Paper Finds 'What's Right' with Kansas

Jan Biles, special projects editor of The Topeka Capital-Journal, tells Scott Simon about the newspaper's 15-part series called "What's Right with Kansas." The paper began profiling Kansans each Sunday in response to Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

In his book, "What's the Matter with Kansas," Thomas Frank argues that people in Kansas have been tricked into voting for a party that doesn't have their best interests at heart. He uses his book to offer a detailed analysis of what he thinks is the matter with the state. This summer, the Topeka Capital-Journal has been running a series of reports called "What's Right with Kansas." Now the paper didn't endorse a presidential candidate in the last election. In 2000, they did endorse then Governor George Bush for president. `What's the matter with Kansas?' the paper asks. Absolutely nothing. Jan Biles is writing the 15-part series for the Capital-Journal and she joins us from member station KANU in Lawrence, Kansas.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. JAN BILES (Topeka Capital-Journal): Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why take the bait? I mean, New Yorkers love to talk about what they think is wrong with New York. Why can't Kansas just kind of take it on the chin and wear it as a badge of honor?

Ms. BILES: Well, you know, we--recently, as you know, the state has sort of taken a hit in the national media, you know, regarding the BTK killer, you know, the evolution debate, things that are controversial. We just said, you know, `Why don't we do something about what's right with Kansas?' In our minds what's right with Kansas are the everyday people.

SIMON: What kind of stories have you been telling?

Ms. BILES: Well, we went out to small communities and asked people, `Who in your community has an interesting story?' And so the people started giving us names of people who lived there.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Dorothy Trapp.

Ms. BILES: Dorothy is a wonderful lady who lives in Oskaloosa. She is in her mid-80s, and she is a whistler.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Ms. DOROTHY TRAPP (Whistler): I started whistling when I was a little kid, and Mother says to me, `Dorothy, I want you to quit that whistling. We've got five boys in the family, we don't need another one.' She didn't think that whistling was very, you know, ladylike, I guess.

Ms. BILES: Another story maybe I can share is Doc Maskil. He lives in a little place called Westmoreland. Doc is a retired newspaperman, retired judge, a retired merchant marine. In his days now, he's taking to baking bread, sourdough bread that the starter can be traced back to the days of the trails. They go through that part of the state.

SIMON: I read a very nice story about a teacher named Ruth Messer, who can't seem to retire.

Ms. BILES: Yes. Ruth lives out in Alma, Kansas, and she has taught all of her life and has tried to retire a number of times now and keeps being lured back into the classroom because she loves children so much. She is a person who's very dedicated to her community.

SIMON: Jan Biles is special projects editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal and lead writer on the series "What's Right with Kansas."

Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. BILES: Thank you for being interested in our project.

SIMON: Twenty-two minutes before the hour.

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