If state mottoes are intended to reflect the character and beliefs of the citizens of the state, Gordon Parks is the quintessential Kansan.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott on Nov. 30, 1912. Named after the white doctor who helped the infant survive a difficult delivery, Parks was the youngest of 15 children.
Though he benefited from the love and wisdom of his parents, Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks, his was a humble beginning, and he soon came to learn about, and live with, discrimination, bigotry and racism.
In his last memoir, "A Hungry Heart," Parks wrote about his early days in Fort Scott:
"Discrimination was solidly built on the stones of segregation, in grade schools, movie houses, churches, even the graveyards. The local high school was racially integrated simply because the town fathers couldn't raise funds to build a separate one. But even there bigotry spewed its venom. Black students were denied participation in sports and social activities."
In Parks' words, he ate a lot of hatred during those early days. However, he overcame all the challenges, disadvantages and difficulties to become an important and internationally recognized creative genius.
Parks, without a doubt, made it to the stars with difficulty and achieved what could only have been imagined as an "impossible dream" for a young black man from Kansas born in 1912.
Parks' contributions as a photographer, writer, poet, journalist, composer, choreographer, moviemaker, actor and social activist are legendary. But perhaps his most important contribution to the world was as a man — a kind, talented, generous and caring man who made a conscious decision to use his camera and creativity to make a statement about the equality of men and women.
During my first term of service as the interim director of the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Parks in 2000. His kindness, wisdom, gentleness, and affinity and love for his fellow man impressed me as much as the genius of his work.
I began to read and reread books written by and about Parks, and I was convinced that his was not only a life well-lived, but it was a life that can and should serve to provide inspiration and motivation to all of us. Parks is someone Kansas can be proud of, and he certainly became a hero and role model for me.
On March 10, WSU will host the third presentation of the Gordon Parks Lecture Series. This presentation will feature the premiere screening of a documentary titled "Roots and Branches: Preserving the Legacy of Gordon Parks." This documentary was written, filmed and edited by WSU's media resources department and tells the story of how Parks' collected papers and materials came home to Kansas.
As WSU collaborates with The Eagle to help celebrate and honor Kansans and Kansas history during this sesquicentennial year, I invite you to come to our campus to help us celebrate and honor one of Kansas' most important sons, Gordon Parks, who vividly illustrates and proudly glorifies our state motto: Ad astra per aspera.