Matthew Keenan

Someone help me figure out my cat’s age (published KC Star July 16, 2014)

by on Jul.13, 2014, under Kansas City Star columns

How long do cats live?

This is not a rhetorical question. It’s an important piece of information I need urgently. Our cat is at least 15 years old, maybe older, and at this rate Sunshine will be my last living heir. And when they read my will, the only one present will be listening from the top of a brown leather chair, staring out the window into a bird’s nest.

I’m willing to accept for the moment all that we don’t know about Sunshine. His/her gender for starters. But I go with her because it fits her personality — meaning she is a big thinker and doesn’t speak unless it’s important. Like “I’M HUNGRY,” conveyed in loud meows.

But her age is what’s most pressing right now. She was a rescue and came with a fair amount of maturity. I’m guessing she was at least 5 then. But that was 13 years ago. Which puts her at 18. And there is zero evidence she is aging.

She navigates furniture like a Wallenda, is prone to disappearing for days at end, when she shows up at the back door it’s not a desperate “let me in” but rather a cool, disinterested, “if you open the door I might come inside but I’m fine either way.” One year we moved and Sunshine returned to our old house and stayed on the front porch until the new owners welcomed her in.

Remember in Homeward Bound when the dogs returned home and everyone was bawling their eyes out? That’s not what happened here.

Bernie, meanwhile, at age 12 hobbles from spot to spot with surgeries on both knees. The Mission Med Vet has a wing dedicated to all the money I’ve paid them. She has a pill drawer that rivals, well, me. When Bernie gets excited, well, remember I said she is old?

Under the search criteria of “cat books” on Amazon, I found 145,000 books. But books on “determining my cat’s age” — nothing.

Consider Sunshine’s lifestyle choices that have prolonged her life:

She’s very well rested.

Has amazing focus factor staring outside the window.

Doesn’t acknowledge anyone until 4 a.m. when she is thirsty or hungry.

Disappears for days while in the house and meditates.

Vocal chords go unused for weeks.

Can’t overeat due to Bernie invading her food bowl.

I thought I would go to YouTube for guidance. There, my search for cats found 23 million hits. I watched a couple and was shocked. Things I’ve never seen — cats playing with kids, adults, even dogs. I did find one video of “how to estimate the age of your cat,” which suggests you check the cat’s teeth. I’m not inclined to inspect her mouth but I know her teeth are sharp. Just ask my toes.

Supposedly the oldest cat ever is Creme Puff, who lived 38 years. If Sunshine lives another 10 years look for her driving around town in a 2002 Saab. And don’t even THINK ABOUT CUTTING HER OFF.

So if anyone is knowledgeable about cats, and can help me answer my question about feline life expectancy, contact me and I will be in over ten minutes. We can visit and maybe you’ll have room for another member of your family.


I’m leaving Sunshine at home with the kids. She was their idea.

Would you have room for a dog too?

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Kansas City Press Club awards Keenan first place in non-news category (June 14, 2014)

by on Jun.15, 2014, under Kansas City Star columns

Kansas City Star staff members won top honors in 11 categories, including investigative reporting and deadline reporting, as the Heart of America journalism awards were handed out Saturday.

The contest, sponsored by the Kansas City Press Club, honors print and broadcast journalists working in western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

The Star won newspaper of the year based on points earned in the competition. Star police reporter Christine Vendel was named journalist of the year for the second straight year.

The Star’s gold winners, in the category of daily newspaper over 50,000 circulation: staff for deadline reporting the night of the JJ’s restaurant explosion; Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas for investigative reporting; Thomas and Bauer for public service project; Steve Paul for feature; Rick Montgomery for profile; Keith Myers for breaking news photojournalism; Jill Toyoshiba for feature photojournalism; David Eulitt for sports photojournalism; Matt Keenan for non-news column; Sara Smith for entertainment reporting; and Ben Unglesbee for magazine story.

Star staffers capturing silver awards were Bauer and Thomas for deadline reporting/breaking news/spot news; Dugan Arnett for general reporting; Edward M. Eveld for business reporting; Sarah Gish for feature; Gish for profile; Cindy Hoedel for news column; Hoedel for non-news column; Hoedel for magazine story; Smith for entertainment reporting; and Eric Adler for public service project.

