of 92 before I could get the photos from my sister.

I suspect the twins are catching up with each other now.

At least her kinfolk will get to see Lester in what would turn out to be the final days of his life. Based on what Dad shared, he would have made them proud.

How's that again?

Not enough, clearly......

Friday, December 2, 2011

Curly returns - and settles in

Despite my initial fears that we would never see him again - K-156 is not kind to animals - Curly the stray Yorkiepoo returned to the porch just before nightfall in late October.

We never figured out where he had been for that long, cold day, but he had managed to make it back to the farm. Mom decided to feed Curly and Cocoa, the domineering cat who had spooked him into running, in different areas of the homestead to help keep the peace.

That seems to be working.

Mom would sneak a touch, a few strokes, each time Curly would arrive to eat. He would initially back away, but over time began to trust those hands. He would follow her out to the clothes line when she went to hang clothes. It was there she was able to first pet him for several minutes, checking his fir and his legs for any wounds, injuries or cockle burrs.

On Oct. 30, he was given his first bath. Afterwards, he was so happy he darted into every room of the house, yapping happily, as if to announce to the world that he was clean and happy. We grew up with a strict "no animals in the house" rule, but Mom was willing to bend it a bit for Curly.

She put a quilt in a box and placed it out on the front porch for Curly to sleep in, and would let him come inside for a few minutes at night before he was tucked into bed. He grew to love sitting on the loveseat next to Mom, dozing on a small pillow.

He has responded well to small children, allowing them to pet and hold him without complaint. But he's happiest around Mom. He jumps for joy when she lets him inside, his tail wagging furiously. He doesn't bark unless he wants something - usually to be let outside when he needs to relieve himself. If there have been any "accidents" indoors, I have not heard about them.

He is still guarded at times, especially if any adults other than Mom approach him quickly.

But he seems utterly thrilled to have found a home and a friend. He just seems so......grateful. Happy. Well-tempered. For weeks, Mom talked about finding him a better place to live. Someplace with young children who could play with him. But I could tell Curly was quite content at the farm.

Mom seems to be softening, too. When a sister talked to her about other places Curly could go, she said, "He's fine just where he is."

I think so, too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Remembering Les Anderson

On one of my first days as a freshman at Wichita State University, I wandered into Wilner Auditorium in search of my faculty adviser. I had declared journalism as my major, so I was assigned to a journalism professor.

His name was Les Anderson. His office was about the size of a broom closet, and he didn't look that much older than me. He asked about my background, asked to look at my list of courses, said "That looks pretty good. Let's keep in touch." It was all so pleasant, so effortless I wondered if it really counted as a meeting with my adviser.

Little did I know how important a role he would play in my life, helping me grow as a person, a student and a journalist.

While I had declared journalism as a major, and had taken the class for three years at my high school, I knew precious little about what it involved. Pawnee Heights was such a small school we only published the "Tiger Times" once a month - using a mimeograph machine as our production device. That meant no photos, no graphics, no real layout. Just stencils and typed stories in narrow columns and lots of  lines and symbols to separate stories. We had one deadline a month. I wrote sports, sports and more sports, with the occasional news story thrown in there. Then again, the Honor Roll and school lunch menu were considered big news.

That's not to say our teacher wasn't good. Dana Hertel was a stickler on writing well and the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of a good journalism story. Even she wasn't convinced of my journalistic  acumen when I graduated, though.

I'd heard Les was a tough teacher, but I enjoyed his reporting class and began trying to get into every class he taught. As far as I was concerned, he was far and away the best instructor in the journalism program. Oh, my assignments always came back bleeding profusely, with suggested changes or paragraphs marked out as unnecessary. But I understood why he wrote what he did, and he was always full of encouragement.

He owned two weekly newspapers, and chose the best journalism students to work for him - so if he wanted you to work for him, he thought you were good. Sure enough, he asked if I'd be willing to write for the Ark Valley News and Maize This Week. His office was in Valley Center, so I did a lot of commuting for the next two school years. I routinely worked 60 hours a week, covering sports, city council meetings, school board meetings, breaking news -- seemingly everything in those two small towns. Les worked even harder than I did, between running his small farm outside of Valley, teaching at WSU and putting out the two papers.

I was so busy I soon found myself calculating how many classes I could afford to skip each week so I could keep up with all the work that needed to be done. A scholarship I had been awarded mandated that I take 15 credit hours and maintain a 3.15 GPA, so there were always plenty of classes on my schedule. I became adept at quickly making friends in classes and sharing notes so I could pass the courses. Back then, instructors didn't keep rigorous attendance records, or I'd have been sunk.

But working for Les taught me so much that the classes I missed never would have touched. He showed me how to deal with difficult personalities and challenging stories. He showed how you could get along with someone you disagreed with strongly. I can't think of a half-dozen times we argued over changes he made in stories I wrote, because it was easy to see why the changes were needed or simply made the story better.

Yet Les became more than my boss. He and his wife Nancy welcomed me into their young, growing family as one of their own. I was over to their house northwest of Valley Center countless times. The Andersons have numerous "Stan stories" that always give them a laugh. One of them was the night a blizzard was hammering the area and they told me to spend the night at their place rather than risk the drive back to Wichita.

