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Les Anderson remembered as teacher, mentor, journalist and friend

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011, at 10:27 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, at 2 p.m.

When one of Kansas’ best-known and beloved journalists died Saturday night, it left those who knew Les Anderson reeling from the news.

“I am at such a loss for words,” said Shannon Littlejohn, who had known Mr. Anderson since the early 1970s when she was a typesetter and later as a student at Wichita State University’s Elliott School of Communication.

“He was a consummate journalist. He was the kind of teacher who shared himself and who became a friend so easily to people,” Littlejohn said. “He was interested in you first off as a human being and in knowing your story. He was a participant. You could call on him. He was always there. He never said no.”

Leslie Wayne “Les” Anderson, journalism professor at Wichita State University and past publisher of the Ark Valley News, died of a heart attack.

He was 62 years old.

Funeral services are pending.

Early love for journalism

Mr. Anderson was born Nov. 23, 1948, in Viola. He was smitten with journalism as a child.

“His mom told us that there was a neighbor who worked at The Wichita Eagle and the gentleman took a liking to my dad when he was a kid,” said Mr. Anderson’s son, Spike. “He helped him put out a newsletter and from there he got some encouragement along the way, especially from some of his high school teachers. It blossomed from there.”

As a journalist, Mr. Anderson was old school – pushing students beyond just the usual who, what, when, where and whys of a story, looking at journalism not just as a career but as a passionate calling.

He hated the word “very” used in a sentence. And, he didn’t really like the word “really” or when people used the word “over” when they meant “more than.”

“He knew what public journalism was long before we started talking about it,” said Fran Kentling, former administrative editor and intern coordinator for The Eagle. “It was what he already did, what small-town papers do. He was right there in the community.”

Mr. Anderson was a 1966 graduate of Valley Center High School and a 1970 graduate of Fort Hays State University; he earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1971.

He was publisher of the Ark Valley News – which he and his wife, Nancy, founded in May 1975 – until it was sold in 2001. He worked for five newspapers including The Wichita Eagle and the Wichita Sun. He had been a faculty member of WSU since 1977.

Award winner

Mr. Anderson was the recipient of almost every Kansas journalism and teaching award: the Karl and Dorothy Gaston Outstanding Mentor Award, the Victor Murdock Award for Excellence in Kansas journalism, the Clyde M. Reed Jr. Master Editor Award, and the Huck Boyd Community Service Award.

He served as president of the Kansas Press Association and was a recipient of the Kansas Board of Regents Excellence in Teaching Award.

Not long ago, Mr. Anderson also received the Fort Hays State University outstanding alumni award.

“Les showed me what matters to students,” said Amy DeVault, instructor of digital media at WSU. “Time after time, I witnessed alumni telling Les what a difference he made in their lives. He showed me that while university life sometimes gets caught up in politics and stuff that doesn’t matter, what we are there for is helping students. I never took a class from Les, and I know technically we were colleagues. But really, he was my teacher. He showed me what it’s really all about, and for that, I can never thank him enough. He must have touched the lives of thousands of students during his time at WSU.”

“Les was the type of person who made everyone around him feel better,” said Lou Heldman, interim director of the WSU Elliott School of Communication. “He did it by serving as a role model of a teacher, journalist and human being. He did it by setting expectations for all of us. His students will tell you there was no teacher who expected more from them or who treated them better as individuals. He was someone who cared deeply about his family, about Kansas and about Valley Center.”

Trademark humor

Mr. Anderson had a wicked sense of humor and it was not unusual for that humor to be shown each Christmas in the Anderson family photo card, Kentling said. One year, the family posed with a sock monkey; another they were dressed as the couple from American Gothic.

“They would send this Christmas card out each year that was just hilarious. I couldn’t wait to get my card, which featured the entire family,” Kentling said. “If you were lucky enough to be on the Anderson Christmas card list, you were a lucky person.”

And indeed, the reason his son was nicknamed “Spike” is a characteristic of Mr. Anderson’s quirky sense of humor.

“I was called Spike before I was born, that’s a true story,” Spike Anderson said. “There was a bully on my dad’s street and he wanted to have a tough kid, so he named me a tough name. But I am not too sure that it worked. I have always been called Spike Anderson.”

For more than three decades, Les Anderson’s journalism transformed Kansas. But he also gave and transformed in his life. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church of Valley Center and hosted countless parties at the Anderson farm, which was filled with goats and llamas.

More than 150 people attended a candlelight vigil Sunday night in front of the Elliott School. When the vigil ended, people sang the Kansas state song, “Home on the Range,” in honor of Mr. Anderson.

Beloved by students, colleagues

“In my experience, he was one of the most beloved journalists in Kansas,” Heldman said. “He bridged the gulf between big-city journalists and small-town journalists. He was very proud of his long history as a weekly newspaper editor. But he was also tremendously sophisticated and well-respected by the people in the biggest news organizations. He was a fierce advocate for open government and when any small paper in Kansas ran into problems with government officials who were blocking information, Les was the person they turned to for strategy on how to unlock documents.”

Special projects Mr. Anderson’s students worked on included an in-depth look at Broadway as it ran through Wichita; the Greensburg tornado and, most recently, the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

“Broadway was something that everyone in Wichita was familiar with but probably not many people had thought deeply about. His students came up with 100 interesting stories on the street,” Heldman said. “And after the Greensburg tornado, he was always trying to think of ways to expose his students to rural Kansas. For two years, he took groups of students to Greensburg. They slept on the floors of churches and they spent every day going out and talking to residents about how they were rebuilding their lives. And then, he and Amy DeVault created the summer class built around the Symphony in the Flint Hills. He didn’t do that to focus on the music but to get his students out to the Flint Hills and discover their beauty and their history and the lives of the people who live there.”

Mr. Anderson is survived by his wife, Nancy of Valley Center; mother, Marceille Sult of Valley Center; brothers, Dan of Houston, Gary (Vicki) of Valley Center, John (Kelly) of Wichita; sister, Debbie (Brad) Edwards of Valley Center; children and families, Spike (Kristin, Emma and Isaac), Maggie (Mike, Joey and Tommy) Spratt, Ben (Jamie, Abby, Katie, Charlie and Samantha), Seth (Julie, Sydney and Kelsey) and Patrick Vera.

Memorials may be sent to the WSU Foundation c/o Les Anderson Fund for Students, 1845 Fairmount, Wichita, KS 67260, or the Valley Center library building fund c/o Friends of the Library, 321 W. First, Valley Center, KS 67147.

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