He was an arctic explorer, a pioneering conservationist and a famed storyteller.
His name was Lewis Lindsay Dyche, and he was an iconic Kansan, Kris Krishtalka says.
“He brought Kansas to the world, and then brought the world back to Kansas,” said Krishtalka, the director of the Kansas University Natural History Museum as well as its Biodiversity Institute.
The museum is honoring and remembering Dyche, a former KU faculty member who died at age 57 in 1915, with a program 7 p.m. Nov. 4 in The Commons at Spooner Hall: “The Adventures of Lewis Lindsay Dyche and the Advent of Kansas Conservation.”
Dyche’s name is on the building on Jayhawk Boulevard that houses the museum. That’s because his lobbying efforts helped lead to the museum’s construction, finished in 1903. But that was just a part of his contributions to KU and the state of Kansas, Krishtalka said.
He drew worldwide attention in 1893 for his Panorama of North American Mammals, a walk-through gallery of animals that Dyche had largely gathered and taxidermied himself. He took the exhibition to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and by the fair’s end it was drawing about 20,000 visitors each day.
It was the largest exhibit of its kind ever created, Krishtalka said, and the first of its kind at the World’s Fair. About 10 years later, the Natural History Museum was built essentially to house a reconstructed, enlarged version of it, he said.
“It is an American cultural treasure,” Krishtalka said.
Dyche followed up his panorama with expeditions to the Arctic in 1894 and 1895 to collect mammals there. During those trips, he ate whale blubber, hunted walruses with a harpoon and collected such beasts as moose and polar bears.
Many of the animals Dyche collected — including bison in the Midwest — were expected by naturalists at the time to be at risk of extinction soon, with conservation movements still a few decades away, said Bill Sharp, who co-wrote “The Dashing Kansan,” a 1990 biography of Dyche.
During one of his northern trips, he joined an effort to rescue the explorer Robert Peary, who had become trapped in northern Greenland. Peary later claimed to discover the North Pole in 1909.
When Dyche wasn’t traversing Alaska or Greenland in search of mammals during the 1890s, he would tour small Kansas towns and thrill residents with tales of his journeys, Sharp said.
“In a world without television or movies or anything, these were a great source of entertainment,” Sharp said.
A flier for an 1894 appearance in Washington, Kan., claimed that Dyche would “hold you entranced and convulse you with his graphic and ludicrous episodes.”
The program Nov. 4 will attempt to re-create the feel of Dyche’s storytelling stops. An actor, Chris Roady, will portray Dyche speaking to one of the crowds. His performance will be interspersed among talks by Sharp, Krishtalka and Chris Shrack of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
During the 1900s, Dyche served as the state fish and game warden, helping to enforce some of Kansas’ first hunting regulations.
“He was a conservationist of the environment before conservation was a popular term,” Krishtalka said.
Before he became the warden, Dyche knew little about fish, Sharp said. But as soon as he got the job, he studied up on ponds and fish farming, and his bulletins on those subjects ended up being bound into a book and distributed throughout the country as authoritative texts.
“Whatever he did, he just threw himself into it, 100 percent,” Sharp said.
He also led the construction of what was then the largest freshwater fish hatchery in the world, in Pratt (where Shrack now works).
Dyche drew a great deal of public attention for his exploits, Sharp said. Newspaper cartoons lampooned his hair, which was unusually long for his time and at one point rankled some members of the Board of Regents.
“The papers just loved this guy, and vice versa,” Sharp said.
Shortly before his death, he landed in their pages again when a poisonous Gila monster lizard bit him while he was showing it off to officials at the Statehouse in Topeka. He quipped that the bite would hurt the Gila monster more than it hurt him.
He died a few days later, but in one final quirky twist his death was unrelated to the bite: The cause was exhaustion and pneumonia.
Altogether, his story is well worth an event in his honor, Sharp said.
“He, in his day, I would say, was really one of the more prominent Kansans,” Sharp said.
Krishtalka said the museum was launching an effort to restore Dyche’s famous panorama, now nearly 120 years old and suffering from more than a century’s worth of wear and tear.
The museum has received an offer for a $50,000 grant from a donor whose identity has not yet been revealed, Krishtalka said, though it will require matching funds from the museum. To help raise those funds, Krishtalka is planning a tour around the state to make his case for the cause — not unlike those tours Dyche used to take.
“As much as he was a conservationist for North American wildlife, we are now acting as conservationists for his diorama,” Krishtalka said.