I first met former Gov. Bill Avery in December 2003. He served Kansas in Congress and then as governor in the mid-1960s. His start in Kansas politics came in the early 1950s when, as a young farmer, he was a leader of the “Stop the Big Dam Foolishness” campaign to thwart flood control dams on the Kansas River’s tributaries in north-central Kansas.
In the midst of those efforts, motivated by rural concerns over prime farm land taken for flood control through eminent domain, spring floods tore through the area and Avery changed his mind. I greatly admired his willingness to change his mind based on the facts.
Ultimately, that quality cost him his job as governor. As governor he recognized deeply embedded problems in Kansas’ antiquated tax policies. He acted to make the system more efficient and less subject to tax avoidance tactics. The voters rewarded him with defeat, but he expressed no remorse and loved every moment he spent as governor.
“Nobody remembers who their congressman was, but everybody knows the governor,” he told me.
Bill Graves was one of the most beleaguered and abused chief executives the state has had in the modern era, and most of the abuse came from an insurgent, virulent conservative intraparty uprising.
Movie-star handsome and an effective communicator, his life changed when his father essentially destroyed young Bill’s plan for the future. Bill expected to take over Graves Trucking from his father when he finished college and settle in Salina as a hometown big fish.
Dad sold the company, called Bill in Lawrence to tell him about the change in plans and provoked a period of deep melancholy in the younger man. He recovered and committed himself to public service. Former Kansas Secretary of State Jack Brier took an interest in his career and Bill became part of the “statehouse family.”
In the 1990s, conservative Republicans were feeling their oats. The success of the Reagan administration, enthusiasm about Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and their broad and deep loathing of the Clinton administration moved conservative elements in the Kansas Republican Party to depict Graves as all that was wrong with moderate Republicanism.
Through some of the hairiest legislative sessions Kansas had had since the Populist days at the end of the 19th Century, Graves kept his composure. He crushed a primary challenge from the state party chairman in 1998 and finished his two terms in office with high public popularity despite the enmity of many GOP activists.
I remember him emotionally describing how he came to realize just how much ordinary citizens were moved to have the opportunity to meet the governor and share a little bit about their personal lives.
Both of these men, and many others, demonstrated a reverence for the offices of trust they held, a decency toward the people who put them there, as well as most of their opponents, and a courtesy of manner and speech that seems almost foreign or antique in the contemporary culture of vulgarity, crudity and coarseness.
I miss the influences of these men in this time. Indeed, all of us miss their civility, decency, and commitment to Kansas.
Dr. Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.