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OH, GIVE HIM A HOME . . . . . .
and 10,000 acres of prairie, a few mules and an old schoolhouse, and Bill Kurtis will tackle his next frontier
By Rick Kogan July 1, 2001
Blown out of Kansas by a tornado 35 years ago, Bill Kurtis has been on the road ever since. One recent trip took him to the mountains of Nepal to film a documentary called "In Search of Shangri-La." He did not find the mythical community where life is perfect, but he did have a revelation, an odd thought that goes a long way toward explaining why a number of people think that Kurtis has gone nuts: "I was 10,000 feet up, surrounded by the beauty and majesty and mystery of the Himalayas, and all I could think about was how the opening of the doughnut store went."
That would be the Daylight Donuts Store in Sedan, Kan., about as far removed from Nepal as one can imagine; in many ways, it's just as far from the life Kurtis leads in Chicago. He and his longtime companion Donna LaPietra split their time between a Fullerton Avenue townhouse and a home in north suburban Mettawa. He oversees a staff of 25 at his Chicago-based Kurtis Productions and produces, co-produces and hosts such shows as "New Explorers," "American Justice" and "Investigative Reports," which have made him a ubiquitous TV presence and virtually the symbol for the Arts & Entertainment cable network.
His office in River North is filled with mementos from his many travels: photos, a pair of worn hiking boots, tribal drums and spears from Africa. But right now, again, his mind is on doughnuts and the store in Sedan, a town of 1,400 people in southeastern Kansas, a portion of the planet covered by prairie and dotted with small towns, farms and ranches that time seems to have forgotten.
"The store did open on time," he says. "Can you believe that's what I was thinking about in Nepal? I was thinking about Kansas."
During the last five years, Kurtis has been thinking a lot about Kansas, investing an increasing amount of his time, money and dreams into Sedan and the land around it. Like those inspired to move to Kansas by the 1862 Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres of free land to settlers who would farm and live on it for five years, Kurtis has staked his claim to more than 10,000 acres, a couple of radio stations, a "Little House on the Prairie" complex, a lot of cows, a few buffalo, two new mules named Jane and Judy, and a goodly portion of Sedan's business district.
Kurtis' dream is not to farm or develop the land but to preserve it as a kind of full-scale outdoor museum of the Old West, a place where visitors can experience the life of 19th Century pioneers.
"Kansas is home and there is no place like it," he says. "I have traveled all over the world, all sorts of exotic places, and I'll tell you this: Kansas is exotic."
Kurtis was in Kansas again for three days at the end of May, trying to explain his passion and vision to a couple of visitors from Chicago and to another of the many groups of tourism officials, civic groups and legislators with whom he has been meeting.
"I'm here to tell you. Kansas has plenty of things people would stop for and would pay to experience," he said at one such gathering. "Do you realize what we have? This is the largest remaining tall-grass prairie anywhere on the planet. Some day I believe that people will want to come here, to marvel at this awesome expanse of nature."
He's crazy about Kansas. But his notion that it can become a major tourist destination has struck many as a sign that the 60-year-old Kurtis is simply crazy.
"To a lot of us it sounds kind of wacky," says a Chicago friend who requested anonymity. "He's got such a great life here, and what's in Kansas?"
Kurtis laughs when he hears such opinions. "Sure, some people think I've gone nuts," he says. "It's hard to explain. You tell people you have a ranch in Kansas and they think, 'Oh, that's like having a house in Michigan.' There's no way to understand unless you come here."
He is saying this while sipping coffee in the lobby of the Apple Tree motel in Independence, 125 miles east of Wichita. Though Kurtis was born in Florida, this is where he grew up, a city of about 11,000 that claims as its other favorite son the playwright William Inge.
The sky on this morning is a brilliant, clear blue but it is not hard for Kurtis to recall a long-ago night when the sky was filled with clouds and danger, about to hurl forth the tornado that would change his life.
It was 1966 and he was in Topeka, 135 miles north of Independence. He was 25 years old, a graduate of the University of Kansas and of Washburn University's law school, living with his then-wife, Helen, and their baby, Mary Kristin (Kurtis also has a younger son named Scott), and studying for the bar exam.