Staffers earning bronze awards were Vendel and Glenn E. Rice for general reporting; Hoedel for feature; Emily Parnell for non-news column; Hoedel for entertainment reporting; and Eveld for magazine story.

In the nondaily category, Gish and Eulitt received a gold award for a magazine story that appeared in Ink.

Read more here:


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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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Mom’s definition of family reached far, wide and deep, KC Star May 7

by on May.09, 2014, under Kansas City Star columns

Mona and larry


Last weekend, I went to my hometown. My trip included a visit to the Great Bend Cemetery, where I took flowers and spent time at my mother’s grave. And for that time, my mind cleared and I reflected just how fortunate I was.

My mom was born and raised in Kingman, Kan., by Jacob and Olga Goering. Jake and Olga were devoted to three things: their Mennonite faith, their German heritage and their children, son Victor and daughter Ramona Jean.

Mom had one sibling, Dad had 11. Dad was Irish Catholic.

When my parents met on a blind date in 1950, no one could fathom eHarmony and certainly never entertained the notion of comparing scores on 29 dimensions of compatibility. Their upbringing was worlds apart, but they didn’t need a 10-page questionnaire to discern what a wonderful future they had ahead of themselves.

My parents had complementing and contrasting personalities that found a balance in the mix. While dad built his law practice with his older brother Bob, mom ran a more complicated business called home. She was the yin to his yang: Mom was the nurturing, reassuring presence who managed day-to-day events at 3616 17th Street.

Like all mothers, she was a constant presence. But she was there for everyone else, too. We lived on a lake and constantly had an entourage stopping by to fish, swim or do what today’s kids would describe as “chill.” Everyone was welcome. Our basketball goal saw furious pickup games. Our front yard was an invitation to home-run derbies, and football games would spill over to the adjoining convent grounds. Mom knew not just everyone’s names, but their parents, and in some cases, grandparents. “How’s your mother doing? Is she feeling better?” I heard similar inquiries all the time.

She was a great listener.

For most of 1968, we had three cousins from Alabama live with us and attend our schools while their mother — my dad’s sister — recuperated from a heart attack.

It was 1973, when mom and dad opened their doors to their 19-year-old niece, Kema, who had given birth to a boy in Wichita. She gave him up for adoption. The adopted parents named him Scott. “Your mom and dad let me stay with them at their house after Scott had been born and I had left Wichita. Mona was such a caring parent (yes, she was my parent during that time) and we talked and talked about Scott’s leaving and the chances of ever seeing him again. She did so much to comfort me during that trying time.”

Twenty-three years later, in April 1996, with mom’s help, Kema was reunited with Scott at his home in Dodge City. Kema and Scott have remained very close ever since.

In August 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the communists, our parish adopted five families, 27 in total, who came to our city. One of the children, Huang Mai, had a severe cleft lip and palate. He was a teenager. It hurt mom to even think about how much pain he endured growing up with that condition. She made his cause her cause, dedicating countless hours to his surgical repair, taking him to Wichita and ultimately, with the assistance of surgeons there, helping him gain normal speech and appearance.

Huang learned English, and then went to KU to study engineering. When I was a senior at KU I was entering Watson Library one day. My head was down when another student grabbed my arm and said, “Matt?” It was Huang. We reconnected and he said, “How is your mother? She was so good to me.” I remember calling mom that night and recounting the story. Her reply, was, typically, to deflect any credit. “He had wonderful surgeons,” she said.

On Sunday, my thoughts will return, once again, to Ramona Jean.

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Foam Free: The Key to Successful Kegger, published in Feb 435 South

by on Feb.17, 2014, under 435 South Columns

If it’s true, as they say, that America has a love affair with beer, then what can you say about the relationship that my generation has enjoyed with the libation best poured into a frosty mug?

When I was in high school, Kansas, unlike most states, had a legal drinking age of 18 for 3.2 beer, which encouraged a string of 18 bars in Kansas. Some, like Shawnee’s Merry-Go-Round, folded many years ago; others, like Mission’s Ruthie’s Key Hole, has evolved not one bit and still has a devoted following. KU offered students The Wagon Wheel, The Hawk and — my favorite — Louise’s West, which served beer in an oversized schooner. Quarter draws were commonplace. Back then, no one in the Western Hemisphere ever made this request of a customer: “Can I see your identification?”

