Thursday, May 26, 2005

It Took a Village (Part I)

“Not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
~ I Corinthians 15:10

This past week has been full of excitement, but I must admit that I am very happy to be on this side of Keen’s graduation. I’m not one for a lot of pomp and circumstance, although I realize that it was certainly in order! However, I much prefer the “ordinariness” of everyday life.

A few days after graduation, Keen and I celebrated our 27th anniversary a little early by spending the night at our favorite hideaway, The Cottage House in historic Council Grove, Kansas. If you ever need a place to slow down and forget your worries or you just want to renew the love you share with your lifelong sweetheart, The Cottage House is the place to go.* In fact, the town of Council Grove as a whole is just delightful. We enjoyed dinner at the Hays House on Thursday evening, followed by a leisurely walk around town. On Friday morning I had a nice visit with my dear friend, Rebecca Miller. You may recall that I wrote a column about her titled, “The Picture of Contentment.” She is such an inspiration. She entertained me by playing a couple of songs on the violin (the same one her parents bought for her for $5.00 when she was a young girl), and she gave us some fresh-baked cookies.

Rebecca Miller with her violin

On Friday afternoon we ate at The Trail’s End Bakery and Café. The gentleman who served us was local attorney Kenneth McClintock who, along with his wife, started the non-profit organization that raised funds to renovate the historic building. Kenneth is known as the town historian, so we were treated to several interesting history lessons along with our delicious meal. (I highly recommend the Reuben sandwich made with homemade rye bread!)

From Council Grove we drove to Hayes, Kansas to spend Friday night. On Saturday we surprised our old friends, Hal & Jane Rogers, by attending the graduation party for their daughter, Angela. Several years ago, the Rogers family lived and worked on a ranch owned by Simon McGee, which is located along Highway 99 between Alta Vista and Alma.

Keen and I thoroughly enjoyed our mini-vacation before Keen had to buckle down to eight weeks of study in preparation for the bar exam in late July.

The only downside to our busy weekend is that I’m running way behind schedule, which is unfortunate because I want to devote this column to thanking everyone who encouraged and supported us in various ways before, during, and after the time Keen pursued his college education and law degree. I’ll most likely turn this into a two-part column.

Keen would be the first person to acknowledge that it took a village to help him accomplish his goal of earning a law degree. However, those of us whom he so graciously credits agree that he is the one who deserves the recognition for the hard work and determination he exhibited over the past six years.

The story begins in 1981 when a man by the name of Robert Fowks became the first person to suggest that Keen should consider the profession of law. Mr. Fowks was a longtime professor at Washburn Law School who served as an arbitrator in the first dispute Keen had with the Wabaunsee County Commissioners (over his use of the county landfill). After the arbitration panel ruled (2-1) in Keen’s favor, Professor Fowks earnestly offered the following words of advice to Keen:

“Listen, I’ve taught law for twenty-five years,” he began. “I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go, and I know how to pick them. Based on your performance today, you’ve got what it takes. I’m telling you – you should go to law school.”

Keen pondered that dream in his heart off and on for the next twenty years. Then my father, Joe Van Kirk, began telling us that we should check into what it would take for Keen to return to college for his degree. However, since Keen was working such long hours on the trash truck and had to support a family, we just couldn’t imagine how it would ever work out. So we never really pursued it (much to my father’s chagrin).

“Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” ~ Proverbs 11:14 (NKJV)

Then in the summer of 1998, Keen became the recipient of The Freedom Forum’s Free Spirit Award ( and $10,000.00. While attending the awards ceremony in San Francisco, we had the privilege of meeting former Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., who has the distinction of being the first American in space, and his wife, Louise. In addition to being a member of the Board of Trustees for The Freedom Forum, he was also on the Board of one of the top waste management companies in the country, Allied Waste. Mr. Shepard asked Keen if he would ever consider selling his business. Although we had just purchased a brand new trash truck six months earlier and had every intention of being in the trash business for the long haul (pardon the pun), the idea of selling out was definitely intriguing.

After returning home, Keen and I filled out an enormous amount of paperwork from Allied Waste. Unfortunately, the company decided that our trash truck was underutilized, and therefore they would not be interested in purchasing our company, Solid Waste Systems.

Keen’s hopes were dashed. Seemingly, his dreams of making a living “using his mind instead of his back” were dead in the water and he had no choice but to return to the day-to-day business of running the trash company.

In August 1998, Keen was a guest on Jim Cates’ radio talk show in Topeka, Kansas. I have a tape from the show, and recorded the following conversation. After talking about the Supreme Court case and taking a few calls from listeners, they were just about ready to close the show when Mr. Cates asked Keen this question:

“Any desire to pick up a few college credits in hopes of practicing law some day?”
“Well, I always joke about that,” Keen answered. “Several people have asked me why
I don’t become a lawyer. Of course, I’m a trashman, and I always tell them that I’d love to become a lawyer but I just couldn’t afford the cut in pay. I say that in jest, of course. I have a lot of respect for lawyers and all the schooling they have to go through – the college, the law school and the tremendous sacrifices they have to make. I’m not sure I’m there yet, to make that decision, but it is a dream. It would be something I’d really like to do if the situation presented itself.”
“Well, you’re young enough, you could certainly do that,” Mr. Cates said.

“Yes I could, I could,” Keen replied. “It’s within the realm [of possibility]... and what a life that would be.”

The very next month, my father, Joe Van Kirk, decided to come for a visit from his home in Florida. During his stay, he observed Keen talking on the phone to several individuals who had called to discuss some legal quandary or personal dilemma they were facing. These calls occupied several hours of Keen’s free time, which left very little time to visit with my father. Finally, my dad couldn’t remain quiet any longer, and he gave Keen the infamous “kitchen speech of 1998.” Dad emphatically stated: “Judas Priest, Keen! If you would have spent half as much time pursuing your college education as you spend on the phone trying to help people, you could have earned your degree by now! Then you’d be in a position to offer some real help!”

Well, that conversation resulted in what Oprah Winfrey refers to as “a light bulb moment.” A major light bulb moment. Yes, my dad’s comments inspired Keen to reconsider the possibility of selling the business and ignited his desire to pursue every avenue in pursuit of a college education and law degree.

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future. Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”
~ Proverbs 19:20-21(RSV)

To be continued ....

My Dad, Joe Van Kirk, with Keen

*The Cottage House Hotel is a part of Council Grove, Kansas' rich heritage. First a 3 room cottage next to a blacksmith and then a Boarding House built in the early 1870's by Reverend Joab Spencer. Owned and operated by the Mead/Marks family from 1879-1933. Major additions in 1898 and 1913. The Cottage House was "favorably known as a home for many of the commercial tourists who visited the city." After use as apartments during World War II, the hotel became the Stage Coach Motertel from 1959-1982. After restoration and renovation work in 1982-84 and 1988-89, the hotel beckons travelers once again. (Information courtesy of The Cottage House's original stationery.)

The Cottage House is located at 25 North Neosho, Council Grove, Kansas 66846 Telephone: (620)767-6828