history of the Sunflower, Harry Walter Colmery

(Frank)Today Around Kansas celebrates the history of the Sunflower and how it became the state flower. Then learn about Harry Walter Colmery – how he came to Kansas, became an advocate for veterans, and wrote the draft of the G. I. Bill of Rights. Then enjoy a poem from Ron Wilson and we’ll end with the story of Miss Able, the monkey who traveled into space in 1959, opening the door for human space travel.

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(Frank Chaffin) Well, good morning and welcome to The Twilight Zone. No, no, no. This is Around Kansas. [Laughs] I am Frank. (Deb Goodrich) I am Deb but I feel like The Twilight Zone. I think the heat has fried my brain. My brain has been on a 30 second delay or something. It might even be a 30 minute delay. I mean it’s like people will say something and I’m just, 30 minutes later it would kick in. It’s like the Blonde Jane kicked in or something. I can’t just quite follow what people are saying. I don’t know what it is. (Frank) Well, the thing is though I got to meet Rod Serling once. (Deb) Did you, really? How cool. (Frank) When I worked in Kansas City at WDAF, he was very good friends with the Program Director at WDAF and they collaborated on a show called Beyond Belief and anyway Rod Serling happened to be in town one day. I was at studio. I was kind of like this, “Hi.” – but other than that. (Deb) That’s awesome. Folks are always teasing me, “You know so many famous people.” That’s the plus of being in media. I mean it really is. That’s one wonderful perk that these people aren’t just like Rod Serling, the black and white face on TV or that voice. It’s a real person. We’ve been blessed to know some really cool people, Frank, and to interview some really interesting people. One of my favorite interviews was William Lee Golden and the Oakridge Boys. I interviewed him before a show in Topeka, on the air. It was the only time because I am used to talk, like you, used to talking to important people and don’t get star struck too badly, but when he came over the phone and over the air and said, “Good morning, Deb” in that beautiful, deep voice of his. For like – I was done. I mean I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I was just like, “Oh my gosh.” [Laughs] Then I regained my composure and then I got to meet him and visit with him when he came to town for show. Oh my gosh, what a generous, gracious person, in addition to phenomenally talented. (Frank) One of the more fun ones I ever did was Chill Wills. I don’t know if the audience is old enough to remember Chill Wills. (Deb) How cool is that? (Frank) Yes. He was in town when they first opened the Ramada Inn because I think he had an interest in it and all that. When he came by the studio for an interview and I just remember his publicist saying, “I would advise you, keep your hand on the mic switch.” [Laughter] We got through the interview and he was just fine and quite a gentleman and he looked just as cool as he always did on screen. (Deb) Buck Taylor grew up with Chill Wills and he either, and Buck, I’m going to mess it up now, was holding Buck’s hand when he took his first steps or Buck took his first steps to Chill Wills. I can’t remember now but it’s in an interview that I did with Buck a couple of years ago maybe, a year or two ago, at the premier of The Road to Valhalla. Little bitty world, Frank. Little bitty world. (Frank) We’ve got some great stories. Stay tuned.

