Kansas 105

1991-2011: Two decades of volatile change

It drew an audible gasp from the audience when Miss USA pageant host Dick Clark asked the question on a February night of the three final contestants as they were poised to face the judges one last time.

"The final question is a carefully guarded secret," Clark began. "What would you do if you knew that your (pageant) roommate had discovered the contents of the question and she were among the two finalists competing against you?"

The Kansan paused briefly.

"To be fair to myself, I wouldn't ask her for any hints. The answer should be spontaneous," said Kansan Kelli McCarty, who went on to become Miss USA 1991 only moments later.

It's almost as if that question foreshadowed the events yet to come in our state.

It's been a time of killer tornadoes; abortion protests, bombings and shootings; national parks; school board decisions; and much political debate and indecision.

During the summer of 1991, thousands of demonstrators came to Wichita to make their opposition to abortion known in Operation Rescue's Summer of Mercy.

But as the decade of the 1990s progressed, there was more to divide Kansans.

Eight southwest Kansas counties in 1992 proposed splitting from Kansas and forming a 51st state. Leaders of the movement said Topeka was unfairly requiring rural Kansas communities to take up the slack for metropolitan areas such as Wichita.

The division continued on other issues. The state's Board of Education went back and forth on whether to remove evolution from its science standards.

And, at the turn of a new millennium, Kansans tried to make sense of two Wichita quadruple shootings; a natural gas explosion in downtown Hutchinson; terrorist attacks on the East Coast; and more protests on abortion.

BTK turned out to be a Park City dog catcher. The serial killer was put in prison.

Abortion provider George Tiller was shot and killed on a Sunday morning in May 2009 as he worked as an usher in his church. The killer was caught and jailed soon after.

The economy plunged and layoffs became commonplace.

But still, in the violence and uncertainty of fifteen decades, there are things that offer hope.

The prairie is making a comeback through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City and Conservation Reserve Programs throughout the state.

And, the wildlife that early pioneers saw more than 150 years ago are also making a comeback — deer, turkey, antelope and bald eagles can all be seen across Kansas. Mountain lions and even black bears occasionally are spotted here.

What has 150 years of statehood brought us?

When Kansas became a state in 1861, what drove many to call this place home was a spirit of adventure, restlessness and a desire for a new and better life.

Kansas, it turns out, is still a good place to live.

Many of our towns have been chosen as All-American Cities — best places to go to school and retire.

Maybe, after all these years, Kansas is how William Least Heat-Moon describes it in "The Great Kansas Passage," an introduction to "The Four Seasons of Kansas" by Daniel Dancer:

"So what is the truth of Kansas? ... It is the heartland of America, indeed, but not simply in the way popularly understood; it also beats at our center because, like the whole nation, it moves in turbulence, in fitfulness, and, somehow between times, in beauty."

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