To pay his way through college and law school, Kurtis had been working for television station WIBW. On June 8, he was reading the 6 p.m. news when a bulletin was handed to him: High winds coming in from the west. An hour later he was back on, reading a weather advisory, when he heard a studio cameraman yell, "Ed Rutherford [another cameraman] is at Burnett's Mound and there's a tornado headed for town." Thirty seconds later, he was handed another bulletin: The Huntington apartments had just been wiped out.
His mind quickly plotting the course of the twister, Kurtis stared into the camera and shouted, "For God's sake, take cover!"
"It's easy to laugh at that now: 'For God's sake, take cover,' " he says. "But my wife and daughter were in the path of the tornado and the emotions just came out of me. It was at the time the most destructive tornado ever to hit Kansas and it goes without saying that it forever altered the track of my life."
The tornado stayed on the ground for 12 minutes. His family safe, Kurtis stayed on the air for 24 hours, as the station's reporters roamed the city, reporting the damage. His marathon anchoring performance attracted national attention, and three months later Kurtis was working for Chicago's WBBM-Ch. 2. He went network in 1970, spending three years in CBS' Los Angeles bureau. He returned to Chicago in 1973, sitting down at an anchor desk alongside Walter Jacobson and helping to create what many still consider, wistfully, the best solid-news operation in Chicago TV history.
He was lured to New York to anchor the "CBS Morning News" in 1982, returning to WBBM in 1985. In 1996, when new management bought out the last three years of his contract, he was glad to go, having already established himself as a documentary filmmaker with his Kurtis Productions, which he started in the early 1990s. Freed from daily anchoring chores, he was able to wander the world in search of stories. His new schedule also allowed for more frequent visits to his parents in Kansas.
William A. and Wilma Kurtis were spending their time as the volunteer guides to the "Little House on the Prairie" exhibit, 13 miles outside of Independence. They had been doing the tours since 1977, after William A. had ended his career as a brigadier general in the Marine Corps. That was when researchers at the local library determined that the original cabin in which writer Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in the 1870s and on which she based her popular series of books was on land owned by the Kurtises.
Bill's parents organized neighbors to construct a replica of the Ingalls' cabin, and they entertained a small but steady stream of tourists drawn to the site by the continuing popularity of the books and the eponymous hit 1974-83 television series.
"It was a nice way to spend their time," says Kurtis, "giving people from all over insights into the land and the times."
The one-room cabin would take even the most ardent Wilder fan no more than 15 minutes to fully absorb, so until his health started to fail a couple of years ago, Kurtis' father would often embellish that experience, taking tourists in his pickup truck to show them some of the nearby places described by Wilder.
Last year Kurtis had a turn-of-the-century post office that was about to be demolished moved to the site. And more recently he added an 1872 one-room schoolhouse that also had been scheduled to be razed.
"After I decided to have the school moved here, I learned that this was the very school in which my grandmother once taught," he says, sitting in a scarred wooden desk in the school. "Isn't that amazing? Is it any wonder I feel consumed? I really do believe that in everything I'm doing here in Kansas I am being led and directed, guided by the hands of my grandparents."
The Little House "complex," which is now operated by a caretaker under the charge of Kurtis' sister, State Sen. Jean Schodorf, was visited by about 15,000 people last year. Admission is by donation; a buck seems to be the average. It is now surrounded by some 3,000 acres of prairie, purchased in pieces over the last five years by Kurtis to prevent encroachment and to one day, perhaps, offer a richer Little House experience.
"It was never my intention to become so involved," he says. "I bought the land around the Little House to protect the prairie. But the more I thought about it, about the do-it-yourself tours my dad used to give, the more I realized that people would enjoy learning about what life was like here more than 100 years ago, to learn of the buffalo and the prairies and the struggles of the early settlers."
