KU historian plays big role in new Ken Burns documentary

Donald Worster, distinguished professor emeritus of history at Kansas University, is the author of many books, including biographies of environmental figures John Wesley Powell and John Muir.

Several alert tipsters and news clippings have alerted me to the fact that Donald Worster, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at KU, figures prominently in the new two-part feature “The Dust Bowl” by documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns.

Worster wrote a book on the famous ecological disaster, “Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s,” that in 1980 won Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize for the best American history book of the year.

Hoping to reach Worster to talk about his role in the film and what it was like to work with Burns, I got ahold of his wife, Beverly Worster, on Monday. She told me her husband is actually in China right now. Worster, who specializes in environmental history, is helping to set up an environmental center there, she said. I’m still hoping to get in touch with him sometime this week; I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Beverly filled me in on how her husband got involved in the Burns documentary, though. She said it started when New York Times reporter Timothy Egan read Worster’s book and visited several of the people mentioned for a more narrative-based account of how they lived through the Dust Bowl, “The Worst Hard Time,” which was released in 2005.

That apparently led Burns to make Worster and Egan his primary advisers on the film, Beverly told me. Donald even watched the first cut of the documentary and offered some suggested edits, she said.

Beverly said her husband was one of the first people to advance the idea that the Dust Bowl was largely a man-made disaster, caused by agricultural practices at the time.

The documentary’s two parts originally aired Sunday and Monday on PBS, but the Kansas City station KCPT appears to be re-playing them several times the rest of this week. Both parts, each about two hours long, are also available to view in full online at pbs.org, and they indicate that they’ll be available there until Dec. 4.