An Opportunity to be Better - Postscript Page 1


In late November 2013, Clay County Historical Society museum curator Cathy Haney alerted several area newspapers of the impending Torlotting visit and suggested they contact us for additional details. A reporter from Salina, Kansas called, identified himself, and then asked in a decidedly-bored tone, "Is there really anything to this story?"

He listened quietly as we related the primary details of what had happened. When we finished, he said, "This is the best story I have heard this year." That was quite a compliment from a professional newspaperman, considering the story was 65 years old.

Of course, newspaper people hear a lot of sad tales, as we all do. So it is natural to embrace stories where ordinary people, who possess virtues such as honesty, kindness, and humility, succeed against the odds to make the world a little better.

But is this story really special?

Elmore McKee thought it was. Unlike Locust Valley, New York, he knew little Morganville wasn't home to rich important people. In fact, it didn't even have that many ordinary people. Yet this small American village, located far from the nation's borders, found a community in need far across the ocean and thought of a creative way to address that need. It went humbly about implementing its plan and continued over several years until the need had been met.

But it wasn't just its size or the original play that made Morganville unique. Lafe Todd, who had been involved in many such pairings, noticed the village's special nature too, and commented about it in an August 22, 1949 letter to Velma Carson:

I realize that Morganville is partly myth, but it's a comfortable, good myth - and I believe it. ... The success of many a town affiliation has been built on the power complex, the desire for local prestige, or the lust for forgiveness, of individuals and of groups. Morganvilles appear once in a blue moon.

It seems to be human nature to look for a hero in any uplifting story and McKee had a candidate for that role. In a conversation he had with Agnes Huff, the Morganville Tribune publisher, he asked, "Tell me how all this happened?" She answered, "It's Velma. She has the most wonderful knack of getting other people to do things. But she won't take one bit of credit."

There is little doubt that Carson was the crucial figure on the American side. Without her drive, determination, talent and experience, Morganville would have been just another small rural Kansas village that wanted to help the world, but could not solve the puzzle of getting it done. She was a force of nature, and once Reverend Millikan put ideas in her head, something would come of them.

But Huff, speaking to an outsider, was probably also exhibiting a bit of what has sometimes been called "Kansas nice." Yes, Carson would not take any credit, but that was just how people around Morganville were raised. Being humble was a requirement of being accepted in the community.

When we asked people who knew Carson personally what they thought of her, the reports were less glowing. Every person paused longer than it typically takes to answer such a question. And when they did answer, it became apparent they were conflicted. They admired her talent and drive, but it was equally clear that they didn't feel comfortable around her. There was resentment for what they felt was a certain disregard for any view that differed from hers. Yet that resentment was tempered by the knowledge that her education and worldliness might mean she actually did know better than they.

"Kansas nice" is still in fashion on the Plains. So the most common answer to our question about Carson was a noncommittal, "She was different." A slight smile mixed with a tilt of the head often accompanied those words and seemed to convey a sense of uncertainty, mixed with not wanting to say anything critical. After all, we, too, were outsiders.

Haney had a certain "no-nonsense" streak in her and it occasionally cut through "Kansas nice." Several times when talking about Carson, she blurted out, "She was a bully, that's what she was!"

This characterization did not refer to any physical aspect, although Carson was exceptionally tall for a woman of her time and her height probably did add an element of intimidation. Nor was her verbal manner directly confrontational. But once she reached a decision about any situation, she was confident in her evaluation. Subsequent conversations would contain reoccurring gentle reminders of what to her was the only reasonable conclusion.

Some understood this to just be her way and ignored what they disagreed with, perhaps even finding it to be a touch amusing because for them her way was so transparent. Others, particularly women and children, frequently found it easier to just go along with whatever Carson wanted. This capitulation, no doubt, engendered a touch of resentment.

It might be argued that Carson was ahead of her time. Women of her era were expected to get married, have children and keep an orderly home. The fairer sex could have opinions, but they were expected to confine them to topics such as raising children, cooking meals and keeping the house clean. But Carson was not so limited. Carson was a liberated woman before the liberation.

While Huff's description of Carson may have provided McKee with the hero for his story, if all Morganvillians had been asked, they may have selected Dan Roenigk for that role. His work as treasurer of the American side of the pairing went far beyond just collecting funds and paying bills. His service in the quartermaster corps during both world wars meant he had a good feeling for what had to be done to secure materials and get them to their destination. Operating a successful insurance business in a small town is evidence of his professional and friendly manner. Being elected mayor shows the village thought of him as a leader and someone who was well-liked. His son's involvement as a translator, while Roenigk managed the American side of the connection over the last five months of 1948, all of 1949 and beyond, meant he effectively became the Morganville face of the relationship.

Schoolmaster Henri Torlotting stood out among the three French committee members. He generated almost all communications with Fèves' American sister, and most responses were directed to him. Some documents suggest he was the one who was instrumental in getting the little French village into Operation Democracy's candidates-for-adoption folder. He apparently also shared some of Carson's take-charge nature.

However, Henri was not without his flaws. Former students remember Torlotting as strict and someone very willing to help those he saw as talented, but having less time for those less able. He was respected, but not someone they remembered fondly. His nephew Gérard remembers a meal, as told by his mother, that ended with a plate being thrown between Henri and his brother Marcel, Gérard's father.

But flesh-and-blood heroes are never perfect people. Frequently, they possess traits that allow them to excel in certain settings, while those same characteristics become a handicap in other circumstances. Fèves liberator and Lorraine hero General George Patton had a personality that made him an exceptional field commander. But it also made his relationships with other officers tense and civilian life difficult. Carson and Torlotting may have been well-matched to the task at hand when Fèves needed help, but in their daily lives, neither was like the popular image of a hero.

McKee also recognized we prefer a story with a simple happy ending. After spending his last evening in Morganville at a square dance, he said, "It would be pleasant if we could conclude this tale with the fading of the fiddles and with the laughter of the people as they walked home at one in the morning." But he acknowledged there were bumps in the road. He mentioned the souring of international relations during the early 1950s due to the Cold War, and its chilling effect on the relationship between the sister villages.

But the desire for an uplifting ending prompted him to comment as the mid-1950s approached, that things had taken a turn for the better. He quoted Carson: "There lingers here the afterglow of a splendid dream, and the responsibility for something well begun." He followed with Roenigk, whose enthusiasm for the relationship between the villages is easy to find in his closing statement to McKee: "The new school principal is much interested, and the children are exchanging letters with Fèves, and we are trying to find a way to bring the Torlottings to Kansas."

But Carson's final assessment for McKee was more tempered. In regard to the Torlotting visit, Carson said, "We hope they may arrive in time for the seventh Noel Ball. Perhaps, when we try to show them what we are like, we will remember ourselves."

However, Carson's reservations may have been shaded by the direction her own life had taken. Son-in-law Gould Colman once described her efforts in helping Fèves as probably being the high point of her life, followed by a slow and steady decline. Her daughter Cynthia left for college about the time of the pageant. After she finished her bachelor's degree, there were years of work, more schooling, marriage and more work. She never returned to Morganville, except as a visitor. While Carson seemed genuinely convinced her two failed marriages were her husbands' fault, she could not escape the realization that even if that was so - and there is good reason to doubt it - she had, after all, chosen them. Finances were also confining. Her style of writing had gone out of fashion and people's attention had moved from magazines to television, putting many of her former publishers out of business. And all the while, her eyesight and other physical maladies continued to give her trouble.

And so, she remained in Morganville, a town where the people respected her, but found it difficult to embrace her.