November 6, 2021 | Photo Album
Two weeks before Fall Break 2021, Wendy and I received our third doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. That meant our protection against infection would be strengthened for a much-needed brief escape from Bartlesville in mid-October as we temporarily applied the brakes on another go-go school year. Our last real vacation was a getaway to Mount Magazine in June, before the Delta variant struck.
I explored various options, but the nice suites at the Artesian Hotel in Sulphur were booked. The facilities at Quartz Mountain Lodge had been undergoing renovations, but the restaurant wasn’t ready yet. We really needed a change of pace, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a contrast to our mountaintop hermitage back in June. So I pondered, “What about Kansas City?”
Even with freshly boosted immune systems, would it be wise to spend a few days and nights in a metropolis of over two million people? I’ve been known throughout the pandemic for publishing and interpreting many data graphs, so naturally I created comparisons of Bartlesville’s Washington County to the Kansas City metropolitan area:
That revealed how, throughout the Delta surge, Kansas City had a significantly lower rate of cases, deaths, and hospitalizations than our county. Those are readily attributed to the higher vaccination rate and mask mandate in Kansas City, which reflect its very different politics.
For years we had been staying at the Courtyard by Marriott at the Country Club Plaza when visiting KC, but it only offers a continental breakfast. I opted to book a Premier Suite for a couple of nights at The Raphael Hotel, another highly rated Marriott property close by, since it has full room service. That would allow us to enjoy a relaxed breakfast in our room in the mornings and walk just a block or two for other meals at the Plaza’s restaurants.
Our Journey North
For us, it is about a four-hour drive north-northeast from Bartlesville to the City of Fountains. I don’t find any of the obvious routes scenic or memorable. (Sorry, Kansas.) I seldom take the simplest route using US 75 and I-35, as I find it particularly boring. So I usually divert east at Independence to take US 169 up to I-35. You see more towns that way, although I dislike the route from Paola to Olathe. I wanted to see some new things along our escape route on this venture, reserving the boring route along I-35 and US 75 for the return home a couple of days later.
So we departed Bartlesville heading east on US 60 to Nowata and then took US 169 north through Coffeyville to then head east again on US 400 to Parsons. We stopped there at the Hickory Hole for a lunch of pulled pork sandwiches and then continued eastward to Pittsburg. We had never been there, although several friends had earned degrees from Pittsburg State University. So we drove around the perimeter of the campus, noticing many Gus the Gorilla statues at businesses along Business 69. There’s a story behind that.
Then it was a short hop north along US 69 to an attraction I’d found on TripAdvisor: the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes at Fort Scott. The name alone was enough to intrigue me. Why would one of the infamous Milken brothers fund a museum of unsung heroes in rural Kansas, an hour-and-a-half drive south of Kansas City?
Fort Scott has a population under 8,000 and the center’s origins trace back to an even smaller community, Uniontown, 16 miles west of there. Schools there serve students from Uniontown, Bronson, Hiattville, Mapleton, Redfield, and their surrounding rural areas.
Back in 1999, Uniontown High School history teacher Norm Conrad encouraged his students to work on a National History Day project. He showed two ninth-graders, Megan Stewart and Elizabeth Cambers, and eleventh-grader Sabrina Coons a short clipping from a 1994 issue of U.S. News and World Report that merely stated, “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43.” He thought that “2,500” might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of that woman or her story. The kids decided to find out more.
Conrad’s students wound up gathering over 4,000 pages of material about Irena Sendler and the Polish underground resistance organization, Zegota. They wrote and performed a play about her courageous life, which they titled, “Life in a Jar.” It was presented hundreds of times and led to television appearances, a book, a motion picture, and, most touchingly, the students meeting with Irena in Poland several times before she passed away in 2008.
The students discovered that Irena’s group created false documents to help Jewish families escape the Warsaw Ghetto. Irena later entered the ghetto disguised as a social worker checking for typhus. She convinced Jewish parents and grandparents to give up their children, who were otherwise destined to die in the ghetto or death camps. Her group of 25 volunteers smuggled the children past Nazi guards using various methods. Irena made lists of the children’s real names on thin tissue paper and hid them in jars she buried under an apple tree across from the German barracks.