Meanwhile, a separate culture developed from the bars. And that was the social function that was frequently outside, often in the country, with one word defining it: kegger.
But even a kegger had one major obstacle separating itself from a memorable blow-out.  And that was the challenge of proper beer flow. Keg foam can kill a western Kansas party quicker than a tornado warning.A kegger evoked images that went far beyond beer. It was an instant crowd for starters, and in western Kansas, brimming with open fields, beautiful sunsets and alluring nighttime skies, it was a harmonic convergence of all things good.

Trust me.

Avoiding it is no simple task. It involves an enormous barrel of beer placed in a sea of ice, a large CO2 tank, pressure gauges, hoses, attachments, valves and lines connecting with a tap. You needed at least a high school senior, and ideally someone back from college who had real world expertise. They would part the crowd, go to the front of the line, tinker with the valves, adjust the pressure and then — boom — beer. You’d tip your Solo cup, laugh, hug, and realize how lucky you were to enjoy an adult beverage at the mature age of 17.

But to have a kegger in the city? In the month of December, which is typically a dead zone for tapped beer? Unheard of.

Because some uptight mom was concerned about designated drivers? Hardly.

Rather, it was fear of damage to her macramé hanging planters, composite wood paneling and green shag carpet.

But the history books got a re-write on December 10, 1976. Officially, it was a journalism party, hosted by Eagle Scout, altar boy, and all-around teacher’s pet David Haberman. Unofficially, it was a kegger worthy of Frank the Tank of Old School fame. A social event to define the Class of 1977.

And we needed something to distinguish us.

“Panther Tales (the school newspaper) and Yearbook were to have a Christmas Party at our house,” David reflected  recently. “It was to be only the PT and YB Staff. A few people showed up, then more, and more.”

I was far removed from the journalism students, but that didn’t prevent me from joining their gathering.

“Back then, a keg cost about $8 with a $10 deposit,” Haberman told me. “I think we went through two. Before we knew it, the basement was full — wall to wall people. The stereo boomed, beer soaked the floor, my sister’s Christmas cookies were gone, and my parents were due any minute.”

It was an iconic party for the ages. And, shockingly, the keg flowed as if Haberman had received his tutelage from Adolph Coors himself. If I live to be 90, I will still remember that night — enjoying a fresh Coors while Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” blasted on David’s concert-worthy speakers. It was the golden age of cold tapped beer, well-nourished coeds and unlimited opportunities. I was a debater, a non-jock, a nerd. I went from dud to stud in minutes.

Likewise, Haberman’s social status spiked — the old school equivalent of gaining a thousand friend requests. Adding to David’s good fortune, his parents, Francis and Coleta — quite possibly the nicest people on the planet — arrived home and chuckled.

This party was over.

As with all kegs going empty, the beer had turned to foam.

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The day my birth date fell into the hands of the AARP … published KC Star Jan 14 2014

by on Feb.15, 2014, under Kansas City Star columns

Next month I turn 55. And whoever said aging is a state of mind didn’t live in the digital age. Because somewhere, someplace, someone got a hold of my birthdate, put it in a database and then sold it to companies with this tag-line: “HE’S OLD! PUSH THE HEARING AID PACKAGE!”

It started with the AARP. I got on their mailing list five years ago. I laughed it off. But the plastic cards kept coming.

And it has continued.

When I checked in at a hotel late last year, the desk clerk pulled up my “profile,” then looked at my disheveled appearance, gray hair, the bags — under the eyes and over my shoulder — and then hit a couple key strokes. “Here you go — Room 312,” which took me to the room with the handicapped accessible bathroom. A shower like you’d see at John Knox Village. This room also featured a button to push for an “emergency.” I wondered who would appear — the bellman? A Visiting Angel? The room looked last occupied when Tony Orlando was with Dawn.

Other things have happened. On the web, I get the pop-up ads featuring Pat Boone pushing walk-in tubs. Plus the ads for escalators that go up the stairs. Endorsed by a 90-year-old declaring with a smile: “I can stay in my house!” Google — make them stop, please.

When Lori and I went to the Red Bridge Theater to see “Blue Jasmine” recently, the ticket clerk asked me about the senior discount.

