Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 28, 2012
About two miles east of our home is a small bridge. I've crossed it countless times. It spans a small stream that, like most in Kansas, is usually dry.
The bridge and the stream are completely unremarkable ... except for the two green "Natalies Creek" signs. Most small streams in Kansas are unnamed. Those that are, carry what is obviously a family name, often of an early settler.
But Natalie? Who was Natalie? Why was a creek named after her?"
Several times, husband Art encouraged me to look into it, but I wasn't sure where to start.
This past November, I visited the Riley County Historical Museum to see if the people there could help. In a folder marked "Bath, Natalie" were papers related to the naming of the creek, Natalie Anne Bath's obituary from "The Manhattan Mercury" and a front-page article from "The Wichita Eagle."
Natalie had died 23 years ago on Nov. 15 - the very day I had chosen to visit the museum. She collapsed on the court at her Riley County High School basketball team's third practice of the season and died a short time later. A senior, she had been very active in school. She had lettered in volleyball and track. She was in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Future Homemakers of America, pep club, National Honor Society, band, mixed chorus and Students Against Drunk Driving. She had worked as a checker at Dillon's food store and in her family's jewelry store.
Doctors said she probably had irregular heart rhythms.
With the help of several people from the school, I connected with Sue Bath, Natalie's mom. We met for coffee a few days later.
The "Eagle" article described Natalie as "the kind of kid who makes small schools lively and small towns proud." Sue said she and Natalie's dad John and younger brother Nathan are still proud of her.
Sue said she'll never forget two sympathy cards they received. One was from a Cloud County Community College business instructor who did a mock job interview with Natalie. He said he knew Natalie "all of 20 minutes, "but in that short time, he could tell she was a special person. The other was from a single mother who mentioned how her two children always begged to go through Natalie's check-out line in Dillon's because they liked her so much.
After her death, RCHS honored Natalie by establishing the "Natalie Bath Most Inspirational Athlete Award." Harold Oliver, social sciences teacher and athletics director at the school, was in his first year teaching and coaching when Natalie died. He said all coaches vote and the award is given to the one athlete who exemplifies the attributes Natalie had - athletic ability, positive attitude, leadership skills, and respect from teachers and students.
RCHS science teacher Dunia Harmison was one of those who helped me reach Sue. Dunia received the Natalie Bath award in 1996 and has remained friends with Nathan.
Jennifer Kulp, a fourth grade teacher at Riley County Grade School, said her family and Natalie's spent time together.
"Natalie was a funny, bubbly lady," Jennifer said in an email. "We always had fun when we were together. I was younger than her by a couple of years, but she always included me. She was the type of girl who was a friend to everyone."
So how did the creek come to be named for Natalie? That part of the story involves Caroline Peine. She had been the assistant dean of students at Kansas State University and also lived along the creek. Sue said when Natalie and Nathan were young, they would often play along the creek near their home. When Natalie was older, she mowed Peine's lawn, cleaned her house and, over time, they came to share a special bond. Peine felt a fitting memorial was to have the creek that had meant so much to Natalie named for her.
Caroline began by asking people who lived in the area if the creek had a name; uniformly, the answer was that it was known only as "the crick."
The U.S. Geological Survey map didn't show a name, so Caroline contacted the Kansas Lower Republican Advisory Committee to see if its members had any objection to naming the creek after the young woman; they didn't.
Then she gathered letters of support from U.S. senators Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery, Gov. Mike Hayden, Manhattan Mayor Richard Hayter, the Riley County Commission, Kansas legislators Sheila Hochhauser, Katha Hurt and Lana Oleen, R.E. Pelton of the Basin Advisory Committee in the Topeka Water Resources Department, the Keats Lions Club, and RCHS Principal Craig Neuenswander.
On Nov. 15, 1990, one year after Natalie's death, Caroline wrote a letter to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names requesting that the creek be named for Natalie. Along with the letter, she included the Manhattan Mercury obituary, the Wichita Eagle news story, a topographic map of the area, petitions signed by neighbors, and the support letters.
In her letter, she said:
"I am enclosing the obituary from The Manhattan Mercury and a front page story from the Sunday Wichita Eagle. I feel these give the biographical information requested as well as establish that Natalie accomplished much in her short 17 years, was a person who had a profoundly positive effect on her school and schoolmates, and one whose life should fittingly be remembered by this permanent memorial…"
In June of the following year, Caroline received a letter from the board. Her request had been granted.
Later that summer, Caroline hosted a neighborhood potluck dinner. During it, she surprised the Bath family with the green "Natalies Creek" signs that were later placed at the bridge. Sue said she, John and Nathan were overwhelmed by the gift.
Caroline Peine died eight years ago. Natalie would have turned 40 this year. Losing people you love dearly is one of the hardest parts of living. But if you work on it, you let go of the loss and hang on to the good ... the happiness they brought to your life. Sue tries to have good come from what happened. She worked with Big Brothers/Big Sisters awhile and she often talks to other parents whose children have died. She said she feels like she is continuing Natalie's gift for making people feel special and for helping them with their problems.
And whenever she drives across the creek today, she said she often honks.
"It's a happy beep-beep," she said.