Eventually Irena was arrested. She was tortured by a young guard. She fed him a cover story, and said she was grateful that the pain from her fractured feet and legs allowed her to pass out without revealing the identities of her fellow Zegota resistance members. Zegota bribed a German guard to help her escape. She would soon see posters around Warsaw listing her as a resistance member who had been shot.
For the remainder of the war, Irena went into hiding like the thousands of children she had helped save. After the war, the Zegota members worked to reunite children with relatives, but almost all of the children’s parents had died at the Treblinka death camp.
When asked why she, a Roman Catholic, risked so much to save Jews, Irena cited her father. He was a doctor who contracted typhus while caring for poor Jewish people in their small Polish town. Before he died, when Irena was seven years old, he told her something she would never forget:
That spoke to me, given how back in March 2020 the pandemic began for us, and many jumped in to help. We doggie-paddled at first, but over the past 18 months we have learned our strokes and how best to lifeguard others. There are now plenty of life rings floating by, just waiting to be grasped.
But human nature is the same now as it was 80 years ago. In this pandemic there are heroes and villains. A dangerous minority believe the big lies and propaganda from self-serving cranks, politicians, and charlatans, no matter how ridiculous. Some do little to help themselves or others. Some fall prey to the temptations of appeasement, fatigue, or cynicism. But I am hopeful that the worst is now behind us, and I am grateful for those joining me in tossing life rings and teaching swimming lessons, and especially for our modern-day heroes: the doctors and nurses working long hours to save as many as they can.
Irena lived by these principles, learned from her father:
- People can be either good or evil. Their race, origin, education, and estate are not important.
- You should offer help to anyone in dire straits, even if you are in trouble yourself.
- The most important things are love, tolerance, and humility.
After the war, Irena worked in the healthcare department, built houses for orphans and the elderly, did family guidance service, and trained civic counselors. After her compulsory retirement in 1967, she worked in a school library for seventeen more years. Hers was a lifetime of service.
The museum docent was most friendly and helpful, telling us the story of Irena and the Uniontown High students. The museum has displays on several more unsung heroes, but thanks to the internet, you don’t have to journey to Fort Scott to read about them.
After our tour, we drove north and eventually wound up on Stateline Road in Overland Park, transitioning to the pretty Ward Parkway to make our way to the Country Club Plaza district in Kansas City, Missouri. Our suite at the Raphael was comfortable with some nice amenities, although Wendy missed having a microwave to reheat her coffee, and she used the ice bucket to initially chill my soft drinks as the refrigerator was permanently set to the mid-40s Fahrenheit, which is too warm to keep food from spoiling and too slow to cool down a warm can of soda. There was no housekeeping during our two-night stay, something that the pandemic has made more common in the hotel industry. But we loved the breakfast room service and the location, so we will likely to return to the Raphael for future visits.
We walked across Brush Creek to the Plaza to enjoy dinner at Buca di Beppo, a Kansas City tradition for us. Then we walked down to the Barnes and Noble bookstore to browse. I’ve always liked their four-story Plaza location. We’re not shoppers, so all of our other stops in the Plaza would be restaurants.
One thing we immediately noticed was the adherence to Kansas City’s mask mandate across the venues we visited. Everyone inside the hotels, museums, shops, and restaurants wore their masks unless they were seated at their table to dine. Signs and greeters helped enforce the expectation, and relatively few noses were poking out above the masks. It was a marked contrast to the laissez-faire attitude toward masking in Bartlesville, and the visible precautions made us far more comfortable during our visit.
Long ago we partook of several of the top attractions in Kansas City, such as The Arabia Steamboat Museum and The National World War I Museum and Memorial. Usually we stop by Union Station to see its current exhibition. But the topic this time was Auschwitz, and I had no interest in following up the story of Irena Sendler with more Nazi atrocities.
Toys and miniatures
Wendy’s latest artistic endeavors have been fashioning small items out of resin, so we instead made our first visit to The National Museum of Toys/Miniatures, which was just a few blocks south of our hotel. It was established in 1982 by Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Marshall. Ms. Francis was a former teacher who loved dollhouses, toys, and games, and she assembled the largest toy collection in the Midwest. She was a Guinotte, one of the founding families of Kansas City, and married John Byers Francis, whose father had started the Puritan Company specializing in oxygen and nitrous oxide gas systems, which became Puritan Bennett. Mr. Francis rose to the Presidency of the company, which was a leading producer of ventilator systems, oxygen therapy, and other respiratory products.
