Monday, 5-6-2002


Dear Political Diary,

I skipped out on the Congressional convention this weekend. Unexpectedly, my Dad's brother and sister and my Mom organized a family reunion in Topeka, Kansas after selling off the family farm. My sister and I eagerly joined in and my brother almost made it until business interfered. I was excited to prowl Topeka, Kansas, again for the first time since my Grandmother's funeral in 1986. There were a lot of memories to revisit and I was in a hurry because my Mother's memories are beginning to fade.

After our drive in from the Kansas City Airport, we registered in the huge new hotel on the old Kansas State Fair grounds next to a new convention center. It stood where the old Grandstand had been where the race cars would whine on the early summer evenings singing me to sleep. A girl's soccer tournament was in full swing and the elevators spilled over with girls who wouldn't abandon the elevators until they had punched every floor's button.

The business transaction which we were celebrating had also been the cause of some family friction but after a little peace keeping its disposal was just too good an excuse for a last trip to Topeka for us to pass up..

I had told my Mom that I wanted her to show us each of the seven houses she had lived in after moving to Topeka. Mom who is getting a little fearful of travel was excited about the trip although my sister had warned me she might get cold feet at the last minute. It didn't happen.

I woke up before daybreak the next day and couldn't sleep. It was about five o'clock and the family wasn't going to meet for breakfast until nine so got up and drove around town. I stopped first at the water tower next to my Grandmother's home. The tower's floodlights used to brighten the room I stayed in when I slept over at my Grandmother's house. My grandmother's blew away in a great tornado in 1966 and is now the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant..

Only three abandoned houses remain on the block. When the tornado tore a seven mile gash through town half of Topeka's eleven fatalities took place on that block. My Grandmother was saved because she was visiting her step mother that evening and her daughter, my aunt Mary, wouldn't let her drive home to park her car in the brick garage. It was a lucky thing she didn't go home because every brick in the garage ended up in the southwest corner of her basement where she always went during tornados.

I walked around the downtown and then onto the grounds of the state capital where my Grandfather George Robb worked as State Auditor for twenty-four years and where I would visit my Father, Dan Welty, in the State Insurance Commissioner's office. It was "office politics" in the Insurance Commission that led my Father to relocate the family to Minnesota. I walked through the capital building a couple days at a more respectable hour of the day a few days later. Among other things I wanted to get a look at the famous John Steuart Curry painting of John Brown. That's when I discovered that the Auditor's office was no more.  It was abolished in 1976 the year I first ran for the Minnesota State legislature.

As the sun rose I headed to the small apartment building which used to be on the outskirts of town, the site of my story "Harry's Nap." There was a particular memory I wanted to track down. The apartment building had been torn down a decade earlier. However, the barns beside it were still standing. I drove up the road on the hill above the apartment where the Menninger Psychiatric Clinic is located. I used to sled down it in the winter right into the path of the infrequent cars which cruised by on Sixth Street. For the last 43 years I've kept a fond memory of  walking down the other side of the hill with my Dad to the Kansas River. The path I recollected had been a gated road.  It was the first gate I ever saw my Dad ignore and climb over. I recalled stooping on the road to look for crinoid fossils on the way down to the River. 

After all these years I really had no idea where the Ka River was in relationship to our old apartment or whether my memory was trustworthy. The road was still gated but only to vehicles.  I strolled down the road through a secluded wood. I stopped a couple of times to look for fossils but found none which shook my confidence a bit. But, sure as shootin, after a short hike I found the Ka just as I'd remembered it. Before returning I stooped down in a new patch of yellow gravel to give a serious look for a crinoid stem to confirm my memory. I combed through the gravel with a will, and there it was. A little disk of crinoid. There must be uncounted zillions of them in the limestone of Kansas but this one was very precious. 

I hauled my Mom and my aunt around old Topeka until we'd located most of the houses she'd occupied. Later I had my Uncle drive us by the old farmstead, now in other hands, and my sister and I hiked through it. My Uncle had told me we could see the state capital from the high ground but the land was too overgrown to see anything. We fought through a dense tangle of undergrowth before reaching a large field planted in wheat. In the 18th century it had contained a spring, the only one that wouldn't dry up, during a ferocious drought. The Interstate that sundered the property in the Fifties caused it to dry up.

Over the weekend I drove by old schools, churches, libraries, familiar landmarks and gravesites. I would have loved to have another day to drive out to Salina and visit my Grandfather Robb's grave in Gypsum Hill Cemetery. I did visit the new Kansas Historical Museum and discovered a permanent WW! exhibit that featured my Grandfather George Robb.

I also discovered that Topeka had indeed honored the memory of the Supreme Court case which bore its name. I'd speculated about this in one of my recent Reader columns. My grandmother had once attended Monroe School as a child before it was rebuilt and designated a school for black children only.  Monroe was the school that Miss Brown had been forced to attend even though there was a much closer public elementary school near her home.

Saturday night we were invited over for dinner at the home of one of my second cousins. It was hear that I learned something very satisfying. One of my cousins had worked for a short time in the Kansas State Insurance Commission's office in the 1970's. I mentioned to him that my Dad had also worked in the office in the 1950's as an "Insurance investigator" for Mr. Sullivan, then the state's elected Insurance Commissioner. My cousin told me that he'd seen my Father's signature on letters in the files. I told him why my Father had decided to move to Minnesota.

Mr. Sullivan liked to accept gifts from the insurance companies that wanted to do business in Kansas. Some were fly-by-night operations without the resources to back up the policies they were offering. My father took pride in telling such companies to take a hike and warned Sullivan against accepting their gifts. Shortly after he offered this advice another employee got a promotion that my Father had been looking forward to. Dad left within the year and began teaching law and risk management at Mankato State.

My cousin told me that Sullivan wasn't particularly reputable. He had an even lower opinion of Sullivan's successor. Apparently the next Insurance Commissioner took just as many gratuities but was especially greedy. No one paid much attention to him until he filed a half million dollar worker's compensation claim against the state of Kansas. He had claimed that he had injured his back while taking a brief case out of his car trunk. I couldn't help but wonder if he was the guy that got the promotion my Dad had lost.