Some of those hardy souls, who wrestled the land from nature and native Indian tribes, are buried in the Harrisonville Cemetery, on a hill not far from the Little House. There are meadowlarks singing in the trees that dot the graveyard and the wind blows steadily. Two of Kurtis' uncles are buried here, as are many of the relatives of the kids he grew up with. Kurtis' paternal grandparents are buried here, and in March he stood on this hill when they buried his father.
"There is a great sense of security when you know most of the names," he says. "When my dad was buried here, I knelt down and whispered, 'You're in good company.' "
He leaves the cemetery and starts driving west. It's a trip that puts the lie to any preconceived notion one might have of Kansas as a flat and featureless place. "One day four years ago, I was driving my parents around. We were about 40 miles west of Independence and I noticed this amazing terrain and said, 'What is this?' The land looked just like Africa to me, the wide-open spaces and seas of grass. As a kid I would drive around but my mind was on football and girls. I couldn't really see it until I had been gone and come back," he says.
The land he was seeing was the Flint Hills, rolling pastures and wooded plateaus that bisect the state from north to south.
"The tall-grass prairie once stretched across the whole continent," Kurtis says, eyes on the horizon. "Most of it has been plowed flat and planted. Only 5 percent of it remains and it is right here. This land was saved from plowing and farming because it is strewn with jagged stone." The area is one of only four such grasslands in the world, Kurtis says, along with the steppes of Russia, the savannah of Africa and the pampas of Argentina.
"It is the dominant ecosystem of North America," he continues. "We are rightly concerned with saving the planet's wetlands, but few people know that a plot of these native grasslands contains many more species than a parcel of rain forest the same size. They provide a home for a diverse range of animals and more than 600 species of plants and are a tremendous source of oxygen."
Kurtis is no environmentalist-come-lately. His world travels have given him a deep appreciation of the ecological fragility of the planet. He serves on the board of the National Park Foundation. He and LaPietra created a Kurtis Conservation Foundation for their charitable contributions, and they have been buying and restoring natural woodlands and prairies near their home in Mettawa.
But beyond the ecological is the practical.
"Ultimately it will pay off," Kurtis says. "What I want to do is create a living history experience, where tourists can travel in covered wagons, see the buffalo [he has about 50 on his property], visit a re-creation of an Indian camp, maybe even stay in cabins that resemble the early homesteads."
Beyond the ecological and practical is the aesthetic: "Where in your lifetime can you go where there is absolutely no manmade sound? It's just the wind in the grass and the birds. You stand on the ground and you can feel the pulse of the Earth. This is my spiritual center."
He is not the first person to be bewitched by the prairie. Inge, best known for the plays "Picnic" and "Bus Stop" and the movie "Splendor in the Grass," wrote, "No mountain can be as beautiful for me as the far horizon . . . 20 or 30 miles in the distance. The sight so fills me with a wonderful feeling of personal freedom, and also with a sense of infinity."
Behind the wheel of his rental car, Kurtis talks passionately of the land and its history. He's as enthusiastic as a kid talking about new toys. One thing to understand about Bill Kurtis: His on-air manner, all serious and forthright, masks a playful, almost boyish charm.
"I just love it here," he says.
He then offers another bit of Western lore: "The Indians mimicked nature by setting great fires that burned the tall grass down to its tender roots and that lured the buffalo. There were once 60 million buffalo roaming the prairie. Imagine what that was like. When the Indians burned the prairie they called the roaring, rushing flames the Red Buffalo."
That is what he has named his ranch. The Red Buffalo Ranch, about 30 miles west of Independence, is Kurtis' largest investment, in capital and acreage, in the area. Five years ago, Kurtis was approached by a cousin, Jack Horton, about purchasing the Staats Ranch, owned by Charlie Martin, an oil man who raised cattle on the land.
Kurtis met Martin and they toured the property, stopping after a while at the top of a hill from which they could see miles in every direction.
"How much of this is the ranch?" Kurtis asked.
"All of it," Martin said. "As far as you can see."
"I'll take it," said Kurtis.
He and Horton initially purchased 5,000 acres on which to raise grass-fed cattle. On Aug. 1 they will take possession of 3,000 more. "I don't smoke. I don't overserve myself," Kurtis says. "My vice is land ownership, and I don't know where it will end. Your neighbor's land always looks better than yours from the other side of the fence."
