Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 31, 2020
It sure feels like a story
I'm not sure this is a story, but I can't escape the feeling it is.
I've mentioned before the project husband Art and I have of writing short biographies of the 300-plus servicemen connected to our home county who died in World War II. While it's a sobering one, it has its rewards. Certain aspects are like a puzzle - finding where the "boys" lived, who their parents were, whether they married and had children, and how they came to their tragic end.
One problem involves Manhattan, the county's largest city, being on the county line. Some men may have worked in Manhattan or had parents or grandparents there, yet their actual homes were in adjacent Pottawatomie County. So part of the process has been to look at these men to see if they should be included.
A few days back, Art began looking at Peter Leo Fiegener. He didn't seem to "fit" as he lived on a farm near Irving, Kansas, a now-vanished village miles to the north of Manhattan. The area's claim to fame appears to be Irving's May 1879 misfortune of being hit twice by different tornadoes on the same day. Some "Wizard of Oz" enthusiasts have suggested one of the victims was the inspiration for author L. Frank Baum's Dorothy Gale.
Since Pete was older than most men in the war, it seemed likely he was married. Art discovered Pete's 1929 marriage to Rose Bidwell, and her death eight years later. Pete then became a single parent to youngsters Charles and Rosemary. But he died southeast of Aachen, Germany in October 1944, meaning those children were orphaned.
As he had no apparent connection to our county, it would have been reasonable to move on, but thinking about the children pushed us on.
Art, doing a general Google search on Pete's name, was surprised to see a column from the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Sun-Sentinel newspaper. It was written in 1989 by Pete's grandson just after the Berlin Wall fell. It described his own emotions about Germany healing and made him wonder how to explain it to his 5-year-old daughter.
Art read the column out loud. It was well-written, and we couldn't help but think of our own connection. Our "adopted" German children Nadja and Tim were born in the former East Germany in the months before the wall fell. It's unlikely we would have met had the wall remained.
"Who wrote that?" I asked.
"Roy Wenzl," he answered.
"I know Roy. But I thought he was with the Wichita paper."
Art did more searching. After working at the Sun-Sentinel, Wenzl had moved to the Wichita Eagle.
"He's apparently written a couple of books too," Art added. "One is about Father Kapaun."
Another connection. Father Emil Kapaun was the priest in Pilsen, a town of about 100 not far from my hometown in Marion County, Kansas. He was a Catholic chaplain during the Korean War, and the church is considering elevating him to sainthood. I had heard about him for years, but Art's familiarity is more recent. His eye doctor's name is Hanschu and every unusual name sends him off on a quest. He discovered her grandparents were from Pilsen, and he subsequently read about the town's famous priest.
Wenzl also wrote "Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door." Another connection of sorts. When my late husband Jerome was a police reporter with the Eagle, he covered the murder of the Otero family, Dennis Rader's first victims, before Rader became a serial killer. His own wife and children had no idea about his double life.
Art saw a link to "My Father Was the BTK Killer. Here's Why I Managed to Forgive Him." It was another Wenzl story about Rader's daughter Kerri, and it provided real insights into her struggles.
It was another connection. While finishing her education degree at Kansas State University, Kerri did her practice teaching at Riley County in daughter Katie's fourth grade class. We three had spoken about how difficult it must be being Rader's daughter.
I was pretty sure Wenzl was a fellow K-Stater, but I might have met him only because of his work at the Eagle. I asked Art to check further and he soon uncovered another article, "We Played with Sunlight and Shadow." It was about Wenzl learning to see what a photographer sees. It referenced his time in Kedzie Hall as a reporter for the K-State Collegian - another shared experience.
I reached out to Wenzl and asked if he had attended the 1996 Collegian centennial or the 2010 journalism department centennial, both of which I helped organize. I also explained the recent connections Art and I had uncovered. He responded almost immediately.
You and I do have much in common. I didn't go to either the '96 or the 2010 centennials; I donít remember why, but I usually thought back then that I had too much to do to take a road trip. I did come up several times to teach workshops ... I've always been proud of my Kedzie origins ...
He recalled an incident with one of the photographers we both knew.
One fond memory - not long after Queen's song "Bohemian Rhapsody" came out ... it came up on the radio in the newsroom one night. When the opera chorus started, halfway through the song, Tim burst into the room, jumped up on the rim - and danced and lip-synced PERFECTLY to the tune, as tho channeling Freddie Mercury at his sexually projecting best. Holy moley.
I laughed. It fit well the Tim I had known.
Later, when reflecting on all these intersections, I had to admit they really don't amount to much. Still, I was somehow glad his grandfather had brought us together. For two people who don't really know each other, somehow it sure feels like a story.
Left: Pete Fiegener; middle-top: Art, Nadja and Gloria in what had been the the East-German section of Berlin; middle-bottom: Roy Wenzl and Judy Puckett in the Collegian newsroom 1976; Roy Wenzl.