Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 28, 2023


Many things in life involve establishing an appropriate balance. Too little coffee makes the drink weak, but too much means it is bitter. But if we like something or it seems to make sense, increasing the amount of it can become the go-to response. Planning can be one of those things. Infomercials and financial self-help books encourage us to think about our someday retirement and begin taking steps today to secure our financial future. This is good advice, but carried to the extreme, the situation can become like the person who commences a vacation with an itinerary so carefully arranged and chock full of items to tick off their list that when they return, they need a vacation from their vacation.

While planning is good, a healthy openness to serendipity is too. I have long been intrigued by how much of our lives is dictated not by careful planning, but by chance and dumb luck - sometimes good and sometimes not so good. I met husband Art because a colleague of his was a member of a wine-tasting group. One of the regulars couldn't attend one of the Friday meetings, so Bill asked Art to fill in. That led Art to meeting my neighbors, both members of the group. A few years later, Dorothy, the wife of the couple, asked Art if he might be interested in meeting their neighbor Gloria. How would a person plan that series of chance connections that made a big change in both our lives?

Before Art's mom was married, she was invited to sing at her cousin's wedding in a village 40 miles from her home. Donna struck up a friendship with Frieda, the groom's sister. She had a part-time job at the telephone company as an operator and Donna tagged along one day when Frieda went to work. Art's dad had a sister who also worked as an operator. When Tom stopped by to talk to his sister, Donna took one look at Tom and asked Frieda who that was. No chance meeting, no Art!

But these chance events have an impact in far more places than just matters of the heart. In 1983, Art went to Britain to see the place where his great-grandfather Thomas Vaughan had been born. While waiting one evening in a restaurant for the food to arrive, he overheard the fellow at the adjacent table telling jokes to the woman he was with. It caught his attention because they were all jokes Art had heard before. When the fellow reached the punch line on yet another, Art volunteered it. The startled couple laughed and that led to a conversation.

But it was also the start of far more. Art and Jan have now known each other for 40 years. He calls her the sister he never had and she calls him bro - the brother she never had. We will be meeting with her, her kids and grandkids later this year, as we have in earlier years.

Still other chance occurrences may be a matter of life and death. Ernst, a German friend we knew, was a soldier during World War II. Obtaining a weekend pass, he and his wife planned to meet in Hamburg. Ernst had arranged for a room at the hotel room across from the train station. But when they arrived, the clerk could not find their reservation and suggested they look for a room elsewhere, which they did.

That night, Hamburg was hit with an Allied bombing raid. In the morning, they discovered that the hotel across from the train station had been hit and all occupants had died in the ensuing fire.

Another chance event played a role in my professional life. In 2013, my students had written historical pieces that a Clay County Kansas newspaper said they would like to publish. I asked Art to check them for factual accuracy. One of those articles involved a small village in Clay county adopting an equally-small town in France to help the latter recover from the effects of World War II. On a whim, he sent an e-mail to the mayor�s office in the French village to see if anyone remembered those events from 1948. Art doesn�t know French, so he wrote in English. The man who received the message doesn't speak English, but his son does and happened to be visiting his parents. This led to the villages reconnecting, including visits by people from each to the other. For me, there were multiple trips to France and the publishing of a book that took 10 years to research and write.

One of my jobs as a professor was to advise students on what courses they should take. A change I noted over the years was the steadily decreasing number of students who would arrive looking at their college career as an exploratory adventure. More and more seemed to view it as a time when their top priority was having their entire college experience planned out so they could move smoothly into the job they had envisioned for themselves. It was as if a good life involved little more than sequentially moving through a series of planned experiences - of carefully following a previously carefully-hewn path.

Pulitzer Prize winner Katori Hall said "Serendipity rewards the prepared." Famed football coach Vince Lombardi spoke about the importance of being prepared "because no one knows when that big play is coming up." They, and other successful people, understand that chance and how a person reacts to the unexpected have a major effect on how rewarding a life may be.

Top (l-r) No wine-tasting dropout, no couple Gloria and Art; no visit to a friend's workplace, no couple Tom and Donna; vanished reservation allowed me to meet Ernst. His wife Karla is in the photo at upper left. Bottom (l-r): Herv� visiting his father read Art's message; three students who discovered town kinship with their professor Gloria; no joking - we never would have known Jan, right, or granddaughter Courtney without a chance restaurant encounter.

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