Matthew Keenan

Reflections on a Johnson County Nomad, May 435 South Magazine

by on May.09, 2014, under 435 South Columns

For 30 years I have lived in Johnson County. And in that time, my home has been in the northern reaches, and then south, further south and now, since November, north again. For those keeping track, that is four homes, two rentals, and a couple storage units, just to make things even more interesting.

If it’s true that two moves equal a fire, then four moves equal falling into a sinkhole during a tornado. But with every new zip code, we found inviting neighbors, parishes, teachers, peers. We started traditions, ended old ones and made wonderful friends along the way.

To say that our county is replete with strong and safe neighborhoods, attractive school districts and affordable homes is a statement few others can make.

In Fairway, we lived at 5532 Aberdeen in a three-bedroom, two-bath, one-car garage home. The year was October 1987.  Life had one speed: fast. We met the neighbors across the street and found an instant connection; he was from a town near Great Bend and she was a local, like Lori.

In those seven years, we spent a lot of time in the waiting room of Dr. Francis Ferns — Lori’s OBGYN at St. Luke’s. The remaining time we spent with another physician, Dr. Jeff Waters, our pediatrician.

With three sons in five years, my weekend wardrobe was sweat pants and college T-shirts. For Lori it was maternity clothes, shaped over a Singer sewing machine purchased on credit at Sears. Our first car together was a black Chrysler van with plastic wood paneling from Bud Brown. At the Highlawn Montessori school our kids attended, the staff called it the “toaster” because when they rolled back the sliding door, chicken nuggets would spill out.

I would frequently nod off during conversations.

Aberdeen had no sidewalks, so on our frequent walks, our stroller hugged the curb. The typical destination was heading south into the leafy Mission Hills cul de sacs. On weekends we ate at Don Chilitos and, during Lent, Long John Silver’s. On special occasions, we favored Leona Yarbrough’s in Fairway.

And life was very good.

But when the three sons were about to gain a sister, we needed more space. On that morning in June 1996, when that charming Cape Code stood empty, we closed the front door and slipped a note inside to the new owner: “We know you will love this home as much as we did. Treat her well and she will look after you and yours.”

And then we drove away. Actually, I drove, because Lori was bawling her eyes out. I tried to keep the stiff upper lip, but it was hopeless. Those were the best years of our lives, we said almost in unison. And I hit the gas, driving south 80 blocks, down Mission Road, but it felt like we were heading to a different hemisphere. We landed at 132nd Street in a subdivision known as Greenbrier. There, everything was bigger — homes, yards, cars and, in most cases, families. Chain link fences, power lines, and single-car garages disappeared. Our backyard acquired a swing set and three Bradford pear trees smaller than most Fairway tree branches.

Across the street, the neighbors owned a trampoline.

You know those new-age trampolines enclosed by netting, with padding, and plastered with warning labels? That wasn’t this one.

In the face of this “buy 1 get 1 free ER visit,” if you think that Lori would forbid our four from partaking, you are thinking of another family. Any such order would have been hopeless in any event.

Eight years later, we were on the move again, and yes, with hand-written notes, and tears and declarations that “those were the best years of our lives!” And if it sounds like we have issues with home commitments, well, yeah.

And late last year we returned back to the 66206 zip code at Leawood’s north end.

And so I know of what I speak when I compare and contrast the two different dimensions of this fine county. You could paint with a broad brush and declare the north as old, and the south, as young.

O’Neill’s restaurant, for instance, is a charming eatery at 95th and Mission where the patrons are veterans from various wars.

South has Sullivan’s with its own veterans — survivors of pre-nuptial battles. North has the Paul Henson YMCA on 79th street in Prairie Village, where patrons like my mother-in-law pound treadmills with orthopedic shoes. South has Lifetime Fitness, where soccer moms trade their Tori Burch flats for fluorescent Nikes, Lululemon tights and monogrammed water bottles.

There are other contrasts:

  • The north has owls; south — hawks.
  • North — foxes; south — coyotes.
  • North — Euston’s True Value Hardware and Ranchmart Hardware, both with 40-year-long employees who will build you a bunk bed while you pick out a bird feeder; south — Lowe’s.
  • North — Leawood Theater at 95th Street; south — AMC and Palazzo.

In Prairie Village, Christmas trees come from an Eagle Scout occupying the corner of 67th and Nall. In Stanley, you drive 10 miles south on Highway 69 and cut your own.

Emblematic of the demographics, at our new parish, Cure of Ars, the parish bulletin offers someone who can repair your rosary.

South has a fondness for subdivisions named for deer, lions and ranches. The north favors fields, ridges and woods. In the north, locals grow up in Indian Fields and are devastated that they can’t start their own family in a home across the street. South has more architectural, well, variety with, yes, some cookie-cutter subdivisions, but many other charming ones as well, like Leawood South or Berkshire Estates.

I counted the other day; Johnson County has 20 different cities. Over the last six years, three of those have been named by Money Magazine as top 100 most livable (Overland Park, Olathe and Shawnee). It begins and ends with quality schools in a state settled by immigrants who embraced and defended freedom.

For me, home was always Kansas, but was more closely identified by a small town in central Kansas where my dad still lives and works. But that perspective began to shift in the fall of 1984.

And now it has come full circle.

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