Barbara Marshall was a serious collector of fine-scale miniatures. She was one of Hallmark Cards founder J.C. Hall’s three children with his wife, Elizabeth. She worked in the art department at Hallmark and volunteered at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Her interest in miniatures and her friend Mary Harris Francis’s interest in dollhouses and toys, and their spouses’ desires to relieve their respective homes of the large collections each had built up, led to the creation of the museum.
The detailed workmanship evident in the large collection of miniatures was remarkable. Some items were displayed in cases, others helped decorate immense dollhouses. Many items were in the scale of one inch to one foot, but others were smaller.
In the first room of miniatures, a violin maker’s shop, with multiple instruments, had been crafted inside a violin. There were various knitted or crocheted items smaller than one’s thumb, tiny sewing items and buttons, incredibly small plates, cups, and saucers, and blueware.
Twin Manors was a miniature home in the Georgian style finished in 1989 with incredible detail, from 12,000 hand cut walnut shingles, with all visible nails having square heads, to over 3,000 pegs in its wood floor boards. A display illustrated how the front door consists of 216 different wood pieces.
Two other downstairs displays that were particularly striking to me were an Art Deco Jewelry Store and an English country manor house.
Upstairs were the toys. The displays were curated, but I think I prefer the more overwhelming displays of the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. I had not seen a Fisher Price A Frame in decades; I had their Garage playset as a kid. A highlight for me was a wall display of the prizes that once came in Cracker Jack boxes. During my childhood, they had devolved to mostly paper items and temporary tattoos, but in the past there had been plastic and metal toys for the tots in the box with the caramel popcorn and peanuts.
Back to the Bristol
Wendy wanted some seafood in the big city, but we’d already been to McCormick & Schmick’s at the Plaza on previous visits. So I drove us north along Main Street, seeking the Bristol Seafood Grill where I dined back in 2011, in the Power and Light District.
Main Street was truly a mess. It was narrowed to one lane each way by a maze of traffic cones diverting you from one side to the other for mile after mile. They are busily relocating and refreshing utilities along the corridor from Union Station south to the Plaza for a future extension of the streetcar line. In a few years, we will have the option of catching the streetcar at the JC Nichols Memorial Fountain by the Plaza for a ride north to Crown Center, Union Station, and beyond.
When we finally reached the Power and Light District, we found streets were blocked off for the setup of a carnival. We located parking on the east side of the T-Mobile Center near the old AT&T Toll/Long Lines building. Once filled with heavy frame-relay switch gear and microwave transmitters, manned by 1,700 workers handling long-distance services, modernization has hollowed it out, as with many old AT&T structures around the country. Here’s a glimpse inside from 2010.
We walked over to the Grill, which was large, attractive, and peaceful after the tortuous commute. Our server was friendly and attentive, but Wendy was put off by the surprising amount of corn in her Mini New England Lobster Rolls, although she loved the butter-toasted sweet roll. My Alaskan halibut was quite good, accompanied by whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and grilled asparagus.
Pulse Topology at Kemper
We usually see the exhibitions at the superb Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, but the current mix didn’t capture my interest. I knew, however, Wendy would want to see whatever was on display at the nearby Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Their exhibitions are more miss than hit with me, but she has always enjoyed them, and it never takes long to tour that far smaller venue.
So after lunch we returned south, with me using my iPhone outside the Kemper to register for a slot since appointments were required, and immediately checked in to the small museum. The most interesting work was an interactive installation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse Topology. One of the large galleries was illuminated only by a canopy of suspended lights. Various sensors hung down which, when you held your hand beneath them, would pick up your pulse and translate it into pulses of lights and a pounding beat on one of several speakers. Thus our heartbeats mixed with those of others in the room. There is a video of Lozano-Hemmer talking about his projects.
I liked one of the museum’s recent acquisitions, the 10′ tall To Access the Places that Lie Beyond by Firelei Báez.
Wendy liked River Divide by Wayne Thiebaud.
