USS Wichita will carry some of city’s history

Kate Lehrer, the sponsor of the USS Wichita, talks during the ship’s keel-laying ceremony in February 2015.
Kate Lehrer, the sponsor of the USS Wichita, talks during the ship’s keel-laying ceremony in February 2015. File photo

The latest ship to bear Wichita’s name is scheduled to launch Saturday in Wisconsin.

The USS Wichita is a littoral combat ship, one of the Navy’s fastest, lightest and technologically advanced ships, according to officials at Lockheed Martin, which led the ship-building team.

But it will also carry personal touches of its namesake – books, postcards and mementos of Wichita.

By tradition, the person chosen to be a ship sponsor is a woman who is considered a permanent member of the crew and imparts her personality on the ship. The sponsor of the USS Wichita is Kate Lehrer, a nationally known author and wife of Wichita native Jim Lehrer, the former anchor of “The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour” on PBS.

Lehrer was selected by the secretary of the Navy to be the ship’s sponsor. Her duties include not only the ceremonial breaking of a champagne bottle on the ship’s bow Saturday, but she also is expected to remain in contact with the ship’s crew and be involved in special events throughout the life of the ship.

“I am very honored; it is such a privilege,” Kate Lehrer said in a phone interview this week.

She was selected to be the ship’s sponsor, she said, “because Jim was born in Wichita and spent his first 12 years in Wichita and has a great affection for it to the point that as he was celebrating his 80th birthday, he turned the idea of a celebration into having us all meet – all three daughters, three sons-in-law and six grandchildren – in Wichita.”

Kate Lehrer was born in Waco, Texas, the daughter of a county extension agent and a social worker. She attended Texas Christian University and married Lehrer in 1960. The couple lives in Washington, D.C. She is a writer, novelist and book reviewer and often is a panelist on the Diane Rehm Book Club on National Public Radio.

One of her novels, “Out of Eden,” won the Western Heritage Award in 1997 and is about two frontier women who settle near Hutchinson.

“My hope for the ship is that it proves able to handle all kinds of missions,” Kate Lehrer said.

“I am hoping it can be used on good missions – to save people or to help our country. It will do what our country needs for it to do.”

Saturday’s launch

A delegation of about 20 people from Wichita is expected to attend the ship launching ceremonies this weekend at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis.

The delegation includes Mayor Jeff Longwell and representatives from the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and McConnell Air Force Base.

Events began Friday morning with a mast stepping for the USS Wichita. During the ceremony, several coins are placed into the mast step of the ship, an old Navy tradition that is considered to bring good luck.

The USS Wichita will be part of the Freedom class of warships. The ships are slightly smaller than the Navy’s guided missile frigates. They can be used as a small assault transport and have a flight deck and hangar space.

The Wichita will be 378 feet long and will have a top speed of more than 40 knots, according to the Navy’s website. It is scheduled to be launched at 11:30 a.m. Saturday into the Menominee River in Marinette. The ship will then be tested and fitted with critical systems and delivered to the Navy next year.

Kate Lehrer said this week that she is looking forward to the ceremonies. She said she and her husband are making a shadowbox that she plans on presenting to the ship. It will contain mementos of Wichita and the legacy of the community.

“I love the Navy and all these true ancient rituals that they have,” she said. “I love the pomp and circumstance.

“It’s like a wedding in that I have maids and matrons of honor.”

Lehrer said she is also putting a photo of her father from World War I in the shadowbox. And Jim Lehrer is putting in some items from the Kansas Central Lines, his father’s bus company in Wichita.

“Wichita is known for its planes, but it is also a transportation center,” she said. “I am eager to carry out my responsibility and duties of being a sponsor and help in a way that provides a connection to Wichita.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

For more information

To watch a video of the new USS Wichita as it was being rolled out to prepare for Saturday’s launch, go to Kansas.com/video.

Ships named after Wichita

The ship that will launch Saturday is the third to carry the name of Wichita.

The first USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser, was commissioned on Feb. 16, 1939, and decommissioned in 1947. It was awarded 13 battle stars for service during World War II.

In 1968, another vessel was named the Wichita. It was an auxiliary replenishment oiler and served for 24 years. It earned four battle stars in Vietnam and was decommissioned in 1993.