I don’t feel old. I really don’t. Sure I fall asleep on the couch on some Saturdays and Sundays. I say “what” a lot. The TV blares. I watch it up close. My knees ache with every cold front. Sometimes I suppose I act old. At Wal-Mart, I check my blood pressure, which is located in the Depends section.

Honestly, I’m fine with my age. I see no purpose for a personal trainer named Muffin who wears Lulu lemon pants. I don’t walk around the yard shirtless chopping firewood. If I did, someone would call the police, I’m sure.

Sometimes I get the urge to take a long walk — inside Metcalf South.

I look better than other guys my age. Tim Burton, for instance, is 55. I definitely have one up on Dennis Rodman, who is 52. In my hometown, no one tried to look young. My mother shopped at JC Penney, not Victoria’s Secret. Aging was cool. You were knowledgeable, trustworthy.

Amazon shows 26,000 books on looking younger. They all have one recurring theme — be strong, fit and sexy. I found one called “The Life Plan: How any man can achieve lasting health, great sex and a stronger, leaner body.” I’m not interested. My sex drive pulled over at a rest stop and is still resting. Raising four kids does those things to you. Some of the over-the-counter testosterone supplements that promise better performance? Who cares about this? Some divorced guy who eats at Hooters?

My body has a Jello-like appearance that allows it to fit in tight spaces, like my pants. I’m fine with it. So I’m old. Just don’t try to sell me anything.

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Calling all telemarketers: Please keep dialing me (published in KC Star Feb 4 2014)

by on Feb.15, 2014, under Kansas City Star columns

Last month I spent some time in my hometown and stayed at my dad’s house. This is the home where I grew up, across the street from the pastoral home of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, and even today is a stylish, comfortable place that still feels like home. The phone number has been the same all those years, but in the digital age doesn’t ring very much. But all that changes when the clock strikes 5:35 pm.

“Good evening! This is Janette from the Diabetes Foundation. I’m calling for Larry Keenan.”

“Good evening! This is Pamela from the Sheriff’s Relief Aid. I’m calling for Larry Keenan.”

“Good evening! This is Julie from the Police Retirement Fund. I’m calling for Larry Keenan.”

“Good evening! This is Denise from the American Cancer Society. I’m calling for Larry Keenan.”

According to something called the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, the United States is the most charitable country in the world. And based on these calls, they think my dad is one reason. Before the Leawood Keenans enrolled in the “do not call” registry, we used to get these at our house. When we did, my experience is that they typically have an amateurish sound to them. As if they are calling from a tin can attached to a string from an island in a much different time zone.

These callers were not like that.

They were from the A team of phoners, sounding like Richie Cunningham’s mom from “Happy Days.” My dad, happily at age 84, has never had diabetes, cancer or, as a lifelong attorney, hasn’t been particularly partial to law enforcement. Charity callers, the bane of senior crowd, have had a PR run that would make Dennis Rodman blush. An investigation into commercial telemarketing fundraisers in New York state showed, as reported in the New York Times, that less than 40 cents of what they raise on average actually goes to charity. So naturally some might get angry and declare something like “stop calling my dad!”

Not me. For a phone I once used to call my fourth-grade girlfriend (and hang up if her mom picked up), this was a rare time for conversation. So I seized it.

Hi Janette. This is his son, Matt. Larry is out of town climbing Mount Everest.

Hi Julie. Larry is in Paris right now spending money so you won’t get it.

Hi Denise. Larry moved away and I’m his son. I’m recording this conversation. Tell me what percentage of your money you actually give to charity and send me the proof. My address is in Washington, D.C., at the FTC.

Larry is in the Holy Land. No, he’s not dead. I mean Jerusalem. He’s meeting with Jesus.

Larry is out of town driving on the NASCAR circuit — do you watch ESPN? Maybe you’ve seen him.

There were other replies more preposterous, inspired by the cold beer held in the other hand.

And this much I learned: The callers are trained, “Get the nondonor off the phone immediately! Terminate the call!” And they do. No one is interested in actual conversation with a 55-year-old who can see through the charade.

