Each year for the past 13 years, Don Steeples has welcomed more than 40 KU faculty and staff to his wheat farm in Palco.
They ride the combines, tour the grain elevator and learn about the golden crop of Kansas. It’s the best fun he has all year, other than harvest time, Steeples said.
During the school year, Steeples works at his other job, as the Dean A. McGee Distinguished Professor of Geophysics.
How he got this gig as a tour guide goes back to 1998, when then-Chancellor Robert Hemenway conceived of the Wheat State Whirlwind Tour as a way to introduce new faculty and staff to different parts of Kansas. Steeples, whose knowledge of his birth state is vast, thanks to his personal and academic backgrounds as well as a superb seventh-grade history teacher, made several suggestions for a tour route. So he was invited to be a commentator on the inaugural tour, a post he held for seven years until he became tour director.
The tour winds its way around Kansas for five days in a motor coach, with visits to landmarks and important historical sites. Here was the 2011 Wheat State Whirlwind Tour’s itinerary:
- May 23: Marysville, Barnes, Concordia, Salina
- May 24: Salina, Lucas, Palco, Damar, Nicodemus, WaKeeney
- May 25: Quinter, Duff Ranch in Logan County, Scott City, Larned, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Inman, Hutchinson
- May 26: Wichita, El Dorado, Flint Oak Resort, Elk County
- May 27: Madison, Ritchie Ranch in Lyons County
Along the way, they toured the Landoll Corporation, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment in Marysville; the Orphan Train Museum and Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Smoky Hills Wind Farm west of Salina, the historic African-American settlement of Nicodemus, the Cessna plant in Wichita, and the ranch of Scott and Carol Ritchie in Flint Hills. This year’s tour did miss out on the buffalo riding and combine driving because of heavy rains, but otherwise enjoyed learning about Kansas history and receiving Kansas hospitality.
“In Damar, Kansas, we visited a spectacular Catholic church, and the woman who opened the church for us was so welcoming and shared not only lots of information with us, but also her love for that church and its importance,” said Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art.
The goals of the Wheat State Whirlwind Tour to connect new faculty and staff with Kansas and Kansans — and with one another — apparently are being met.
As Straughn said, “(I gained) new insights and better understanding of some of the social, educational, health, cultural and economic issues throughout the state. The town of Nicodemus impacted many, perhaps, all of us, and understanding a little more the experiences of African-Americans in Kansas as well as how some towns came into being, and also have nearly disappeared.
“I definitely learned a lot more about rural towns, the role of oil, water and wind in the economy of the state and their impact on towns and farms,” she said.
Kevin Dobbs, project coordinator for the Kansas Biological Survey, says, “We learned a lot about the evolving issues of rural Kansas, and the efforts by many wonderful people to preserve the rich heritage that is still present. It was particularly inspiring to visit with Marci Penner at the Kansas Sampler Foundation.”
Funding for the tour is provided by private grants to the Chancellor’s funds.
Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, who participated in the 2010 tour, said she “thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality shown to us at every stop.”
One of the noted benefits of the tour each year is that KU faculty and staff develop friendships with other tour participants that may not have happened otherwise.
“More than any particular destination, I enjoyed the camaraderie of being on the tour with 45 other KU employees,” said Dave Tell, assistant professor of communications studies. “It was a great bonding experience, and I will have lasting relationships with folks from all over campus as a result of the tour.”