Shenandoah, Iowa, and Kansas City are not new places for me. In my vagabond life, no place is more familiar than these communities. I know what to anticipate and I’ve discovered most that either destination offers.
I lived six-plus years in Kansas City and seven-plus with Shenandoah as home base (though I was away for college for most of four of the Shen years). And it seems that I’ve spent more time visiting Shenandoah and the Kansas City area than I spent living either place.
My sons and I became ardent Kansas City Chiefs fans while we lived in Kansas City and they became lifelong Royals fans (my loyalty to the Yankees was unshaken, but the Royals remain a fond second-favorite), so I’ve returned many times to Kansas City for ballgames. Mom moved to a retirement community in Lee’s Summit, Mo., three years after I left KC, so I’ve been back more times than I can count visiting Mom at three different homes as her care needs have grown. I’ve been to the Kansas City area as well working on news stories and speaking at conferences and for a job interview.
I know the quickest ways out of the ballparks to beat the traffic. I have a favorite barbecue joint that we nearly always visit. Whatever Mom needs (this time it was a watch battery), I generally know where to find it nearby.
I met and married my traveling companion in Shenandoah and we became parents when we lived there. The three parents that we’ve lost are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, along with a nephew and my companion’s baby brother. More of her family is buried a few miles away in the Essex Cemetery. I earned my first journalism paycheck in Shen and after opportunities lured me away, I returned occasionally for a variety of stories. My in-laws lived in Essex and went to church in Shen for 16 years after we left. My brother has lived for decades in the countryside south of town. We’ve returned for weddings, funerals and dozens, if not hundreds, of holidays and other family visits. Or just because.
But even the familiar places can give you new experiences. We had some new treats — as well as some familiar ones — on our weekend visit to Kansas City and Shen.
I knew my brother Don had become pastor at First Baptist Church of Shenandoah. He had told the family of his calling in an email in late July. I was already planning to come to Shen this past weekend. My companion and I were going to be part of a Writers Jubilee for Shenfest. Getting to hear Don preach (and shooting some photos and videos of him for Mom) would be a bonus of the trip.
But, even knowing he was pastor, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional thrill of seeing my brother in the pastor’s office where our father worked in the 1970s and preaching from the pulpit where Luke Buttry had preached 40 years ago.
I had been in First Baptist more times than I could count: Sunday school, Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, Wednesday evening services and choir practice (thank God there are no YouTube videos of my choral performances) and countless times dropping in to visit Dad or help out with chores during his pastorate from 1970 to ’76. Don was married there, as were three of his children. And last November, the family gathered for the funeral of Don’s son, Brandon. That’s the only time I remember standing at the pulpit myself. I read some letters Brandon’s siblings had written but were unable to read aloud.
None of that prepared me to see Don standing Sunday morning at the pulpit where Dad had stood so many times, announcing the upcoming activities of the church, reading the Gospel, leading the prayer and preaching. The brother who used to sneak out of the upstairs parsonage window to seek mischief was standing before the congregation, preaching about forgiveness. I’m pretty sure that he’s at least the fourth Buttry to preach there. My mother, Harriet, and brother, Dan, are both also Baptist ministers, and probably preached as visitors to Shenandoah at some time. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan’s wife, Sharon, also preached there. But Don is the only one to follow Dad as pastor there.
We had been planning to visit Don’s home Friday evening, but I couldn’t resist stopping Friday afternoon when I saw his van parked in front of the church. There was Don in the basement with three of his children, working on painting part of the church’s float for Saturday’s Shenfest parade.
We went upstairs to the pastor’s office, where I’d found Dad dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of times when I’d stop by the church, maybe to tell him when to expect me home that night, maybe to ask him for a few bucks. Don somehow looked at home at the pastor’s desk, though I don’t recall Dad ever wearing a t-shirt and jeans in that office (Don looked dapper Sunday in a tie, a sight hadn’t seen more than a handful of times since Dad made us wear ties on Sunday mornings).
When Don slid out the shelves above the drawers in the pastor’s desk, he took delight in showing me Dad’s handwriting on file labels that recorded each wedding (including Don and Pam’s), funeral and baptism in the church on his watch. I suppose a half-dozen (or maybe a dozen) pastors over the years between Pastors Buttry had been annoyed at Dad for sticking those labels on the surface but never bothered to scrape them off. It was a delight for these two preachers’ kids to find them 40 years later.
Update: I finally got around to editing video from my visit to Shen:
The Writers’ Jubilee at Shenfest was more special than I had anticipated, too. Chuck Offenburger, my longtime friend and first journalism boss, had organized a similar event five years earlier when I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I enjoyed it, but that wasn’t as memorable as this. For one thing, I was the only family member on the panel that time. This time my traveling companion joined me as a Shenandoah writer, as the author of Gathering String (she had been back to Shen by herself for a reading of the book at the same library last year).
Chuck had posted promotional photographs and updates on his Facebook page about the Shenandoah writers and I shared the post about my companion on my own Facebook page. Our oldest son, Mike, saw and decided to drive down six hours from the Twin Cities to see his Mom speak. He surprised my companion by showing up at Don’s home Friday evening, then sat in the front row Saturday morning, just a few blocks from our home when he was a baby.