So after receiving a couple of these, I found the website that shuts these down. It’s so simple. You just type in the phone number. I started and then stopped. Dad moved out of the house nine years ago and keeps it for me and my siblings when we come to town to fish, hunt, and most importantly, hang with Larry at his new abode. So there is no chance these calls are going to find a deep pocketbook.

So keep calling, all you charities. I have more conversations to share with you. I understand Larry is going skydiving in Monaco and I can’t wait it tell you about it.

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A sure-fire recipe for cooking up a disaster, published KC Star, October 2013

by on Nov.02, 2013, under Kansas City Star columns

(this is a reprint from a column published in 2005)

Over the last 15 years my wife has organized roughly 40 birthday parties with our four children.

Thirty-nine were huge disasters.

This is no criticism of my better half, mind you. Rather, it’s an inevitable fact of all birthday parties. Parties for boys have the largest potential for Titanic-like outcomes, but girl parties have their own “issues.”

Here is my recipe for birthday flops:

10. Raise your child’s expectations. Tell your child early and often: “This is going to be the best birthday party ever. Better than the party with the hot air balloon ride. Better than the party at the riding stable.”

9. Invite the entire class and subdivision. A large turnout will demonstrate just how popular your child really is. Toss them all in the basement and watch time stand still.

8. Pick unusual venues to outdo everyone else. Skating parties can create fun memories when toddlers fall and chip their teeth. Petting zoos can be interesting, especially during goat-mating season.

7. Set aside several hours for the big event. Encourage parents to go shopping and be inaccessible. Accede to your son’s demand that he can open all the presents first, not last. Dead time will encourage the brats to get creative.

6. Serve candy and sodas with loads of caffeine. It’s a potent one-two combination kids love.

5. Coordinate with the Chiefs schedule. Schedule the party during a Chiefs game so dad can give his undivided attention. Let him drink a couple beers to “loosen him up” for when he needs to fill time with a couple makeshift magic tricks.

4. Invite scary clowns. Nothing can freak out toddlers quicker than a strange man with a bad wig, a red nose and shoes that curl up like those worn by the Wicked Witch of the West. Encourage the really shy ones to “go sit on his lap and get a special treat.”

3. Get siblings involved. Brothers love it when their sister steals all the attention. Have ample water balloons, sling shots and BB guns around when they get bored. Use those special candles that you can’t blow out. Converting the cake into one big spitball will add to the special memories.

2. Leave the dog and the cake in the same room alone.

1. Forget about record keeping. Sort out later who brought which gifts.

Put a fitting end to the day by driving everyone home when it’s over. Depend on the 9-year-old guests to help navigate the cul-de-sacs and dead ends found in most subdivisions.

This will extend the party another couple hours and improve your disposition considerably when you finally get home to pick up the mess.

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Ticket to Yesteryear, published in 435 South, October 2013

by on Nov.02, 2013, under 435 South Columns

Psychologists tell us we gain as much joy from rooting against our opponents as we do rooting for our own teams. It’s the thinking that gives rise to this bumper sticker: “My favorite teams are KU and whoever is playing MU.” And when your beloved team plays your hated rival, the potential for euphoria — and despair — is never greater.

In the 1970s, there was no greater rivalry than that between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees. The Royals introduced the world to Kansas City baseball with the opening of their stadium in 1973 and with it, joined a golden age of baseball.

In that era, baseball’s popularity eclipsed that of football and basketball combined. It had earned the moniker of “national pastime” and had no peer. Proof of this could be seen in neighborhood baseball diamonds in small towns and big cities equally. There were pick-up games, home run derbies, and special rules to accommodate small numbers of players, like ghost runners.

The Royals-Yankee rivalry went beyond the players, beyond the fans, right down to the managers and owners.

The wildly reviled Billy Martin and his equally despised sidekick Reggie Jackson led the Yankee Empire. The team owners were also studies in contrast: Ewing Kauffman — a self-made man who welcomed trick-or-treaters to his Mission Hills home; and George Steinbrenner — a convicted felon and grumpy recluse who was willing to pay any sum to guarantee a championship.

The Pine Tar game remains an iconic event that was just recognized for its 30th anniversary by media outlets the world over. Do you think it would still be celebrated today had it involved George Brett charging someone like the 1983 Minnesota Twins’ manager Billy Gardner?

No way.