(Frank) Sunflowers, she’s my sunflower. Do you know that song? (Deb) No. [laughs] (Frank) She’s not old enough. Bing Crosby back in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s had a big hit song called Sunflower. Sunflower from the sunflower state and I mean it was a big, big hit. Now, here is something else. You do know the song “Hello Darling”. (Deb) Sure. (Frank) Well, there was a great big court battle over that because the writer of Sunflower said they were the same song. (Deb) Well, the way you sing it, it sounded like it. [Laughter] (Frank) But the first few notes are the same. But the thing as I remember it, the Hello Darling people won and they said it was totally by chance. (Deb) Well, I didn’t know. (Frank) Bing Crosby, Sunflower. Look it up online. You can find it. (Deb) Well, that’s very appropriate for the Sunflower State. Sunflowers, we, of course, call it the sunflower state because of all those folks and wagons rolling by. You got these wonderful wild sunflowers that we still have all over the place. Then of course that morphed into eventually a sunflower crop. I never can not think of this but my granny always planted a row of sunflowers beside the garden but we didn’t eat sunflower seeds because she thought that was greedy and she planted those for the birds. Those were intended for the birds and not for us. And we were like, “But man, they’re good, granny” “I’ll go to the store, buy you a little pack of sunflower seeds.” (Frank) Birds over on the fence going– [laughter] (Deb) Exactly. Let’s take a look at our most famous flower and how we took the name the Sunflower State.It’s no accident that we are the Sunflower State. Long before statehood, the sunflower began to develop a connection with Kansas. Traders on the Santa Fe Trail commented on the flower’s presence. Stephen Long’s expedition through Kansas in 1820 documented birds feeding on the flower’s seeds. Early settlers burned the stalks for fuel and fed the seeds to their poultry. Soon after statehood, Kansans began to suggest the state officially adopt the flower. The capitol square is surrounded by a dense growth of rampant sunflowers, wrote Noble Prentis, editor of the Atchison Champion, in 1880. They grow as big, rank and yellow as if they were forty miles from a house. The sunflower ought to be made the emblem of our state. Kansas delegates to the Grand Army of the Republic convention in St. Louis in 1887 displayed the sunflower as their emblem. The Newton Daily Republican suggested in response to the favorable reception that Kansas should be called the Sunflower State. However, the sunflower was not highly regarded by all. An 1895 state law called the sunflower a noxious weed that should be destroyed. Other Kansans appreciated the flower’s hardiness and endurance. Kansans who attended rodeos in Colorado Springs in 1901 displayed the sunflower as a badge. It presented a pleasing scene, unique and attractive to every citizen of the Sunflower state, George P. Morehouse, state senator from Council Grove, recalled. That occasion suggested the sunflower as our state flower. Morehouse drafted the bill designating the wild native sunflower or Helianthus as the state flower. Governor Willis Bailey signed the legislation in 1903. Nebraska had considered adopting the flower as its own before the Kansas law passed. No other state claimed the flower as its symbol. When Alfred Landon launched his presidential campaign in 1936, the symbol was prominent on his buttons and campaign materials. The sunflower has become an important Kansas crop, used for sunflower oil and biodiesel fuel. The nickname, Sunflower State, has become common and the sunflower remains a unique, cherished Kansas symbol.

(Frank) Here we are again. (Deb) The statues that have been going up on Kansas Avenue, of course, in tribute to these remarkable Kansans and of course we know this name because of the Colmery O’Neil Medical Center or the VA Medical Center in Topeka. But there are a lot of people, younger generations, that don’t know the name Harry Colmery and, Frank, you would have to reach a long way to find somebody who had a greater impact on the lives of Americans than Harry Colmery. (Frank) That’s very true, especially the VA hospitals. (Deb) And the GI Bill. It’s an incredible legacy. It’s an incredible legacy and Kansas, of course we’ve talked about this many times, the contributions of veterans we have. I was just looking at this the other day; our percentage of veterans living in Kansas is still greater than most states. We have a very strong tradition of service and Harry Colmery is one of those people who valued that and really wanted to pay back to the veterans. (Frank) In the 900 block of Kansas Avenue is where you will see a great memorial to him. When you are in the city, be sure to go there and take a look at it. (Deb) Let’s take a look at the life of this very famous and very deserving Kansan. (Frank) Harry Walter Colmery was born in 1890, in Braddock, Pennsylvania. He was an industrious young man who worked in his dad’s grocery store, had a newspaper route and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. Harry attended Oberlin College and the University of Pittsburgh law school. His career was interrupted by America’s entry into World War I. During the war, Colmery served in the Army Air Service as an instructor and pursuit pilot. Afterward, Harry moved to Topeka to practice law with John S. Dean. Harry’s years in the Army had a big impact on him and he was an advocate for veterans the rest of his life. He became involved in the American Legion at the local, state, and national levels, serving as national commander. In the years following World War II, the name Harry Colmery was a “household word.” He was a member of the American Legion’s national legislative committee and worked to change regulations to allow veterans to be treated at Veteran’s Hospitals for non-service related illnesses and to allow for the expansions of the veteran’s hospital system. During WWII, he was involved in the debate of how to assist the millions of veterans that would be returning to the work force at the end of the war. Many feared a return to the Great Depression with men and women who had served their country joining the ranks of the unemployed after they were discharged. Colmery is credited with writing the draft of what became the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more popularly known as the G. I. Bill of Rights. He then worked for its adoption, and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944. The G. I. Bill provided books, tuition, and a monthly stipend for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans attended college on the G.I. Bill, and it is estimated that in 1947, half of all college students were veterans. Another 5 million veterans attended vocational schools or participated in on-the-job training opportunities. The Colmery-O’Neil Veterans Administration Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, is named for him.

