Remembering our sunflower journeys across Kansas with Jennie Chinn

May 10, 2022 3:33 am
Rex Buchanan interviews Jennie Chinn, executive director of Kansas State Historical Society, at the Kansas Museum of History. (David Kendall)

Rex Buchanan interviews Jennie Chinn, executive director of Kansas State Historical Society, at the Kansas Museum of History. (David Kendall)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions.

In the fall of 1987, I joined the staff of KTWU, the public television station in Topeka. My primary assignment was to help launch a new series that would travel around the state telling stories about Kansas and Kansans.

We premiered the series in January of 1988, calling it “Sunflower Journeys.” By May, we had demonstrated that our small, three-person production team could successfully produce a weekly half-hour show.

But we wanted to enhance the production and add another producer, so we pursued a grant from the Kansas Committee for the Humanities (now Humanities Kansas). As part of that process, we invited Jennie Chinn and Tom Averill to join us as our series advisors.

At the time, Jennie was the director of education and outreach for the Kansas Historical Society and Tom was an associate professor of English at Washburn University. Together, the two of them were teaching a university course focusing on Kansas folklore.

Their role was to help us develop stories that would spotlight various subjects related to Kansas history and culture. We also relied upon them to point us toward knowledgeable individuals who would be willing to share their expertise with us on camera.

With their guidance, “Sunflower Journeys” became so much more than it might otherwise have been. Rather than becoming a simple travelogue, it provided substantive explorations of our state’s history and heritage, celebrating cultural diversity and expanding our sense of community.

The series attracted a growing number of viewers as it was broadcast throughout the state, with teachers making use of the programs in their classrooms. It seemed to hit a chord with folks, remaining in production for 33 years while generating a large collection of videos that have now become part of the historical record.

Over the years, our series advisors both continued to gain recognition for their abilities and expertise. Tom Averill became known as “Writer-in-Residence” at Washburn University and, in 2004, Jennie Chinn advanced to the position of executive director at the state historical society. They both made multiple appearances on “Sunflower Journeys” as well. 

Last September, when a documentary I produced about the Santa Fe Trail premiered, Jennie was back on camera, providing insights about the significance of the trail. She appears throughout the program and gives the concluding remarks to the show. She clearly knew why we were telling the story and she neatly wrapped it all up, hitting just the right note before the program credits rolled.

As this documentary continues to air, as it will again next month on KTWU, those who tune in will see the insights and analysis of an historian who has become part of history itself.

Jennie Chinn served as executive director of the Kansas State Historical Society since 2004. (Kansas State Historical Society)

It was stunning to hear that Jennie had died. Like many others, I felt shock and disbelief when the news report came out. Her obituary states that she passed away unexpectedly at Stormont Vail Health Care Center on Saturday, April 23. Born in May of 1952, she was 10 days shy of her 70th birthday.

Many people have expressed appreciation for the relationship they had with her, as they also share their sorrow in her passing. 

“This came as a shock to me. Jennie was one of my favorite people,” wrote Jim Hoy, the author of numerous books about cowboy culture in the Flint Hills. “I will miss her and the state of Kansas will miss her.”

The state historical society describes Jennie as “a dedicated public servant who loved Kansas, its people, and its history.” On its website, it provides a detailed account of her achievements, referring to her as a “Kansan by choice.” 

Born and raised in California, Jennie came to Kansas in 1980, bringing along her expertise in folklore and mythology. According to Sue Maes, former dean of K-State’s Global Campus who was involved with a community-based educational venture called “University for Man,” Jennie joined the staff there to assist with a grant-based project.

“She came to help direct a National Endowment for the Arts Folk History project,” Maes said. “Jennie was first author of a booklet “Folk Roots: An Exploration of the Folk Arts and Cultural Traditions of Kansas.

Maes went on to say that “UFM took over the state folklife festival started in Topeka. Jennie served as the folklorist for this festival.” She subsequently moved on to a new position created by the Kansas Historical Society, becoming our first official state folklorist.

“Jennie was a champion of Kansas history and her influence was felt statewide,” said Julie Mulvihill, executive director of Humanities Kansas. “Her work in the 1980s as the state’s folklorist encouraged communities to take fresh looks at cultural traditions, like Indigenous dancing, Czech egg painting, saddle making and quilting.”

All of those subjects would later become the focus of stories broadcast on “Sunflower Journeys,” as Jennie pointed us toward the people she met through her folklife festivals and fieldwork.

“I would say that she was equal part teacher and learner,” Tom Averill said, reflecting on his experiences teaching with her. “She was wonderfully curious, which made her wonderfully knowledgeable.”

Jennie wrote a social studies textbook called The Kansas Journey, targeted at seventh-grade students, and she played a key role in the development of our state’s history curriculum standards.

Although she took on extensive administrative responsibilities when she was appointed executive director of the Kansas Historical Society in 2004, she remained an educator eager to share her passion for history.

Ramon Powers, who preceded her in that position, confirmed that: “In her time at the Kansas State Historical Society, Jennie Chinn championed the expanded role of the Society in educating the public about Kansas history.”

He cited the variety of programs she advanced, including folklife festivals, traveling exhibits, and various online resources.

Chinn was particularly enthused about a digital collection of primary sources available to the public by way of the historical society’s website. Called 'Kansas Memory,' this collection provides access to photographs, drawings, maps, postcards, newspapers and other archival materials.

– Dave Kendall

She was particularly enthused about a digital collection of primary sources available to the public by way of the historical society’s website. Called “Kansas Memory,” this collection provides access to photographs, drawings, maps, postcards, newspapers and other archival materials.

In a recorded conversation with the director of Kansas Public Radio, Dan Skinner, Jennie described her views about the role of the historical society and the importance of facilitating public access to its resources.

“The goal of my life is to get as much out there as possible,” she told him. “My goal is to get as much as we can on Kansas Memory. I call it the never-ending project.”

Adding a note intended to be light-hearted and humorous, she then said, “I will die before we can ever get that completed.”

I don’t suppose she expected her life would end so soon. Nevertheless, we are left to consider what she meant to those of us who knew her and what she left as her legacy.

“Jennie was the best boss I ever had!” Barbara Maple wrote in the guestbook connected to her obituary. “I worked with her at the Kansas Museum of History for several years as her administrative assistant.”

“When my daughter got sick and I had to be off work for several weeks, Jennie said not to worry about work, they would make do, just go and take care of my daughter. This was the kind of person she was; always thinking of others.”

As we reflect on her life and legacy, the list of contributions she made to our state in her forty years of service at the Kansas Historical Society is lengthy. In some cases, they have yet to be shared with the public. This includes her visionary guidance in the redesign of galleries at the Kansas Museum of History, scheduled to be unveiled in 2023, as well as the revamping of the Kaw Mission State Historic Site in Council Grove.

What she did for us with “Sunflower Journeys” was a miniscule part of what she contributed to our state, but it was significant to the series, as was her contribution to the Santa Fe Trail production. Her appearances in these programs will continue to edify all who view them for years to come.

Likewise, her textbook will continue to encourage students to develop critical thinking skills as it presents them with access to primary sources and important information about our state’s history. 

“I am an educator myself,” she told us during our most recent interview. “(I) used to be a classroom teacher in middle school. And so, educating the next generation of Kansans is extremely important to me in my role as executive director of the Kansas Historical Society.

“I feel, as a state, our future is in the hands of our children. And if they don’t know what came before us, they can’t solve the problems of the future.”

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. He’s currently engaged in the production of a documentary about the local impact of a changing climate.