My family’s connection to the Royals was even more personal. Royals shortstop Freddie Patek’s aunt, Marie Peterson, lived in my hometown and, even more unbelievably, worked for my dad’s law firm. It was a moon shot of unlikely probabilities.

In 1976, the Royals faced the Yankees in the American League playoffs. In the deciding game 5 in New York, George Brett hit a game-tying two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run to win the series. As Chambliss attempted to round the bases, fans mobbed him; a video clip frequently shown is emblematic of the frenzy associated with Yankee baseball.

The next year the Royals were once again on a collision course with the Yankees. But that autumn also saw me leaving home and enrolling as a freshman at KU. I had gained 200 miles on the drive to Royals stadium. When the Royals and Yankees met in the playoffs, my dad called me and what he said I still remember: “I have tickets to game 5, if they play it. You want them?”

My high school classmate, pledge brother and, later in life, best man was John Holt. I now had something John wanted, and the converse was also true.

John had a car.

As had happened many times before and since, we made a memory together.

This was game 5, the biggest game in franchise history and certainly the biggest game played in the new stadium. And in the mix of prominent Kansas City celebrities were two 18-year-olds sitting in the left field upper, upper deck. Use any cliché you want. None could capture the palpable sense of anxiety in the air, in part because of the 1976 meltdown but also because we knew this was a franchise with World Series titles like you’d toss in your closet and forget about.

They had Babe Ruth. We had Dick Drago.

“I just remember how electric it was,” John remembers. “I’d been to many games over the years with my family, motoring up for weekend getaways to watch the Royals. But the buzz, the energy, the anticipation of what could be and the fear of what might be just enveloped us. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Before or since.”

And three distinct memories from that evening have stuck with me.

The first was a play in the first inning. Hal McRae singled and George Brett — just two years separated from his rookie year — hit a triple and brought McRae home. John and I were sitting right above third base. Brett slid into third and Graig Nettles kicked him. Brett came up from his slide and punches flew. Everyone was stunned.

In preparing this piece, I Googled “George Brett + Graig Nettles + fight” and saw the video for the first time. Watch it and you will understand the environment that night. You will also appreciate why Brett was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.19 percent of the vote — one of the top five vote-getters of all time, with much of that vote coming from the New York media. They respected him and he respected the game. He competed and played like a warrior. And if your hated rival kicks you after you tripled in the first run of the game, well, there is only one appropriate response.

Obviously I had never seen a game of this magnitude without television commentary. No one could shape your observations, your impressions or your reactions. Everything was raw and you couldn’t process it.

A fistfight with our best player in the first inning of the biggest game on the biggest stage.

“Brett will be tossed!” I said to myself.

No chance.

The umpires knew what the league and NBC also appreciated — this was the most-watched American League playoff game in history, with more than 22 million viewers. This was no time for ejecting the most popular player on the field, on the planet.

Students of local sports history know the game’s eventual outcome. The Royals’ lead evaporated in the top of the ninth inning. It wasn’t a home run that happened quickly, like a year earlier. It was a slow death that started with a bloop single and then a walk, and then another single to Mickey Rivers. On a deep fly, the go-ahead run scored. The game ended with Freddie Patek hitting into a double play.

When the final out was recorded, I can still remember distinctly how the stadium was so quiet you could actually hear the Yankees’ dugout cheering. Whoops and yelling and screaming — so faintly but so distinctly. The contrasts were stark and dumbing. There were two kinds of Royals fans in the world that night: those who cried and liars. The Yankees, of course, went on to win the World Series, beating the LA Dodgers. Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the final game.

The stadium didn’t empty for what seemed like 30 minutes. By leaving we had to accept it was over and no one was ready to do that. I remember walking down those circular ramps and about halfway down, we came upon a fistfight between two adult fans. Someone was wearing a goose down jacket and it had torn; feathers were slowly circulating in the air, ascending the ramp. One of the bystanders was a lady, and she was screaming. In my 54 years, I’ve seen only two fights between grown men. They were three hours apart. Neither one was the most shocking thing I had witnessed that day.

We climbed in John’s Plymouth Fury but didn’t head home. Home was 262 miles west on I-70 where Larry and Ramona would hug me, fix me some chicken soup, and say something to soothe the soul.

