January 7, 2012

Boeing’s departure will leave a scar on Wichita’s psyche

Wednesday’s announcement that Boeing was pulling out of Wichita after 85 years delivered a blow to the city’s psyche.

Walk into the original Nu-Way sandwich shop on West Douglas near downtown Wichita and you find photographs of the original Stearman building on a wall.

Above them is a photo of the 1,000th B-29 turned out by Stearman’s successor, Boeing.

The plane is sitting in a massive Boeing hangar, with a crowd of people milling around it. There are 1,000 dollar bills attached to the rear of the fuselage.

Then a member of the Nu-Way wait staff, Betty Gettings, walks up behind you and says her father-in-law is in the photo. She moves around a booth to point him out.

And that’s when it hits you how deeply ingrained Boeing is in this city, when somebody you just met shows you a family member in an old Boeing photograph hanging on the wall of a restaurant that’s nearly as much of an institution as Boeing.

“It’s just a shock to know that Boeing is going to close,” Gettings says.

She tells you how her mother took the news: “ ‘Wichita without Boeing ’ ” Gettings says, quoting her mom. “ ‘Where do we go from here?’ ”

Wednesday’s announcement that Boeing was pulling out of Wichita after 85 years delivered a blow to the city’s psyche.

Lon Smith, executive director of the Kansas Aviation Museum, compares it to a death in the family.

“After 80 years, everything has a life cycle. It’s just a natural part of existence. I think we’re experiencing that right now,” he says.

“There’s going to be a grieving process. It’s going to be tough. We have to support one another.”

Recently, the museum offered a B-52 simulator, and it was packed with people for a week, Smith says. It was amazing the crowds that wanted to visit the simulator, and the distances some had driven to do it. One visitor came from Denver, another from way out East. They had worked on the B-52, or flown it out of McConnell Air Force Base, Smith says.

“I don’t think it was all just the B-52,” Smith says. “It was remembering the positive experience they had at Boeing.”

Still in shock

Greg Meissen was born in Planeview because of Boeing. His mother worked for the company during World War II. Meissen wonders how many other families started out in Planeview, a community built to house the influx of Boeing workers who came to Wichita during the war.

Meissen grew up to become a professor of psychology at Wichita State University. He is coordinator of the community psychology doctoral program at WSU, which studies the dynamics and processes of communities across all sectors — social services, the business and faith communities and so on — to understand how they are connected.

This community, Meissen says, is in the anger stage of mourning.

“There are a lot of people who are upset about this, public officials and citizens. We’re still in that shock phase,” he says.

When he first heard that Boeing might leave, he remembered the departures of Coleman and Pizza Hut.

“These companies that have grown up in Wichita hit a certain place and move on. But Boeing is bigger than those two,” Meissen says. “It is tied in with our identity, and I think it is going to have us rethink our identity.”

The departure is even tougher to absorb given that the recent Air Force tanker deal had led the community to anticipate a return of the good times and more jobs, he says.

He predicts that the community will suffer an ongoing deep-seated sense of loss. It’s as if one of the most important people in our lives has abandoned us, leaving a vacuum, with scattered reminders of them all over town for us to bump into — like the photographs on the wall at the Nu-Way.

“That loss is going to be more powerful because anybody who’s lived in Wichita any period of time has friends and family who worked at Boeing. It’s a rare person in town who doesn’t have somebody they’re close to who worked at Boeing,” Meissen says.

“Looking at the people in Wichita that even today aren’t connected with aviation, I’ll bet most of them in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s had something to do with Boeing,” says Steve Martens, president of the Martens Cos. and a lifelong Wichita-area resident. “It’s an iconic departure. It touched the lives of so many people in the city.”

Says Meissen: “It is deep in our psyche, and it’s personal.”

Rallying around the loss

Mark Bass, the Boeing executive who announced Boeing’s departure on Wednesday, seemed to get that.

At a meeting with Eagle reporters and editors after delivering the news, Bass once again offered the company’s bottom-line business rationales for the move.

Then, asked if he understood the sadness the decision created in Wichita, he said, “I believe I do.” And he started to choke up. He had to compose himself before continuing.

“My father’s in the Air Force for a long time. Flew World War II and Korea. I worked at the Air Force museum. I have an appreciation for the history of aerospace,” Bass said.

He named some of the storied aviation figures he’d met, such as Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, and then stopped talking, overcome by emotion.

And yet, the bottom line prevailed for Bass and his company, and it was a slap in Wichita’s face.

Wichitans who fly were able to proudly tell their seatmates that the airplane they were flying in was made in Wichita at Boeing. We told friends in other cities who didn’t know much about Wichita that it was the home of Boeing, where the B-29s and B-52s and Air Force One came from.

Now we’re the city that Boeing told to drop dead.

But, says Meissen, “I think there’s an upside to this, too. That’s about rallying around this loss, and the community getting motivated behind this. That’s likely, though it’s going to be a process. It’s going to take a while.”

How long?

“I would guess five to 10 years.

“I think it’s going to cause our community leaders to say, ‘We really need to address this.’ I think we have the right people in place to do it, but it’s going to take some focus on their part,” Meissen says.

Then he says something that brings to mind Betty Gettings’ mother.

“It might cause us to really think, ‘Where to do we go from here?’ ” Meissen says. “That’s where the potential comes for positive growth.”

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