Thursday, September 30, 2010

Former Pop Star Has Junction City Roots

The e-mail garnered my attention. “This is Frankie Valens, the former pop singer.”

Frankie Valens. Didn’t he die in a plane crash? No, that was Richie Valens, who died in a snowy Iowa field in 1959 with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Frankie Valens is a Kansas preacher’s kid who became a modest pop sensation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, covering tunes such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

The confusion comes because Bernard Franklin Piper adopted Valens’ stage surname some years after that plane crash. He admired his music and needed a stage name, according to a Wichita newspaper interview a decade ago. Folks used to confuse him with other Frankies, such as Frankie Avalon and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. Frankie Valens faded from the music scene in the early 1970s in part due to a bitter dispute with his agent. He went back to work as an accountant, according to his Web site. But a decade or so ago he began performing again. His concerts are a combination of spiritual and secular songs performed with his wife, Phylis, as his partner.

Both Frankie and Phylis developed back problems from lugging around heavy musical equipment, so they “retired” from performing in 2008. They still perform if asked but don’t seek bookings. Sierra Scott, who produces “It’s All Good” for Kansas public television stations, is about to film a piece on Frankie and Phylis. Listening to links on the Web site (, it’s clear that, even in his late 60s, Frankie still has a set of well-tuned pipes. His wife, a concert pianist, accompanies him when they perform. They use prerecorded tracks for the rest of the instrumentation.

In a phone interview, Frankie recalled the years he lived in Junction City, where his academic career can be described as uneven. He missed so much of first grade due to illness that he was held back and repeated. By then his parents had moved to Kansas City, where his father was foreman of a lumberyard. Then, in eleventh grade, Bernard Piper returned his family to Junction City so he could attend a bible college in Manhattan. Frankie, as he was always called, attended the last two years at Junction City High School. But academic disaster struck. The principal had warned that passing the final exam was necessary to graduate, no matter how good one’s grades.

“Five seniors flunked (the exam), and I was one of them,” he said. The principal came to his house on Tenth Street to retrieve his cap and gown. Frankie repeated the 12th grade in Kansas City in order to graduate.

While here, he dated a girl whose mom worked at the Plaza Truck Stop on the east side of town, a business owned by his aunt and uncle. “I was pretty stuck up back then,” he admits, more interested in spending his money on records and clothes. “I became the best-dressed kid in high school.”

Valens attended college in New York City, studying accounting, which is where he was discovered and joined a New Jersey group called Eminent Domain. That launched his career, though he was never comfortable with much of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

“I never did drink, smoke or do drugs,” a philosophy that accounts for his work in recent years with anti-drug programs and churches, in his concerts and in the ministry he and Phylis operate.

The reason he e-mailed is that Frankie is working on an autobiography and hit a brick wall, trying to find out the first name of his great-grandmother. She died somewhere in this area in the early 1890s. I agreed to help and soon headed across the street to the Geary County Historical Society to enlist the help of the good folks there.

Frankie’s great-grandmother’s last name was Nickell. Her daughter married Charles F. Day in 1909. Day helped build the municipal pool here, according to Frankie. I found their wedding announcement in three different Junction City newspapers, including the one you’re now reading, back in the good old days when even small towns like this had three or four papers. Of course, the editors were starving to death, but at least there was plenty to read.

Hazel Nickell Day, Frankie’s grandmother, is buried in Highland Cemetery. She died in 1971 at age 80. But her mother’s name, and where she died, remains a mystery. It’s nearly certain she didn’t die here, because the crack volunteers helping me look in the basement of the historical society building have indexed obituaries from that time period, know all the places to look for the information. They spent a couple of hours helping, to no avail.

As it turns out, Frankie has kin still in town, including a cousin who works here at the paper. Another cousin lives in Wamego, about 40 miles east of here; his wife is editor of the weekly Smoke Signal there, of which I’m publisher as one of my other hats. They’re all intrigued by the story and interested in trying to solve the mystery of the first name of the mysterious Mrs. Nickell.

There are a few more rabbit trails to follow. I haven’t given up yet.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, October 2, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I Am Surrounded by Gadgetry

I recently attended a conference on how technology will affect newspapers. The session I chose to participate in dealt with how people are likely to receive their news in the future.

Truth is, I alternate between wishing I had been born 10 years earlier and could watch this revolution in our business from retirement on the front porch rocker, to being amazed at how the business in which I have spent my entire adult life has changed so radically — and how fascinating earning a living during this upheaval will be.

