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Kay Arvin recalled as a ‘woman of courage’

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, June 27, 2014, at 6:47 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, June 28, 2014, at 1:18 p.m.

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Under normal circumstances, Kay Arvin’s accomplishments would have been considered remarkable.

Decades before the movement began, she was an advocate for battered women. In 1978, she became the first woman to serve as a Sedgwick County District Court judge.

Her wood sculptures won awards. She taught university students in Singapore.

Mrs. Arvin did all these things after being blinded in an accident at the age of 23.

“She was such a woman of courage,” said Sally Dewey, a former Wichita City Council member. “She was one of my heroes.”

Mrs. Arvin died June 1 in Nashville, Tenn., six days before her 92nd birthday.

Her ashes were buried Saturday during a private memorial service at a cemetery near Pretty Prairie, about an hour away from where she grew up in Pratt County.

Friends and family described her as a gracious Christian, determined, intelligent and a patient listener.

“She was unable to read faces,” son Reed Arvin said, “so she read voices.”

Nola Foulston remembers that well. The former Sedgwick County district attorney recalled how she would announce her name whenever she and Mrs. Arvin ran into each other in the courthouse.

“Kay would always say, ‘I knew who you were. I recognized your voice,’ ” Foulston said.

In 1942, she was Kay Krehbiel and a student at Ottawa University in northeast Kansas when she met Les Arvin at a school Valentine’s Day dance.

They fell in love that night, both told The Eagle for a story in 1993, but World War II delayed their marriage until 1944.

Army Staff Sgt. Les Arvin was serving in Hawaii in a communication unit, charged with censoring communications out of the islands. The Army didn’t have enough military personnel for the task so it brought in civilians.

Kay applied for the job, got it and joined Les in Hawaii. After jumping through some Army hoops, they were married.

After the war, Les went to law school at Washburn University in Topeka and worked part time for the sheriff’s department. Leftover equipment from the war had been divided up between law enforcement agencies across the country, Reed Arvin said.

Included in the equipment sent to Les Arvin’s sheriff’s unit was a tear-gas canister that was made to look like a flashlight. He had one with him and put it on a mantle when he came home, Reed Arvin said.

The 23-year-old Kay was looking for a flashlight, saw the object on the mantle and was sure she had found what she needed. She was left blind by the exploding canister.

She became bored staying around the house, so she tagged along with Les to his law classes. She enjoyed the study and soon enrolled in law school.

“Dad was a year ahead of her,” Reed said, “so their courses were out of sync. He would study his stuff, then read out loud to her.

“That’s where she developed an uncanny memory.”

Breaking new ground

Les and Kay Arvin raised their two sons, Reed and Scott, near Rose Hill and became Wichita attorneys. Les, who died two years ago, also served as a state legislator.

Kay Arvin had a family practice, specializing in adoption and divorce and later mediation. She also served on the Kansas Racing Commission.

She was appointed in 1978 to fill out a four-month term as a judge in Sedgwick County, but she made it clear she didn’t want to be a candidate for election to the position.

Even so, Mrs. Arvin broke new ground among local judges and became one of the first female judges in the state. Kay McFarland was the first in 1971.

One of Mrs. Arvin’s many causes was bringing awareness to battered women. But she didn’t just talk about it or tell others to do something.

She went into the prisons to interview women incarcerated for killing physically abusive husbands, and then represented their interests.

Mrs. Arvin continued to practice law until she was nearly 80, although most of her work was pro bono in her later years, Reed Arvin said.

“Kay was a phenomenal, lovely woman,” Foulston said. “She was able to go to law school while blind. There weren’t many women in the (Wichita) bar at the time, probably less than 10.

“She got lemons and made lemonade.”

If she was having a tough day, you wouldn’t know it. She kept her house orderly, so she knew where everything was.

“She never, never complained about being blind or couldn’t do this or that,” said Ernestine Krehbiel, whose late husband, Hal, was Mrs. Arvin’s half-brother.

An ‘inspiration’

She was born in Varner, about 10 miles northeast of Kingman, in 1922. Her mother died from complications in childbirth.

Her distraught father, Jack Krehbiel, sent Kay and her sister, who was two years older, to live with relatives in Cullison in Pratt County, Reed Arvin said.

Not long after her sister began going to a one-room schoolhouse, 3-year-old Kay tagged along. The teacher finally said, “OK, pull up a chair and desk and have a seat.”

“She was always very intellectually curious,” Reed Arvin said.

Her father later remarried and had three more children, including Hal. Ernestine first met Kay when she married Hal in 1960.

“Kay was an inspiration to me,” said Ernestine Krehbiel, who went on to teach high school history in Wichita and become a leader for the League of Women Voters. “Here I was young, just out of college.

“She never really appreciated that her ability was because of her brilliance. She was impatient with such things as welfare and the Society for the Blind, thinking, ‘Well, if I can do this, they could do it.’ 

Kay and Les Arvin moved to Nashville in 2001 to be closer to family. After Les died of a heart attack in 2012, she insisted on living on her own in a one-bedroom apartment, Reed Arvin said.

Although her health was fading in the last few months, she maintained her wit to the final hour. She asked Scott Arvin to read the book of Ruth from the Bible.

“Did you enjoy that story, Mom?” Reed asked after he finished.

“Oh, yes, it is such a fascinating story,” she replied before adding, “I can do this” in reference to her approaching death.

Fifteen minutes later she died.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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