The comments came thick and fast: "Only in Lawrence." "What do you expect; it's happening in Lawrence." "Lawrence is so different from the rest of the state."
These and other observations, often rude and crude, were heard and seen on radio and television stations and in the print media following the recent opening of Lawrence's domestic partnership registry.
True, Lawrence is a different kind of town. Whether it is similar to other college towns like Manhattan; Boulder, Colo.; Ames, Iowa; Columbia, Mo.; and other cities is a matter of debate, but there is no question it is far different from other Kansas towns and cities, no matter what size.
Some residents take great pride in Lawrence being different, not conforming to the typical Kansas blueprint, while others find it difficult to understand why it is so different and so divided on so many issues.
A longtime Lawrence resident sadly noted, "There really isn't anything that unifies Lawrence. It's a town that is split on most everything."
He said that although there are many major issues facing Lawrence, the state and the nation, Lawrence residents have a hard time getting together to approve a common course of action.
Lawrence is a split community, whether it is dealing with land use and zoning, growth vs. no growth or smart growth, smoking in public or even privately owned buildings, the question of domestic partnership, environmental issues, evolution, abortion, politics, Iraq, lifestyles or what needs to be done to protect or preserve downtown. We differ on the invasion or encroachment on city park land, the need for major recreational facilities, the use of artificial turf for Haskell Stadium, the use of tax abatements to attract new industry and new jobs, how many rental units should be allowed in various types of housing, the question of housing density, sales tax, the energy situation, the use of coal, wind or nuclear power, offshore oil drilling, the lack of new refineries, the looming scarcity of fresh water and on and on.
Some say this is evidence of an exciting, vigorous, alive city with new ideas rather than a dull, uninteresting place in which to live and work.
There is, however, one glaring exception to the Lawrence split. Just about the only thing that captures the attention and interest of most residents is sports, particularly Kansas University basketball. That's the one topic people of all ages seem to get involved in, particularly at the end of the KU basketball season when local residents, KU graduates or not, wonder where the Jayhawks will be seeded in the NCAA Tournament and whether they can make it into the Final Four or maybe win a national championship.
This is the only thing that comes close to uniting the city and its residents.
Here in a university town, a large percentage of the population is involved in education in one way or another, but even so, sports apparently are so dominant in the minds of local residents that they don't say much or seem concerned about the money spent on sports, sports facilities, salaries for coaches and athletic department officials and the millions paid to talented young men who are in the business of professional sports.
KU faculty members, teachers in the Lawrence school system and those teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University have to wince when they read about what college coaches make or what an athletic director takes in.
Teachers may put in 20, 30 and sometimes 40 years as instructors and never come close to the multimillion-dollar contracts that are the norm for coaches and senior athletic department officials.
No one seems to question the wide variance of pay for teachers who are so important for our society versus the millions of dollars spent on sports. Few in Lawrence voice concern about spending more than $30 million for new KU football offices and practice fields when other facets of the university are badly in need of repair or replacement.
Consider how many local residents try to figure out how to squeeze their budgets to make an extra payment to the KU Athletic Department in order to obtain better seating at athletic events rather than spend these same dollars on some higher family or business need. Also, there are those who, because of the added money demanded by KU Athletic Department officials to obtain favorable seating in Allen Fieldhouse or Memorial Stadium, have quit funding other university programs so they could pay for the necessary "points" for priority seating.
This is the power of sports.
There's not much that can be done about it if a person wants to spend his or her money in this manner or even contribute more money to reward coaches or athletic directors.
Does this say something about what the average resident (whatever that is) thinks about the relative importance of many of today's major issues versus sports?
Maybe Lawrence will continue to be divided on many issues, but that didn't used to be the situation. There were strong differences of opinion in past years, but once a decision was reached on a particular issue, residents usually banded together to make the project, cause or policy work.
Today, it seems people are so set in their ways, so mean-spirited, that if they don't get their way, they will do what they can to damage, weaken or defeat those with opposing views.
Lawrence needs to get more civil, more united, on more things other than KU basketball. Lawrence needs more people with a vision for the future and what needs to be done to help make it a better city, a leader in many fields, rather than settling for the more comfortable position of being a "follower."
We know the town is going to grow. We hope increasing numbers of individuals will want to make Lawrence their home. We hope KU will become an even finer university and will continue to attract large numbers of bright, highly motivated young men and women. We hope the university conducts itself in a manner to justify the enthusiastic support of state lawmakers, and we hope the city will have the services and friendly people to make the city highly attractive.
We also can hope the KU basketball program continues to be among the nation's elite, but should this be the most important and most unifying cause in Lawrence? If it is, what does that say about Lawrence and its residents?