Special Reports

Successful Wichita natives praise their schooling here

High schools turn out graduates every year not knowing what they will do or where they’ll end up.

Some graduates, however, are easy to follow or find because they’ve become famous.

I went to North High School in Wichita and I’m sure I had the very same hall locker as the very beautiful actress Vera Miles. Or maybe it was the same one used by Barbara Sinatra. Yes, both went to North. It’s true: Knowing that famous people graced the halls of your high school is a point of pride.

I think I got a good education at North. I mean, there is only so much you can do with a student who is missing the math chip in her brain, but I felt prepared to go on to Wichita State. At North I was crazy about my English classes and physical education. I remember the struggles and the fun. It’s easy to remember teachers who taught us lessons not only about the subject they taught, but about life as well.

But what about those very impressive grads from local high schools who put Wichita on the map with their enormous accomplishments? Did they think they got their money’s worth from USD 259? I wondered about those who went into acting such as Kirstie Alley, who graduated from Southeast in 1969, Don Johnson (South, 1967) or Karla Burns (West, 1972).

Burns, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in “Showboat” on Broadway and who has sung and acted in hundreds of shows, says she loved her days of being a West High Pioneer.

“Especially my senior year. I only needed one class to graduate – government,” she said. But she didn’t want to graduate early. “I wanted to stay where there were teachers with so much knowledge. They influenced me and convinced me I could do well for myself if I applied myself,” she said.

Burns took government, but the rest of her classes revolved around music and drama, she said. She loved playing the clarinet in the band and was first chair in the orchestra. She was happy the instrumental teacher, Charles Emmons, came to West from her junior high, Roosevelt. She remembers the drama teacher, Nancy Lackey, fondly.

“I thought she was gorgeous and she had so much knowledge of the theater. She was one of the reasons I started doing theater. And the vocal music teacher, Sue Hiebert, has a special place in her heart. “Miss Hiebert told me ‘You can sing, kiddo,’ and before that I had planned on being a math major,” Burnssaid.

“When I look back on those days I remember the teachers being dedicated and loving what they did. And with the knowledge they gave me I was ready to go on from my high school experience,” she said.

Athletes such as basketball star Antoine Carr, who graduated from Heights in 1979, have never forgotten their roots, and that’s true for football great Barry Sanders, a 1986 North High graduate. Sanders says he has many memories of North and not just because he went there. His parents went to North, his 10 siblings went there, and more cousins, nieces, nephews than he can count went to North. “I have great memories of the kids that I grew up with in sports and other activities. It really was a home away from home for me,” he said.

Sanders was homecoming royalty, crowned Pigskin Pete in 1986, and became professional football royalty winning the Heisman Trophy in 1988.

He says he stays in contact with some high school friends. “In fact one of my closest friends, Mark McCormick, co-wrote my autobiography with me,” he said. Sanderssays he liked all his teachers and felt they genuinely wanted him to succeed. “But the one faculty member that impacted me the most was Coach Burkholder. He was so positive and motivational. He taught me so many lessons. I don’t think I can ever thank him enough.”

Sanders remembers suffering through English, mainly when he had to read Shakespeare and “trying to figure out the message of the books.”

His favorite subject was math, specifically geometry.

“North really prepared me for college at Oklahoma State. I always tried to be a good student and I learned a lot of my study habits that served me well in college in the library at North,” Sanders said.

Robert Gates, secretary of defense from December 2006 to July 2011, is a 1961 graduate of East High. He worked in the CIA for 26 years before being appointed by President George W. Bush. After graduating from East he attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., on a scholarship. He is now chancellor of William and Mary. He was inducted on the school’s 319th anniversary on Feb. 3.

“My favorite subjects at East were history and science, but I remember my English composition teacher Nell Westcott. She taught me how to write,” he said.

And although he wasn’t an athlete in high school, he remembers fondly Coach Bob Timmons.

“I worked for him for three years as a team manager. In those three years I never heard him swear at a kid, or swear at all,” he said. “He was a great role model.”

This very high-profile Blue Ace turned down President Bush when he was offered the post as secretary of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. But he didn’t turn down the opportunity to talk about his high school education.

When asked if he thought he got a good education at East High, he said without the slightest hesitation: “Absolutely. When I went to William and Mary I was competing against students who came from prep schools and private schools in the East, but I felt very prepared for college.”

We can only hope if students are asked about their education in 20 or 30 years, they’ll be as positive as Burns, Sanders and Gates.

As a graduate of a Wichita high school and a former teacher I have to tell you what I have always believed. A good teacher is an invaluable part of society, but it continues to be the responsibility of the student to get an education. High school years are a special time in a person’s life, and I was happy to hear that three out of three very accomplished people say their Wichita high school educations played a role in their success.