Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 11, 2020

Labor of love

Our newest "baby" arrived the day before Thanksgiving. Although it had a seven-year gestation period, it only weighed a smidgen over two pounds. But we didn't have to buy a crib and we don't have to get out of bed for midnight feedings or diaper changes. Nor will we be putting it in our will.

It is said that "it takes a village to raise a child," but this one already has been cared for by hundreds of people spanning two continents. This "baby" is our long-anticipated book, "An Opportunity to be Better" - the story of how little Morganville, Kansas helped the equally-small village of Fèves, France recover from World War II. It was rediscovered by students in my 2013 Kansas State University journalism class. I have shared bits and pieces of that story over the intervening years, but this one is about what it took to get that tale birthed!

Initially, it only piqued our curiosity. We made a late-afternoon drive on a warm July day through Morganville, thinking that would be it. Then husband Art poked around the internet and made contact with the deputy mayor of Fèves. From that point, the reconnection began gathering steam and we were willingly pulled in!

Deputy mayor Gérard Torlotting and his wife Solange, both of whom had been recipients of Morganville's generosity, and their son and family made a late-December 2013 visit to a reception in Morganville. The community welcomed them with open arms.

The following summer, Art and I traveled to France with our daughters Mariya and Katie and Art's cousin's children Ryan and Hannah. We served as ambassadors for Morganville, but our French hosts treated us like royalty at not just one, but two receptions overflowing with warm hospitality and uncounted bottles of champagne. Considering we don't speak French and few of them spoke English, it was all a bit overwhelming, but the champagne helped.

In the fall of 2015, 20 citizens from Féves flew into Kansas City with the goal of seeing Morganville. A year later, Morganville's mayor Brent Rundell and his wife Charlotte joined us on a visit to Féves, where the mayors of the two villages exchanged gifts at a community reception. And in 2019, Art and I were guides for a group of nine Americans, including two Morganville natives and Art's daughter Karen and grandson Josh.

In between, we spent hours in the Clay County Historical Society museum in Clay Center, Kansas State University's special collections department here in Manhattan, and the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. The AS.CO.ME.MO. museum's large collection of artifacts in Hagondange, France provided a window into what life was like for the people of Féves and surrounding area during the 1939-1945 war years.

People from Morganville shared what they remembered of the town's efforts, including the 1948 original play, written by local Velma Carson. In Ithaca, New York, we spoke with Gould Colman, Carson’s son-in-law, who donated her family's papers to K-State. We completed going through all eight boxes before a library fire forced the collection to off-campus storage.

We utilized websites, including those from UNESCO - the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Library of Congress and Ancestry; articles from various newspapers; and "One Affirmative Thing for Peace" - a chapter from Elmore McKee's 1955 book, "The People Act," to fill in details. We listened to a 1950 recording of "A Prairie Noel," the coast-to-coast NBC Christmas radio program about the connection. Art made a donation to the Flint Hill's Children’s Choir so they could re-create the song sung as the play's finale. We visited cemeteries in Clay County as well as those in the French cities of Paris, Féves, Metz and Hayange to see the gravestones of key players. We reached out to others for photographs to bring life to the story.

Art created a website that involved a seemingly-endless cycle of writing, editing and re-writing as new information surfaced. Once the World-War-II-through-2019 story was completed, the tedious editing process began. Withdrawing for weeks from life's daily distractions in our Northwoods Wisconsin cottage, word-processing documents suitable for pouring into book format were generated.

We spoke to other authors and started negotiating with a history publisher. In the end, we went the self-publishing route. It was less expensive and allowed us to maintain editorial control over the format and content. We e-mailed Word documents to Katie in Albuquerque, who agreed to do the book design. She created the pre-press PDFs - portable document files - and then uploaded the result on a shared Google drive. Then we edited them again - line by line, page by page, caption by caption, graphic by graphic.

After printing a copy to see how it would look, we plunged into the grueling process of creating an index, ensuring we caught all references to people, places and organizations and matching them to the corresponding book page numbers.

We also created a page of references and another section to give credit to the appropriate people or organizations that provided photos, maps and other documents.

But just as with real children, work remains after the birth. On Nov. 30, Art gave a presentation about the book on the Clay County Historical Society museum’s website. Director Jeff Gaiser had wanted us to be "the program" for the society's annual board meeting, but decided to make it a virtual one because of concerns about COVID-19. We're now boxing up books for mailing.

We've also been working with our French friends, who are diligently helping us with a French version. And, as they "feed" information to us, we, in turn, check it, then pass it on to Katie and ... well, you get the idea! Sometime in 2021, we're anticipating a second offspring while Gérard lines up customers in France.

And just as with flesh-and-blood children, it has been - and will be - a lot of work. But in the end, it truly was - and is - a labor of love.

p.s. If interested, you can buy a copy here:

Top row (l-r) - Art in the Clay County Historical Society museum with curator Cathy Haney; Art and I in the K-State Special Collections reading room. Velma Carson's papers are on the cart behind the lamp; Art with Carson's son-in-law Gould Colman in his Ithaca, New York home; some of the aid recipients gather at a reception in Féves for our visit. Gérard Torlotting is at the far right. Bottom row (l-r) - Féves citizens applaud Katie's singing of "La Marseillaise." Man with blue-striped shirt is a newspaper photographer; visitors from Féves in Morganville stand in the seating area of the theater where Carson's play was performed; Féves Mayor René Girard and Morganville Mayor Brent Rundell in Féves' city hall; the supper with Féves citizens near the end of the Rundell visit.

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