We then braved the maelstrom on Main Street again to reach the Dick Blick art store, where Wendy purchased some glow-in-the-dark clay and other items. She would put the clay to use soon after we returned to Bartlesville, crafting a glowing skull and swirly amulet.
Food and more food
That was enough stimulation for the day for Wendy, so we retreated to the hotel. We ventured out to the Plaza for dinner, wanting something light. So we ate at PF Chang’s, which Wendy had never been to before. I was familiar with their chicken lettuce wraps, so I had those while Wendy enjoyed their shrimp tempura roll sushi. She has made it clear we must visit their Tulsa location so she can have that again.
Later I briefly returned to the Plaza to get some bottled water for Wendy. I stumbled upon a guy bending a knee to a young lady for a marriage proposal in front of the fountain with the statue of Pomona. I’m happy to report that she said yes. I didn’t know the couple, but I celebrated their happy occasion by purchasing a chocolate shake for myself at the Shake Shack. If she had said no, I’d have comforted myself…with a chocolate shake at the Shake Shack.
The next day, after another tasty room service breakfast, we took it easy. Wendy laughed at how she kept finding little stickers in the hotel room, which she had inadvertently brought to Kansas City in her clothing. They are sticky little covers for the screws in the bezels of the Chromebooks she repairs and evidently an occupational hazard.
We eventually packed up and walked back to the Plaza for lunch at The Cheesecake Factory. Neither of us wanted their usual huge portions, so we ordered off their Skinnylicious menu – meaning we had sizable but bearable portions of a crispy chicken sandwich and chicken pasta. I gorged on their bread & butter, as usual. The portions at the restaurant are such that Wendy has never had their cheesecake, and I don’t blame her a bit.
Turning up roses
Before heading home, we stopped at Loose Park a few blocks south of our hotel. I knew there was supposed to be a rose garden there, but in recent years we’ve seen the rose gardens at Oklahoma City and Tulsa nearly wiped out by a virus. No, not COVID-19, but the rose rosette virus, which is not transmitted by humans but by eriophyid mites. So we didn’t want to get our hopes up.
The first plantings we walked through after parking the minivan were okay, but certainly not roses. My heart sank, but I led us on westward to an oval surrounded by trellises formed by stone columns with long, heavy chains. Lo and behold, it was filled with roses. The surrounding trellised pathways had many different climbers, and the center beds were filled with large blooms from dozens of varieties.
At 75 acres, Loose is the third largest park in Kansas City. The land was part of the Battle of Westport in the Civil War, back when the property was owned by William Bent, a man who led wagon trains and traded with the Native Americans. Seth Ward bought the land in 1871 after Bent’s death. In 1896, men who had been members of a golf club near Hyde Park leased the land from Ward for a golf course for $1 per year plus taxes.
In 1907, J.C. Nichols purchased land around the course that would form the Country Club District and eventually the Country Club Plaza, which opened in 1923. The project was dubbed “Nichols’ Folly” because back then it just had a day school and pig farms. Nichols employed Edward Buehler Delk to design the shopping district; Delk also designed the LaQuinta Mansion in Bartlesville and the nearby El Rancho de la Codorniz, the Philbrook and Philtower in Tulsa, and Villa Philmonte in New Mexico. I’ve long been impressed by how the Plaza is both beautiful and functional; as the first regional shopping center designed to accommodate automobiles, it has several small parking garages well-integrated into its various structures.
In 1926, J.C. Nichols helped broker a deal where Ella Loose bought the golf course property from the Hugh Ward estate (the son of Seth Ward who died only a few years after his father) to transform it into a park in memory of her husband, Jacob L. Loose, the owner of the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company, who had passed away in 1923. His company produced Sunshine Biscuits. She donated the park to the city in 1927.
The Laura Conyers Smith Rose Garden was initially built by a group of citizens led by Ms. Smith, and reportedly features thousands of roses of over 100 varieties. It recently underwent a $400,000 renovation which included planting 1,200 new roses and restoring the beds to the original plans. It made for a lovely final present for Wendy from Kansas City.
Our journey home was rapid but boring, taking the nicely expanded I-35 southwest from Kansas City all the way to US 75 for the long southward jaunt back to Bartlesville. A typical Sunday at home concluded our Autumn Brake, which then released, allowing the academic year to resume its roll.