Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 7, 2014
Dozens of people congregated in small groups. Laughter and animated chatter filled the room. Coffee makers lined a counter at the back, and plates of cookies and brownies tempted those of us who had gathered. A slide show played at the back of the room and photos were scattered here and there. In many ways, it was like a reception to celebrate a small wedding or a recital, but this was to celebrate the life of friend Howard Kessinger.
Howard died just a few days before from complications of Huntington's disease. But by most standards, he had lived a full life. He was 81, just two years younger than my dad when he passed.
Someone's death is never a time of happiness, yet the loss need not erase the many years of a life well-lived. And while Howard was a man with a quiet demeanor, I think he would have liked this gathering of his friends and family in St. Paul's Episcopal Cabin in Marysville.
I don't remember exactly when I met Howard, but it was in relation to my job at Kansas State University. Howard and his wife Sharon owned the weekly Marysville Advocate newspaper for 37 years, retiring in 2012. I have always admired the work that the Kessingers and their staff have done with the newspaper. It has strong local coverage and a vibrant editorial page - important factors in covering a community well.
Their daughter Sarah, who is now editor and publisher, told me what it was like to take over the paper after her parents retired.
"It's been eye-opening how much work they did to build and manage the newspaper and maintain its historic building," she said. "As a child, I took all of this for granted. I'm really grateful that my dad cared so much not only about a newspaper that fairly and accurately covered the community, had lively commentary and high-quality photography, but also his dedication to downtown Marysville's preservation and the renovation of the Advocate's 1921 building. All of this, I think, has made a great difference for this community as it moves forward and seeks to stem a national tide of rural decline."
I've always known the Kessingers were more than newspaper publishers. They've been active community members - promoting theater and the arts, helping preserve area landmarks, encouraging local businesses and serving as boosters for many other community projects.
They've always been strong supporters of Kansas State University and our A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications as well. They've been members of our advisory council, and attended many of our events. They were always at the various lectures I coordinated for the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media.
I worked with them when several area newspapers published a special supplement, "Discover Kansas Trails," in the 1990s. It was Howard's idea to do the supplement, using the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Oregon Trail as a way to kick-start it. It was fun to work with him - coming up with story ideas and ads to attract tourists to our part of the state.
It was also fun to have him and Sharon come to K-State as Alumni Fellows in 2005. I escorted them to various events and planned a visit for them to the K-State Gardens. Both were fascinated with the tropical plants in the greenhouses.
But beyond the respect I had for Howard's work, I also admired him as a person. He was among the most compassionate people I've ever met.
He was especially concerned about me when I was in a Topeka rehabilitation hospital in 1997. He sent cards and emails, and even visited me one time when I was in the middle of a therapy session. I had my glasses off and couldn't see very well, but I noticed a man sitting across the room quietly watching as I went through the various exercise routines. When I was done, I put my glasses on and saw that it was Howard.
"Oh, there's Howard Kessinger," I told my physical therapist.
"Henry Kissinger!" he said. "I didn't know you knew someone so famous!"
We all laughed, and reflecting on that little incident with Howard still makes me smile.
I asked Sarah why the family had the visitation in St. Paul's Episcopal Cabin.
"My dad loved the cabin's rustic character that remains as it was built in the 1930s," she said. "The fireplace is made of stones, fossils and shells from several states. He also really loved the adjacent St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which is the oldest church building in Marysville. I went into the cabin on Sunday and felt quite sad that Pop wasn't there with us to say Morning Prayer."
It's a bit ironic that it is hard to find the words to describe a man of words. But language is better suited for reporting the person of dramatic actions. Howard wasn't one of those. He was the type of man a community could build on as a foundation. He was the type of man you wanted as a friend.