Archive for Sunday, January 13, 1991


January 13, 1991


Seventy-five years after the death of Lewis Lindsay Dyche, Lawrence residents Bill Sharp and Peggy Sullivan have chronicled the famed Kansas naturalist's life in their new book, "The Dashing Kansan."

The book opens with Dyche's 1915 funeral, staged in the rotunda of Kansas University's Museum of Natural History and encircled by the panorama of North American plants and animals that Dyche created.

The ambiance of that gathering merited description: "This atmosphere of time halted offered onlookers the chance to speculate that in this his final sleep, the Professor's Dream was spinning again, perhaps onto another perilous expedition or colossal world's fair. Free at last of politics and human greed, but perhaps not of a bit of danger . . . "

Sullivan and Sharp spent seven years bringing their subject's adventurous life back into focus for today's readers.

"He was such a showman," Sharp said, noting Dyche drew great crowds of admirers when he spoke of his adventures at chautauquas across the state and in other large cities in his time.

"He was a great popularizer of natural history, for better and for worse."

BORN MARCH 20, 1857, in Bath, Va., later called Berkeley Springs, Dyche came to Kansas as a baby and grew up in the Overbrook and Andover area.

The eldest of 12 children, he received no formal education until, at age 17, he enrolled himself in the Kansas State Normal School at Emporia.

There, according to the book, he met a visitor who would become his mentor Francis Huntington Snow, one of Kansas University's three original faculty members and later the chancellor.

Snow encouraged Dyche to enroll at KU, and after graduating from the Normal School in 1877, the younger man did just that, beginning a life-long association.

Although he was illiterate at age 17, by the time Dyche turned 27 he had bachelor's degrees of both arts and science from KU. At 32, he was named a full professor of anatomy and physiology, taxidermist and curator of mammals and birds.

THE BOOK tracks Dyche's field excursions across Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, as well as north to the Arctic Circle.

He became famous nationwide for the trips, as well as his accounts of the adventures and the scientific collections he amassed along the way.

Biographer Sullivan said she became aware of who Dyche was soon after coming to Lawrence in 1974.

"It was a matter of moving to Lawrence, leaving a farm in Texas and needing some kind of contact with nature again," she said, noting that Dyche's panorama, the centerpiece of KU's Natural History Museum, served that purpose for her.

Gradually, as a consequence of her museum visits, Sullivan said she began to realize how old the panorama was.

Originally put together by Dyche for the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 world's fair in Chicago, it subsequently was moved back to KU and, eventually, Dyche Hall was built to house it.

SHARP NOTED that not all museums are as committed to perserving such panoramas as the KU facility, although with proper care they can last "virtually forever."

"These very objects those before you they're the very ones" Dyche shot in the field and preserved, Sharp said. "They are really power objects."

Sullivan's interest in the panorama led her to ask `Who'd done it?', and after seeing a reproduction of the poster Dyche had made for his 1895-96 lecture tour, she had a face to put with the name.

Some of Sullivan's co-workers in KU's Continuing Education Division had researched KU history, and one, Donna Butler, clued her into the Dyche papers stashed at University Archives.

Sullivan said those archives provided most of the primary research materials used in writing the book, although Sharp also made two information-gathering trips to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

THEY ALSO became acquainted with Dyche's youngest son, George, who had lived in Kansas City but is now deceased, and he gave them some photographs of his father.

The extensive KU collection includes the elder Dyche's own field diaries and photographs, along with boxes and boxes of his correspondence and news clips of his exploits.

After Sullivan met Sharp, a KU doctoral student who teaches western civilization and education courses, they began to work with the materials and learned, Sharp said, that "this was a life worth writing about."

Sullivan said Dyche's widow, Ophelia, and daughter, Ruth, also now dead, had wanted to write such a book, and others may have had the idea too, but no one actually followed through with it.

Now, Sullivan said, she and Sharp have a better understanding of why they were the first apparently no one else "had the guts to stick it out."

SHARP SAID Dyche was a difficult subject to write about because of the complexity of his life and because the times have changed so much that many people now are put off by his hunting exploits.

"He liked to hunt and he liked to tell his hunting stories," Sharp said, noting Dyche was "out there literally collecting what they considered the last of these species."

Comparing Dyche to Teddy Roosevelt, who also was an avid hunter, they noted that some of the animals he shot have since recovered from near extinction, thanks to wildlife preservation he came to recommend in his later years.

Sullivan added that their research difficulties were compounded by the fact that "Bill and I are basically nobodies."

"If you're not faculty, you're on the defensive (in terms of seeking financial support for such a project) from the word `go,'" Sharp explained.

AFTER THE years-long effort, though, they triumphed. The book was published in November by Harrow Books of Kansas City, Mo., in association with the KU Museum of Natural History, and Sullivan said once they found Harrow, it was "a fairy tale story of collaboration."

Running down the chapter headings in the book gives a reader some idea of the richness and variety of Dyche's life that they tried to capture.

They tracked his early life, hunting and trapping along the banks of the Wakarusa River and his quest as a young adult for education and involvement in scientific field work.

From Snow's insects, Dyche worked his way up to such giant mammals as bison, polar bears and walruses, developing hunting skills and taxidermy techniques that would make him famous here and abroad.

Included in the book is a story of Dyche's work on two bison shot by one of his own hunting companions, William Harvey Brown, during the Smithsonian Institution's "Last Buffalo Hunt."

THAT HUNT was directed by Smithsonian taxidermist William Temple Hornaday in the summer of 1886 in Montana, and through Snow's efforts, Brown went along and brought back some bison for KU.

To properly mount the specimens, Dyche went to Washington to study taxidermy under Hornaday.

"They literally thought these were the last of their species," Sharp said of the bison, adding they truly were the last of the great southern herd that roamed from Montana to Texas, but subsequently another large herd was discovered in Canada.

Sharp and Sullivan also document Dyche's adventures in the Far North, including his rescue of another famous adventurer, Robert E. Peary, and Dyche's subsequent involvement in the controversy between Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook over who discovered the North Pole.

The book concludes with the details of Dyche's later work as the state of Kansas' fish and game warden, which often put him at odds with his fellow hunters.

DYCHE SAW where he was needed and went head-long into it, Sharp said, noting it's much harder to be that kind of "renaissance guy" today.

The naturalist and long-time KU faculty member became fish and game warden in 1909, with the aim of reorganizing the department.

"His principal opponents (then) were hunters," Sharp said. "He battled the Kansas State Sportsmens Assn." because of his efforts to save Kansas wildlife from extinction.

Sullivan noted that as warden, Dyche had to work with "prickly, powerful men who didn't want to hear about" overhunted wildlife.

"A lesser man would have been pooh-poohed right out of the job."

Noting Dyche's death at age 57 from a heart attack, they said it is ironic that he died so young, considering the outdoorsman's sort of life he lived.

But "even his death was flamboyant," Sharp said, noting that a week or so before, he had the tip of his thumb bitten off by a Gila monster and some newspapers erroneously reported a connection between the bite and his death.

DESCRIBING their book as a traditional biography, Sharp said, "It wasn't a stuffy life and we tried not to write stuffily."

Sullivan added, "We didn't speculate. . . . We tried to let the man speak for himself when he could. To have lived such a rough life, and do some of the things he did, the man had a real elegance.

"The book is as honest, and simple and clear-cut as the life itself."

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