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Kansan Frederick Funston was an unlikely public figure, war great

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 17, 2013, at 8:42 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

Frederick Funston rose from obscurity and countless failures to become one of nation’s most beloved heroes at the turn of the 20th century.

His childhood wasn’t promising.

He failed his admissions test to the United States Military Academy. His father, Edward “Foghorn” Funston, a U.S. congressman, couldn’t get him admitted to West Point.

He attended the University of Kansas but didn’t graduate.

He was short – 5 feet, 5 inches – and weighed 120 pounds dripping wet.

But Funston, from Iola in Allen County, was just getting started. In time, he would become known as an adventurer, war hero, journalist and public celebrity.

He was born Nov. 9, 1865, in Ohio. When he was 2, his family moved to Iola.

He loved to read, and by the time he was in high school he was writing campaign speeches for his father, who served in the Kansas Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

When money for college didn’t work out, Funston worked for a time as a surveyor, then as a ticket taker for the Santa Fe Railway. He worked as a journalist in Kansas City and Fort Smith, Ark., and a botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

His scientific adventures took him to the Dakota Badlands, Death Valley and Alaska. In Death Valley he helped discover 150 new species of plant life. He helped open a new trail in the Yosemite Valley and lived for a time with the Panamint Indians in California. In Alaska, he wintered on the banks of the Klondike and paddled down the Yukon River.

In 1896, Funston joined the Cuban Army and was appointed a captain, even though he had never fired a cannon. He read the instruction manual for a 12-pound Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon, then began leading troops.

Within two years, he lost 17 horses, fought in 22 battles, was shot through both lungs and an arm, and had malaria.

While recovering from his wounds, Kansas Gov. William Stanley promoted him to colonel of the “Fighting 20th” Kansas Regiment, which Funston led into the Philippine Islands as part of the Spanish American War.

Under his leadership, the “Fighting 20th” took part in 19 battles and a special mission in which they captured the notorious rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo.

For that, Funston was named a brigadier general.

At 34, he was the youngest general in the U.S. Army.

In 1906, Funston was in charge of the Army’s Department of California at the Presidio when an earthquake struck leaving 300,000 people homeless and much of the city crumbled and on fire.

Funston helped organize troops to feed and give aid.

When World War I was breaking out in Europe, the word in Washington, D.C., was that the Kansas general Funston would be asked to command U.S. Forces.

But the general died too soon.

On Feb. 19, 1917, Funston was in a San Antonio hotel listening to an orchestra play “The Blue Danube” waltz when he suffered a massive heart attack and died.

He was so well known that the people of Texas opened the Alamo so that his body could lay in state there, the first person so honored.

In California, his body lay in state for two days in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall.

Kansas journalist and friend William Allen White would write of Funston: “We had a man as dashing as Sheridan, as unique and picturesque as the slow-moving, taciturn Grant, as charming as Jackson, as witty as old Billy Sherman, as brave as Paul Jones.”

The truth of it was Frederick Funston was a feisty little Kansan whose adventures filled books.

A camp was named for him at Fort Riley as were streets across the state. In 2010, Funston was picked by the Kansas Sampler Foundation as one of 24 notable Kansans.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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