It is late afternoon, and Kurtis is showing a couple of city folk across the spread. Though Kurtis rides horses, he harbors no cowboy illusions. Seeing a couple of the ranch hands gallop by, he says, "I'd fall off if I tried that." So he and his Chicago visitors are riding in a buckboard driven by Fred Jones, another Kurtis cousin who works the ranch. The buckboard is being pulled by the mules, Jane and Judy.
The ride takes the group over hills and across rivers and into a section called Secret Meadow, where the visitors get off and wander about. The ranch is an amazing piece of property, most of it "rompin', stompin' virgin prairie," says Kurtis. It is dotted with mature elm, maple and bald cypress trees; sandstone and limestone boulders; a lake and any number of ponds; two rivers; millions of wildflowers and what seem like a billion butterflies; 500 mother-calf "cattle units"; buffalo, horses, mules, deer, fox and rabbits; and some drop-dead panoramic vistas.
Horton, who has worked in the oil and cattle businesses in the area, manages the ranch and is always too busy, it seems, for lengthy conversation.
"Why's Bill like it here?" he asks. "Just look around. This is the best place in the world."
Very few of Kurtis' Chicago friends, colleagues or employees have ever seen this land. "One of the problems is that there is no place for them to stay," says Kurtis, laughing. "Or for me." Indeed, the ranch's two houses are where Horton and Jones and their families live. Kurtis stays in a motel in Independence during what have become twice-monthly visits to the area.
LaPietra, a former TV news producer who now busies herself with work for Kurtis Productions and by being an active board member for cultural, charitable and civic institutions, is not as frequent a visitor, but she remembers the first time she went to the ranch. It struck her that "Bill was like the character Bill Starbuck from 'The Rainmaker.' He sees the promise in a place like Sedan and the ranch. In the play they needed rain. Here it's fire, and that's what Bill brings with his passion. On my first visit, just like Starbuck, he promised me the sky. And I'll never forget how humbling it was to be surrounded by the star-filled sky."
She shares his passion for the land: "We have so little left of our heartland, its physical center. The East and West have mountains and seashores. But most of the tall-grass prairie was wiped out. We believe everyone should be able to walk the tall grass again and watch the buffalo roam and find the connection with the land that was the lifeblood of the native American Indians."
Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Red Buffalo Ranch was host to thousands of people who came to see buckboard and chuck-wagon races, part of a racing circuit in the Southwest and parts of Canada. Some of the participants and fans were allowed to camp on the ranch and, if they brought their horses, go riding.
"This is an experiment," says Kurtis, sitting on rocks that rest beside Butcher Falls, a 10-foot waterfall. "It is hard to make a living with cattle, and Jack and I have been talking about other ways to use this land. Oh, we could build a golf course, sell a bunch of lavish home sites, a resort. But we want to do things that wouldn't have that sort of destructive impact on the land. We would like something that would bring people on for hiking, riding, camping, hunting or fishing in a very controlled way, sort of create a national park in miniature."
He looks enviously as some of the ranch's "guests" settle into sleeping bags under the stars and says, "Well, back to the motel for us."
As he drives across the darkened prairie under a star-kissed Kansas sky, the radio is playing "Scotch and Soda" and the car falls silent for a few minutes. The radio is set to 1010 on the AM dial, station KIND. This is noteworthy because it is the first place Kurtis ever worked, a "teenager making $1.35 an hour." In November, when Kurtis was attending the funeral of the station's owner, J. Nelson Rupard, his widow told Kurtis, "Nelson was so proud of you. He always wanted you to have the station."
"That's nice," said Kurtis, who had no interest in running a small 250-watt AM station. "I'm flattered."
But he soon learned that the station had FCC approval to have a 25,000-watt FM band, and so Kurtis rounded up five local investors and they purchased KIND (he owns 51 percent). The stations are housed in what was once the Union Gas Building, a handsome two-story, 25,000-square-foot brick structure Kurtis purchased by himself in downtown Independence.
