How it feels to come home to Kansas after decades away

A display inside the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. (National Park Service)

How many times can you tell your family that you are never moving back to Kansas? Too many to count, but ultimately they got the last laugh. I moved back to Kansas nearly two years ago to become a journalism professor at my alma mater, the University of Kansas.

For years we would visit at least twice a year, especially as the kids got older and wanted to see their grandparents more often or hang out with their cousins. A trip to Mount Oread and a walk down memory lane was always on tap.

But now as a Kansas resident, I see the state through mature eyes, through eyes that have lived in Boston, Rochester, N.Y., Dallas, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Virginia suburbs. Through eyes that have lived in big cities, seen my children grow up, seen diverse communities make strides within booming economies and seen a state’s political ruling class change from conservative to more liberal. Kansas is as complex as its wind-swept plains are beautiful.

Sometimes I find myself defending all things Kansas, that the place isn’t as racist or as conservative as some may think. Look, we have a Democratic woman governor, a gay Native American woman serving Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District.

In the early days of the pandemic, KU was the first Kansas university to shut down behind the leadership of our physician-chancellor, Doug Girod. For months, the number of COVID-19 cases was fairly low in Douglas County, until there was a surge in July. In late spring, Kansas started forgoing virus updates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends. The citizens need and have a right to know what is happening in their midst, but officials said it would allow them to focus on other aspects of the coronavirus response.

I am so confused when I see legislators fighting against a governor who just wants to keep us safe by requiring masks or when I see the Kansas State Board of Education reach a 5-5 tie and reject Laura Kelly’s order to delay the opening of schools until after Labor Day. As the mother of two grown children and the auntie of little ones, the safety of all kiddos is paramount. Aren’t we all on the safety page?

But as with any situation, all we want is to be safe and to find the proper course to defeat the virus. We just can’t seemingly agree on how to get there.

An educational display at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. (Submitted by Patricia E. Weems Gaston)

Moving to Kansas has given me a chance to more closely study the history of its abolitionist past in the fight against slavery; the role of the Quindaro Town site, a stop on the Underground Railroad and port of entry in Kansas; its place in the Brown v. Board of Education case against school segregation. I plan to go to Nicodemus, the oldest and only remaining black settlement west of the Mississippi, and Atchison, the home of aviator Amelia Earhart.

I love being able to see my parents and siblings quite frequently. I love the small-town civility of Lawrence and being able to go into a nearby grocery store and having the cashier or the bagger ask how my day is going. I have had many people do this in other spots I have lived, but at this time in my life it is especially nice.

Who knew a 15-minute ride to campus would make my day? After 37 years of driving in some of the country’s worst traffic, I feel I am getting younger by the minute, and that now I have more time to do that historical work I had been yearning to do.

I have far-flung friends who have stopped through Lawrence, whether on business (interviewing a Japanese war bride and her husband for a Smithsonian project) or to check out the best venues to watch college basketball (this friend loved Allen Fieldhouse over UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion). Kansas has tickled their fancy and dare I say caused them to not always believe what they read or hear.

I am not going to lie — I miss the Washington, D.C., area where I made my home for 21 years, my two grown children, my work at The Washington Post, my friends, church and all of the cultural and sports amenities that a heart can desire. But the chance to train the next generation of journalists called me back to Kansas and made my see my home state with new wonder. You can go home again.