(Ron Wilson) A cowboy has a lot of dirty messy jobs and oftentimes that involves the south end of a cow going north but when we’re sorting cattle, there is a very important job and that is the job of the gateman. It’s a thankless job because he has to make some split-second decisions. In his honor, this poem is entitled The Gateman. There are certain thankless jobs that you encounter in this life like a policeman given parking tickets or perhaps the farmer’s wife who is sent to town for parts, “It’s about yay big. We don’t know the model number but it looks like a thing of a jig.” Those jobs are truly thankless. But among the cowboy clan there is no job so thankless as that of the gateman. When we go to sorting cattle, and the gateman’s simple job is to open and shut the gate when we separate the mob. But that task ain’t nearly as simple as it sounds. He must decide in a split-second with chaos all around. He may have angry steers barreling straight towards him or a crazy cow that will dodge, or jump or kick upon a whim. He gets splattered by manure and will have the gate tore from his hand but he must do the job just right to meet the boss’ demand. His head may be spinning from the contrary directions about when a cowboy says to stop the calf and the other says, “Turn him out.” The gateman’s job is thankless but he can always protect his fate by saying to his critics, “All right. It’s your turn to man the gate.” Happy Trails.

(Frank) Here we are again. (Deb) We’ve got a story for you. (Frank) Monkeying around. [Laughter] (Deb) What we do best. Well, I have to credit my friend Toni Boyles for bringing this story to my attention because we were sitting around having margaritas one night and she starts talking about monkeys in space and I’m totally spacing this whole conversation. (Frank) Coming from space or going to? (Deb) Well, exactly. I couldn’t follow it well. But then she sends me a link to the story of Miss Able; the first space monkey who was from Independence, Kansas. Who guessed? And it goes back to the Monkey Islands that we had. You can’t make this stuff up, people, I’m telling you, you just can’t make this up. Topeka Zoo had a Monkey Island. (Frank) Topeka Zoo had a Monkey Island. It was one of the most popular attractions, yes. (Deb) You’ve literally got this island where the monkeys live and it was sitting out in the middle of a pond? (Frank) A moat, there was a moat around it and then you saw this little village and the monkeys all over it and they had places they could swing and the whole thing. It was a lot of fun, it really was. (Deb) How long ago was that? (Frank) Oh my, it was still in— (Deb) Decades? (Frank) Well, yes, it was still there in the mid ‘50s, I believe, but I think it came into being somewhere in the late ‘30s, ‘40s but it was around for quite a while. (Deb) Well, Independence had one of those so Miss Able came from the Monkey Island Independence, Kansas and her story is very, very interesting. Again, I’ve got thank my good friend Toni Boyles for bringing that to my attention. Like you said earlier, Frank, you just never get too old to learn stuff and when you’re around cool people drinking margaritas, man, you’ll get some story ideas; you’ll get some inspiration. (Frank) [Laughs] It’s amazing you can remember it. Sorry. (Deb) In the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a couple of Kansans are front and center of the story. One is fabled flyer, Amelia Earhart. The other is Miss Able, the Space Monkey. Amelia, of course, was born in Atchison, and famously disappeared in her attempt to fly around the globe. She was truly a pioneering figure in aviation, opening the skies to women pilots. She became an iconic figure and is recognized around the world. Miss Able, a rhesus monkey, was born on Monkey Island in Independence, at the Ralph Mitchell Zoo. She, too, became world-famous after she was chosen to participate in the space program. In May 1959, aboard the JUPITER AM-18, Miss Able, and Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, became the first monkeys to successfully return to Earth after traveling in space. Their names were taken from a phonetic alphabet. The pair travelled in excess of 16,000 km/h, and withstood 38 g’s. Their mission was crucial in understanding the effect of these conditions on mammals. Miss Able died June 1, 1959, while undergoing surgery to remove an infected medical electrode. She suffered a reaction to the anesthesia. Miss Baker died November 29, 1984, at the age of 27 and is buried on the grounds of the United States Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Miss Able was preserved, and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. In the movie, Miss Able, portrayed by Crystal the monkey, helps Larry the security guard, played by Ben Stiller, and Amelia, played by Amy Adams, exit the museum by opening a large roller door. In real life, Miss Able opened the door for humans to journey into space. She is among the more popular museum exhibits, and is rightfully taking her place in the long line of Kansans who have made history in air and space.

(Frank) We have to go again. I’m Frank. (Deb) I’m Deb. (Frank) And we’ll see you somewhere… (Both) …Around Kansas.

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