The weekend might have been the first time my companion and I have spoken publicly together since we were leading marriage-preparation courses in our church many years ago (starting when we were in KC). We warmed up for our Saturday morning program by talking to sixth-graders at Shenandoah Middle School, recruited by Chuck, who wasn’t able to accommodate a request by teacher Carleen Perry. The kids asked smart questions and it was fun to talk about writing with budding writers and my favorite writer.
As familiar as First Baptist Church was, the venues for the writing discussions were new to this longtime Shenandoah visitor: Shenandoah Middle School, opened more than a decade ago, and a new library auditorium that opened last year. It was nice to see the old hometown updating.
The Writers Jubilee included faces that were both new to me and familiar. Trucker poet David Gluck opened the event with a reading of his new poem Inspire Me, written just for this occasion. I had not met or read Gluck before but became a quick fan.
Good morning, says pen
towards paper, inspire
me today, rip me a page
from history through
In a perfect illustration of how writing is evolving, he read the poem from his iPhone.
Sitting next to me on the panel was a writer I remembered from the 1970s, 94-year-old Evelyn Birkby, who’s been writing her newspaper column, Up a Country Lane, for 64 years. I don’t think I had seen Evelyn since Chuck organized a celebration of her 50th anniversary as a columnist.
Evelyn told us that when Willard Archie (Chuck’s and my boss way back when) initially hired her to write the column, he told her to be sure to “always put in a recipe.” She was so delighted to get the column that she didn’t dare tell Willard that she wasn’t much of a cook. But she started asking her friends and readers for their recipes and the column’s still going strong. I said Evelyn might have been a pioneer in journalistic crowdsourcing, even if that term was decades away from entering the journalist’s vocabulary.
After church on Sunday, we headed back down to Kansas City. We had flown to KC Thursday for a visit to Mom before heading up to Shen. It was a pleasure to show her photos of Don and Dad preaching from the same pulpit, then to show videos of Don preaching, his children singing in church and the whole family sending her greetings.
My companion and I ate Thursday night at our favorite KC barbecue joint, Jack Stack (we still call it the Smokestack, its name when we fell in love with it in the 1980s). A few years ago, when I was visiting KC, I met my cousin, Doug Worgul, at Jack Stack for dinner after a visit with Mom. I learned at dinner that he had become marketing director for another KC barbecue restaurant, Oklahoma Joe’s, which opened in 1996, five years after I left. Because we always gravitated to our favorite, we had never tried this new KC barbecue institution.
Doug knows as much about Kansas City barbecue as anyone. He’s the author of The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue and more recently of the novel Thin Blue Smoke, set in the fictional KC barbecue joint Smoke Meat. While he indulged my love for the Smokestack, I promised that next time we’d meet at Oklahoma Joe’s. So, after bidding Mom farewell Monday morning, my companion and I headed for the original gas station location of Oklahoma Joe’s. The line out the front door and the smoky aroma told us the meat would be as good as promised. Doug took us in the side door to jump the line and get some burnt ends to take off to a conference room for a private discussion. The smell was so enticing I had to grab one with my fingers before we headed next door to the conference room.
After sitting down, we pulled out phones to show off photos of our children and grandchildren and caught up on family. But before long, the novelists asked each other if they were working on second novels (both are). And soon, I was able to sit back and listen (and occasionally contribute) to another fascinating writers panel. Doug explained that he had recently read someone’s explanation of why a second novel seems to take so long: Because the three years (in his case) that you think you spent writing your first novel was just the time you spent typing it. You really spent your whole life writing it. And now you’re writing your second novel from scratch, with higher expectations and more pressure. My companion was nodding her agreement between nibbles of burnt ends. (Alas, I also can’t upload my photo of my companion and Doug; I’ll try again later on the photos.)
Doug praised my companion’s plot construction and she praised his characters. She asked him how he managed to write so genuinely about a culture he didn’t belong to. He confessed to “putting a bullet” in his first attempt at a second novel.
When I read “Thin Blue Smoke,” I thought (and wrote in my Amazon review) that the first part of the book felt like a collection of short stories using overlapping characters, and only toward the end did seemingly disparate threads start coming together into a masterful single story. Doug said that was actually how the book was written. He wrote the first 20-plus chapters as blog posts, before deciding that he had a novel taking shape.
If we hadn’t had a plane to catch (and needed to let Doug get back to work), I think we could have gone on three hours about writing, just as we had Saturday morning.
We ate every shred of the burnt ends, by the way. I’m not going to abandon my loyalty to the Smokestack. But I often visit KC long enough for a couple dinners or lunches. Sometimes when I visit KC, I’ll wander over to Oklahoma Joe’s (unless Doug can ever get me into Smoke Meat). Just like I’ll go listen to that new pastor at First Baptist in Shen.
Sometimes you need to update your favorites and enjoy discovery even in those most familiar places.