It also provides me an excellent excuse to buy lots of gadgets. Already I’m thinking about upgrading to the new iPhone4, though it is totally unnecessary since my iPhone3 works just fine. But there is a nearly 13-year-old future daughter in Texas just salivating over the possibility of inheriting my older iPhone. So that’s an incentive, since I do love to make that child happy.

The dark side of all this gadgetry is I am not particularly adept at learning how to use it, being 55 years old and someone to whom learning such skills does not come naturally. I never learned how to program a VCR, for example. I keep the instruction booklet to my Nikon D9 digital SLR in my 30-year-old Domke camera bag for frequent referral — when I forget how to change the ISO settings, for example. If the almost-teen is within reach, I usually just hand it to her and get her to figure out how to use whatever gadget we’re talking about.

Her mother received an Apple iPad as part of her professor job. The child, of course, within minutes had taught me all I needed to know about using it, which isn’t terribly different than the iPhone, though it is larger and cooler — except you can’t make calls. But it is one of those devices that would be lovely to have for reading Web sites, newspapers online, even the occasional movie while on a long airplane flight. But I would never shell out $850 or so for one.

Take the Blackberry. Please. Moving here required inheriting a second cell phone, this Blackberry. That’s what we use at the paper. I’m under indentured servitude for the iPhone along with my Beautiful Mystery Companion and aforementioned child. So I now carry around two cell phones.

We just upgraded cell phone plans at the paper. At first my boss and I opted for a “droid,” which is Google’s version of an iPhone. Thank goodness the boss hated it, and we opted to just get a newer version of the Blackberry. I was dreading trying to figure out how to use yet another device just when I had learned enough about how to use the Blackberry to answer calls and view e-mails.

The other night, the new Blackberry decided to lock its keypad. I had nothing to do with this event. But it said I would have to unlock the keypad to use the phone. I could find no button that said lock, tried turning the phone on and off, began randomly just pushing keys without success. Finally in frustration I shoved the phone back in its leather holster while muttering imprecations to the technology spirits and longing for the days when my life wasn’t tethered to a cell phone.

That did the trick. I don’t know what the heck I did, but shoving it into the holster somehow unlocked the phone. I was back in business, though I have no idea how I locked the phone or unlocked it. One of my life rules concerning computers or anything related to them is to never question when something that wasn’t working starts behaving again. Just be grateful and go on about your business. Leave the analysis to folks better qualified than me.

Back at the conference, I learned folks would increasingly get their news on their phones, iPads and devices we haven’t even imagined. Fine by me. I figure as long as we keep reporting the news, it doesn’t matter how folks receive it.

The conference organizers were giving away an iPad at the conference’s close as an incentive to keep folks sticking around on a Friday afternoon in downtown Kansas City.

Yep, I won the iPad. Thanks to the tutelage from the almost-teen, I even know how to use it. It is pretty darned cool. Guess I will stick around the business and see what this brave new world will bring, after all. Besides, I need the paycheck.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 25, 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Season Promises New Beginnings

Summer officially departs in a few days. Good riddance. It is my least favorite season, finishing a distant last to the other three. My favorite time of year is about to commence — autumn with the changing leaves, cooler temperatures, football season, pumpkins, Thanksgiving celebrations, and the chance to wear sweatshirts while walking in the morning.

My modest porch garden is about to give it up, leaves withering, produce growing ever smaller. There are a few tomatoes left on the vines, but it is doubtful whether they’ll ripen before the birds or other critters get them. Still, I’m satisfied with the yield from these container-raised plants, which kept me in tomatoes, peppers and herbs for a few months.

The jalapeño plants have gotten a second wind for some reason, certainly through no gardening prowess on my part. I barely remember to water. Still, a third round has appeared. Each crop is smaller and hotter, as if the capsaicin contained within becomes more concentrated the smaller the pepper becomes. I long ago adopted the credo that one can’t eat enough jalapeños in a given day, fresh or pickled. Some folks claim it drives away potential cancer cells. Others say they’re good for the heart.

I have elected to be a jalapeño guinea pig in the name of science, and thus eat them with virtually every meal save breakfast. And if breakfast ends up being a brunch at a Mexican restaurant, say a steaming plate of huevos rancheros, then you can be sure there’s a bowl of peppers on the side. I’ll miss my fresh peppers picked off the three plants on the front porch.