We were stopping short of that at a fraternity with a room that six weeks earlier I had first seen and shared with two older students I hardly knew, and where I slept in a dorm with 30 other strangers, save one. It was a place that felt like a million miles from home, and it would take another six months and a few keggers to get anything close to feeling comfortable.

That stretch of I-70 back to Lawrence was the longest, loneliest, darkest stretch as we listened to the post-game on the radio. Depression wouldn’t do it justice; I was suddenly very homesick, feeling like I had just tumbled into an emotional sinkhole.

For 36 years these recollections were locked away, deep in my consciousness. And then Lori found this ticket stub in our basement and handed it to me.

One glance and all the memories came rushing back.

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Think ushering is easy? Think again. 435 South column, June 2013

by on Sep.07, 2013, under 435 South Columns

Holy Heroes


Ever thought something was easy until you tried it? Ever dissed someone’s work as routine until it was your turn? Like shovel the drive after a snowstorm and found out what a herniated disc means? Or maybe you thought putting up Christmas lights was “no big deal” until you were dangling from a downspout?

Every year 6,000 people end up in the emergency room from hanging Christmas lights. Make that 6,001.

Mark Walsh, Matt Keenan, Joe Gearon, Peter Lane & P.J. Krumm. Not pictured: Tom Cavaliere, Ted Ehler.

So let me add something else to your list of things harder than they appear: ushering at church.

When I say church I’m not talking about a chapel, I’m talking a large, postmodern church you can find at 143rd and Nall in Leawood — St. Michael the Archangel. The place with 4,500 families, 4,499 of which want to sit on the aisle for Christmas Eve mass.

If you still remain skeptical, prepare to be enlightened.

Remember that kid who sat behind you on the Southwest flight to Baltimore and pushed on the back of your seat the entire way? That kid traveling without a parent because no one could tolerate him for more than two minutes? His clone was in the back row at the Easter vigil with a penchant for hitting the bathroom and then trolling around the church balcony. And guess whose job it was to bring reality into his world?

His parents? Yeah, right.


Or when he fights with his sibling over who gets to put the envelope in the basket, with the resulting tug of war tipping the basket across the church floor.

His problem?


Sure, the work of an usher has routine components — finding seats for the latecomers and bulletin distribution, for instance. But there are countless other responsibilities that prevent you from sleepwalking through your exercise, like perfectly timed genuflections and shooing away the political money changers who fill the parking lots on the Sunday before Election Day.

Happily, I was part of a team. Guys you can count on to do the tough jobs like sitting the kid with the Grateful Dead T-shirt where no one will ever see him. Or the family with the slacker college kid who wants to Skype during the homily. Or admonishing the smart-aleck kid who is prone to playing Angry Birds during the Gospel. This is our task, our mission, and our cross to bear.

The Pope may be the Bishop of Rome, but guess who makes sure the worshipers respect the “no seating” periods of Mass?


The team: Joe Gearon, Tom Cavaliere, Mark Walsh, Ted Ehler, P.J. Krumm and our leader, Peter Lane. For seven years we did the 10:30 Mass for December, April and August.

Easter Mass is the Super Bowl of usher assignments. It’s jammed to the limit and the prayer list includes this one: that the fire marshal doesn’t drop by. The toddlers are unhinged, completely allergic to discipline.

Who can blame them? They just downed two chocolate bunnies with a Peep chaser and have blood-sugar levels that would send most adults into a diabetic coma.
On Christmas you get kids obsessed with their gifts and think one of the three wise men was named Santa. And that Jesus was born in the North Pole.

Forget these kids ending up in the seminary; think juvenile detention centers.

Picking out the family to bring up the gifts? That’s pressure, my friend. You need the family who has a photo shoot for Town & Country magazine just after church.

There are other challenges — constant handouts and questionnaires for things with euphemistic names like “time, talent and treasure.” Real meaning: “your wallet, please.” After church you need to patrol the pews to find purses, blankets and those religious coloring books featuring baby Jesus. The ones obviously not left by anyone named Keenan. Or Gearon.

And so when our family left St. Michael’s to join the Cure parish on Mission Road, my time arrived to say goodbye. And on April 14, I did just that.

Here’s to the best “A Team” that doesn’t include Mr. T.

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