In Katie Niggemeyer's mind, you are either a white-envelope person or not.
If you are, there is hope. She wants to help.
Niggemeyer, a senior volleyball player at Wichita State, is wrapping up her career as the team's creative force as the Shockers begin the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament tonight in Omaha. When not playing middle blocker, Niggemeyer is aggressively searching for blank surfaces that need color, style and whimsy.
"If I had to nominate one of my players as a cartoon character, Katie comes rolling off my tongue," WSU coach Chris Lamb said. "The world would be a happier place if we all were a little more like Katie Niggemeyer."
Not to mention more colorful, with plenty of room to get messy, explore and explode. For five years, Niggemeyer's art decorated the Shockers.
She designs the T-shirts, the posters, the packages and the letters. Give her the job of making the schedule for practice T-shirt colors, and you want to frame the chart. Let her baby-sit your children, only if you want to come home to a driveway filled with chalk drawings. The campus post office frustrates her with their desire to slap ugly stickers on her envelopes.
"She will say, 'This is unacceptable,' " teammate Melissa Granville said.
Niggemeyer didn't sleep much as a freshman, which started her on the way to a hyperactive list of artsy accomplishments famous around the team. Print-making. Needlepoint. Calligraphy. Birthday cards with legs. Super-hero birthday cards. Her pen-pal letters are the stuff of legend and lore. Bored, she concocted a bomb out of bottle rockets and an apple to entertain her roommates — a story revealed only because she is in grad school and figures the statute of limitations has expired.
"I really enjoy helping people discover their creativity," she said. "So many people won't even try. Things are so immediate, people don't know how to exercise that thought process."
Niggemeyer does. For her, it's not a process. It's her life.
Parents Dave and Debbie teach art in the Webster City, Iowa, schools. Their three children grew up in a house with an art supply closet, across the street from the high school and dad's art room and all the athletic fields. They grew up near a river where the children could find sandstone rocks and use them to paint sidewalks and bodies. They grew up with a mom who drove to Missouri to get fireworks so they could shoot them off while dad disavowed knowledge.
"They never put a block on our creativity," Katie Niggemeyer said. "My mom was a supporter of mud pies. She encouraged dirtiness."
Which is why when she saw a stack of ancient white envelopes in the locker room in Oklahoma's ancient field house, she grabbed them. To most, they are trash. Niggemeyer, taught not to waste materials, sees them as art.
"They were crusty old white envelopes that hadn't been touched for years," she said. "The edges were aged and brown. I use those to send, because they have character. It's not a white envelope. I'm definitely not a white-envelope letter sender."
Because of that drive, WSU's pen-pal program will never be the same. Writing a simple letter never entered her mind. She used needle point. Pop-up art. Drawing. Painting. The whole Niggemeyer portfolio unleashed on sixth-graders in Goddard.
"Maybe once in a while an athlete would tape a piece of candy to the letter," said Gretchen Torline, director of athletic academic services. "She really changed it. We had lots of people trying to out-do Katie. We would sit around every month waiting to see what fantastic pen-pal letters she would have."
Niggemeyer, engaged to former WSU and Newman basketball player Ryan Bradley, is getting her graduate degree in communications. She sees herself doing marketing or raising money for a non-profit organization. For years, she fought the idea of following in the footsteps of her parents. With age, teaching art looks more attractive.
"Students walk into (art) classrooms and express a different side of themselves that other classrooms can't really unlock," she said. "So many kids are bound by rules. Someone said you have to color in the lines. How are they going to feel comfortable doing abstract art? Or you have to color in one direction. How are they going to feel comfortable drawing a starburst?"
Niggemeyer is just a creative and inquisitive in her volleyball, traits that sometimes don't mesh perfectly with Lamb. She calls herself a "what if" person and her coach a "stare at the dot on the wall" person.
"She's not the 'Yes sir, I got it, sir,' she's the 'Let's discuss it,' " Lamb said. "Sometimes I enjoy that. Sometimes, it can be a little frustrating because then you know she's getting a lot more things caught up in her head and you want to keep it simple."
Niggemeyer, hitting .234 with an average of 2.15 kills a set, is capable of booming kills and soaring attacks. When she plays well, the Shockers present a more varied and deeper offense. They enter the MVC Tournament as the No. 3 seed. While their NCAA Tournament resume is strong, a trip to Saturday's championship round would make their case stronger. A win on Saturday locks up a third straight trip to the NCAAs.
"She's done a little bit of everything and she's got one of the best motors around," Lamb said. "She can go three hours all day, every day, at every position. I've always been amazed at her durability."