The basil plants are still flourishing, though a single grasshopper is bent on chewing up as many leaves as possible. We have an interesting battle underway. I refuse to use poisons. If I wanted to do that, I could just go ahead and buy the produce in a grocery store. So my battle against the grasshopper consists of thumping him in the head and knocking him out into the front yard, in the vague hope he’ll get the hint he isn’t welcome. Grasshopper head-thumping hasn’t worked so far, but the basil is hardy enough to survive a single member of the species. If he starts inviting friends and family, the basil plants are in trouble. Considering I only pick leaves to use every few weeks, usually in a mouth-watering mixture of mozzarella balls, olive oil, tomatoes and warm ciabatta bread, I can afford sharing basil leaves with a solitary grasshopper.

The lone rosemary plant is doing fine. Past readers will be pleased to know I finally learned the purpose of this lovely spice, which I bought for its intoxicating smell. Rosemary is an excellent accompaniment to both oven-roasted chicken and red potatoes drizzled in olive oil. I’m glad I only have one plant, since I end up pruning the plant to keep it fresh without using much to cook.

Turned out that the rabbits weren’t the voracious predators I feared they would be. They hop about, oblivious to the rich pickings nearby. One little fellow the other evening was nibbling grass practically at my feet until he figured out I was a human and not a statue and hopped away. I envisioned plants rapidly denuded by Bugs Bunny’s kinfolks, eager to feast upon my foliage. It never happened.

Some of the trash bushes, as I call them, along my walking route are already turning color. The sun rises later in the morning and will do so until the time changes. I look forward to that, because I’m someone who wakes with the light. Thus it’s hard to force myself out the door walking in the dark of current early mornings, at 6:15 or so. There is a slight chill in the air most days, a harbinger of the change to come. Fine with me if it is dark not long after work ends when it’s too cold to do much outside anyway, as long as there is a bit of light in the morning.

A new season invariably promises a fresh start, in one fashion or another. We’ll see what autumn brings.

Originally published in The Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 18, 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Newspaper Celebrates Its Birthday

The newspaper for which I toil began its existence 149 years ago this weekend, on Sept. 12, 1861, as the Smoky Hill and Republican Union. George W. Kingsbury was its editor and proprietor. Its slogan was, “We Join Ourselves To No Party That Does Not Carry The Flag, and Keep Step To the Music Of The Union.” The state of Kansas had joined the United States only eight months earlier as a free state and sent more than 20,000 soldiers to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War that began just two months later.

So it is no surprise that the Union newspaper supported both that cause and the party of Lincoln in its nameplate, though of course those are also the names of the rivers that meander through our town and join to form the Kansas River.

I downloaded a copy of the first issue from the Library of Congress, which has digitized the first three years of the newspaper’s existence as part of its Chronicling America project. That means anyone can go online and read or print copies of newspapers from all over the country. I am constantly amazed at this modern world, and how it allows researchers access from a computer screen and Internet connection to material that one once had to travel thousands of miles to peruse.

Kingsbury set out his political views in his opening issue, making it clear he was in the Union camp. He wrote, “It is clearly our duty to rally around the Constitution, and the glorious old flag of our country, in our common cause for the preservation and perpetuation of our glorious Union…”

Putting out a newspaper a century-and-a-half ago was tough sledding even under the best of circumstances. And producing a weekly in Junction City during a Civil War must have been brutal. For Kingsbury, this was his second attempt to put out a paper here, having been involved as the printer of the Sentinel a couple of years earlier.

For nearly 30 years, off and on, I’ve ruined my eyesight looking at microfilm of old newspapers, for a master’s thesis on an 1840s-era Republic of Texas newspaper, and years later for a modest book published by University of Texas press. (Advice to aspiring book authors: Keep your day job.) I’ve had a hand in producing centennial issues for two different newspapers. Next year, Lord willing, our staff will produce a sesquicentennial issue to mark the 150th year for this newspaper. I’m a newspaper nerd from way back.

Only two newspapers in Kansas have stayed in business longer than this publication: the Troy Chief and the Leavenworth Times. That is quite a legacy. The Montgomery family for whom I work have been associated with the Union since 1888. It is still a family operation in a time when most newspapers are owned by corporate chains with distant ownerships. There isn’t necessarily wrong with that, but there is something comforting in the longevity, the commitment that comes with family ownership of a company over well more than a century.