It was snowing and blowing so hard I couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of the car, and when I got out to their place I saw these reflective red lights on a pole that marked their driveway (my parents had something similar). I thought the one light was the far end of the driveway, so I turned in front of it ---- and drove right into a huge snowdrift in the ditch. Les stood watching from a living room window of his house yelling “No! No! No!”

My car was stuck there for at least two days. I was embarrassed, and I still hear about that escapade to this day.

Then there was the time I stayed late to write a meeting story and started to drive home on a rainy December night. Temperatures were hovering just below freezing, and black ice had formed on asphalt and elevated surfaces.

The streets in Valley Center were OK, but 85th Street was a sheet of ice. My Le Mans coupe glided right off the highway into the ditch. There wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it. I walked back to Valley (mind you, it was 11 or 12 at night) and called Les from a pay phone. He picked me up and took me to his place. I slept on the living room floor in front of the fireplace that night, listening on the police scanner as the sheriff’s deputies who found my car were saying “Tell people to stay off the roads --- it’s incredibly slick out here.” “No kidding,” I told the scanner.

I played on softball teams and went to the fall festivals and learned Valley Center's characters and its personality. I had planned to keep working for Les through the summer after my senior year at WSU. I needed 3 more credits to graduate, so I would have to stick around through the fall. But Les called me one Sunday night and said there was an open slot in the WSU interview schedule for Eagle internships the next day. Could I throw together some clips and a resume and do the interview? It would look bad for WSU if there wasn’t enough interest in an Eagle internship to fill out their slate, he said.

So as a favor to him, I did just that. I was happy working for Les. Not really caring how it went, I just winged it. In hindsight, that may have been a blessing, because I was relaxed during the interview. To my surprise, they chose me for an internship with the Eagle. I told Les I was fine with it if he wanted me to keep working for him, but he said, “No, you take that internship. It’ll be good for you.”

 Of course, he was right. After my internship ended, I returned to working for Les while I took the one class I still needed to graduate. One December morning, the phone rang at the news office. It was an editor with the Salina Journal, wanting me to come up for an interview. He had called Les, saying he needed a cops reporter. Les suggested me. I later learned I had the job before I ever walked in the door. If Les said I was good, then that was all they needed to hear.

The Eagle hired me six months later, and I've been there ever since. But I would go to Valley Center often in those early years to visit Nancy, Les and the kids; renew acquaintances with Larry the Barber and Gary the Grocer and Lucy the Printer.

I grew up with a father who seemed to measure a person's worth according to their desire and ability to work on a farm. I never enjoyed farm life, feeling like it stifled my curiosity and intellect. Farm life didn't seem well suited for my interests and abilities.

Les was one of the first people I met who treated me as if I had gifts and abilities of value, not someone who was a burden or disappointment. Only those who have walked similar paths can know how liberating - even exhilarating - that is.

Over time, I became an annual visitor to his classrooms, talking about writing and reporting and stories I had done. He'd call or e-mail me about this or that, and it was always great to catch up with him. But he was always on the go, doing the work of three people. The way so many of my colleagues raved about Les, I knew he had been every bit the mentor and guide for them that he had been for me.

I was startled - but, upon reflection, not terribly surprised - when I learned he suffered a heart attack in December 2009. He was always so busy, pushing so hard, doing so much - for his church, for the paper, for his job at the university - that I long feared he would wear himself out.

Les dismissed it as a minor setback, but I could tell Nancy was worried when we talked about it later. Les began cutting back - at least, "cutting back" for Les. He still seemed to be so busy.

When I spoke to his "media" class at WSU in September, he was his usual warm, ingratiating self. But he looked tired. I fretted about his health.

News that WSU was endowing a scholarship in his name pleased me, and I vowed to attend a roast to raise money for the fund in late October. Something just kept pushing me to be there. It was a great night, and Les was showered with the love he so richly deserved.

It was great to see the spotlight shine on a man who spent so much of his life deflecting attention onto others, encouraging, molding, guiding....

I never dreamed that would be the last time I would get to see him.

The news came abruptly on a Saturday night in mid-November. It's still hard to believe that a man of such energy and enthusiasm had been taken from us so soon.

I'm grateful to have known and learned so much from him. I feel sad for those who never had the chance to meet him.

At the visitation the night before his funeral, I heard a high school classmate and longtime friend of Les' remark, "I never realized he did so much." But that was Les. It was never about him. It was about the students he was mentoring, or the group he was part of. He was the energy that kept things moving, the motivation that kept young people reaching, the force behind so many ideas that allowed us to see things in a way we hadn't before.

As I listening to others talk about Les' impact on their lives, it occurred to me that what drove them was to be the person Les realized they could be - and in so doing became more than even they had imagined. He stretched their horizons, broadened their dreams.

That's not just the definition of a good teacher, it's a hallmark of an effective leader: making those around you better, simply by being yourself.

If Kansas had a Mount Rushmore of journalism, it would be incomplete if Les wasn't included. I doubt Kansas has seen a small-town publisher of his caliber since William Allen White - and I'm sure Les could have taught White a lot, given the chance.

For all I know, they're having some of those conversations even now.

Rest well, Les. You've earned it.