I’m grateful to have come into this line of work a bit more than a century after the Union sprang into existence. Newspapering back then truly was brutal work. Type was set one character at a time, the character placed in a wooden case. Payment from both subscribers and advertisers was always iffy. Newspapers particularly in small towns like Junction City, popped up and disappeared with regularity.

Folks are predicting the demise of newspapers once again. No doubt the landscape is changing. How you get your news, even about this town, will evolve eventually. What won’t change is that nearly 150 years later, we’ll still be the place readers go to find out what happened in the chunk of the Flint Hills that we cover. Nobody does it better or more thoroughly. We’re not perfect by any means. But we plug away every day, with a small crew of folks who are trained to get the story and explain it best as they can.

That’s a family tradition the folks at this paper are proud to continue, just as they do at small papers all across this country. Next year we’ll really celebrate.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, Sept. 11, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cooler Weather Means It's Time to Start Building

Woodshop season is about to commence. Summer’s dog days are slinking away, at long last. A few folks here have blamed my migration from Texas for the unusual heat wave. I apologize, though my powers are vastly overrated. Heck, I can’t even get my kinfolks to vote right.

But it appears that summer is truly headed out the door, which means I’ll be able to use the woodshop that was a large enticement for leasing this house up on the hill. Woodworking isn’t much fun when it’s 100 degrees, and the shop has no air-conditioning. I’m not so dedicated to this hobby of building mission-style furniture — primarily to give away to friends and family —to sweat profusely for hours on end.

I spent several hours last weekend, which wasn’t terribly hot, perched on a stool in the shop, flipping through a decade’s worth of woodworking magazines. When I took up this pastime a dozen years ago, I taught myself the necessary skills by subscribing to a half-dozen different magazines, plus buying an armful of books on different aspects of the craft — cabinet making, building chairs, how to set up a proper shop, and so forth. After a decade, I figured I had enough magazines to last a lifetime and canceled all the subscriptions. Each contains plans for several projects, so when I decide to build something I flip through the magazines and find a number of projects on which to embark.

First, though, I had to drive back to East Texas, an event that took place over the Labor Day weekend, when you likely are reading this piece. That’s where my cache of lumber remains, in a storage unit. I ran out of time to move lumber up here, so I’ll be hurtling back to Kansas early next week with my utility trailer filled with as much rough-cut black walnut and red oak as my dinky hybrid SUV can pull.

I’ve been hauling this lumber around for a while, but it’s worth it. Over the past dozen years, I’ve bought piles of lumber from folks who kept it stored in barns or covered with tin, and finally decided to sell it for next-to-nothing. I would write a column about building furniture and somebody would holler at me, offering to sell me a trailer-load of black walnut for $100 or so. I never said no — in fact, anybody reading this who wants to unload some decent hardwood lumber knows where to find me.

Anyway, by the time I get back early next week, I’ll have enough lumber on hand to get busy as the nights get cooler, as well as on weekends. I am ridiculously slow at building furniture. It’s one of the few parts of my life where deadlines don’t dictate. Accordingly, I refuse to build anything for money. If I charged by the hour, this prairie sofa, for example, where I take a 20-minute nap after work in the study most days, would have to sell for — well, let’s just say I’m not that good a furniture maker.

This is what I do instead of fishing. Thus I have all the tools and gadgets one needs to build anything out of wood. Part of the joy of woodworking for me is relearning how to set up, say, the biscuit joiner, which is used to join two pieces of wood together for a desk or table, for example. Or how to tune up the bandsaw, so it will cut through a four-inch piece of red oak without breaking a blade.

Soon I’ll have to plane some rough-cut lumber. That process is extremely noisy and messy, creating barrels of shavings that work well as flowerbed mulch. Luckily, though I live in town, my house is pretty isolated. It backs up to a cemetery, so nobody behind me is likely to complain about the noise. The rest of the neighbors are far enough away that it shouldn’t result in any police calls for disturbing the peace.

Using power equipment that can slice off fingers in a flash if you’re careless does force one to concentrate. It takes your mind off the worries of the world. I enjoy knowing that I’m building pieces of furniture that will outlive me. I seriously doubt anybody other than the occasional curious descendant years from now will be reading any of the few thousand columns I’ve written over nearly three decades. But somebody — though they probably won’t know who made it — probably will appreciate that coffee table made out of recycled tongue-and-groove two-inch thick red oak with a black-walnut frame, long after I’m gone. It’s sturdy and built to survive lots of beer cans spills and chili-bowl sloshes.

I’m ready to fire up the planer and start making some noise.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 4, 2010.