The stations hit the air in May, the newly formatted AM playing adult standards and the FM more contemporary fare, as programmed by Westwood One, which syndicates programming to hundreds of stations. Kurtis, of course, has all sorts of ideas for local programming and radio documentaries.
As "They Can't Take That Away From Me" starts to play, the lights of Independence come into view, flickering in the distance. Kurtis suggests a stop.
"This drive-in up ahead has the best banana shakes," he says. "Let's have one." And then, as the car slows to a halt, he says, "This is all a little like getting to live your childhood all over again." He laughs. "But this time with money."
Early the next morning, Kurtis is munching a doughnut, fresh from Daylight Donuts, which opened at 5:30 a.m. and is now, just after 9, almost out of pastry. It is Saturday and Sedan is having its 12th annual Yellow Brick Road Festival. At Chautauqua and Main, the State and Madison of Sedan, a flatbed truck serves as a reviewing stand, festooned with a banner from KIND-FM, which is broadcasting the parade and other events live. Kurtis is not formally participating in this year's parade; he was the grand marshal last year. Today those duties are being assumed by Scott Thompson, a reporter for Channel 6 in Tulsa, who recently aired a feature story about Sedan, a story similar to that of many American towns.
Sedan was established in 1876 and prospered for nearly a century, thanks to the cattle and oil businesses. Its most famous citizen was Emmett Kelly, born there in 1898, and eventually the world's most well-known circus clown. But by the 1980s, ignored by superhighways and fast-food joints, the town and its brick, limestone and sandstone buildings had become shabby and empty, like the town in the film "The Last Picture Show." Sedan is the seat of Chautauqua County, which is the poorest of the state's 105 counties.
"You can drive through Kansas, through much of America, and find places like this that died and became ghost towns," says Kurtis.
Fighting for survival, Sedan's remaining residents in 1988 formed the Save Our Sedan committee and came up with the idea of building a Yellow Brick Road to attract tourists and raise money. The "road" now courses for a few blocks along the town's sidewalks. It comprises more than 10,000 bricks--purchased by people from every state and from 28 foreign countries for $25 each. Its economic impact has been slight. The town, which is not listed in any guide book, claims to attract 50,000 people a year, most of them on tour buses making their way to or from somewhere else.
One of the forces behind the Yellow Brick Road was Nita Jones. She and her husband, Dick, have worked in Sedan 37 years, the last eight operating a place called Jones World, a gift shop/real estate office/restaurant/candy store and the home of the "World's Biggest Sunflower Mural."
"Now, we're just trying to keep up with Bill Kurtis," Nita says. "Bill has helped pull all of our dreams together, the dream that things can work in a small town, that we can become a tourist attraction. He brings credibility. For years people would say we didn't have anything to offer to the outside world. But with Bill here--risking his own money and all--he's made people believe that we can be the prairie capital of the world."
What Kurtis has done so far is purchase and begin to renovate eight commercial buildings in the town's one-block downtown area. Daylight Donuts was the first to open, followed by a restaurant run by a local couple, the Red Buffalo Gift Shop & Coffee Bar (run by Patty Horton, wife of Kurtis' cousin Jack) and Three Rivers Hunting ("Spring Turkey Permits Sold Here"). Coming soon will be a couple of antiques stores, a bath and beauty shop called Bathsheba, and a quilt store.
"This is yet another part of the dream, to attract people here to shop. Maybe they will come from the Little House site, maybe from the ranch," Kurtis says. "It's high risk. Maybe I just should have kept my mouth shut, had my own private little kingdom at the ranch. But I could not be an absentee owner. I felt a commitment to the people here. I could not let Sedan wither and die."
There are plans to fix up the town's theater, and the state has granted funds to restore what was once the Bradford Hotel, a three-story structure that currently sits with broken and boarded-up windows. It's scheduled to open next July. The town's new slogan is "Come Watch Us Grow."
The parade lasts 30 minutes. It begins with three vintage planes flying overhead and includes a flatbed truck filled with "Special Moms" and their kids; "Dorothy" and the "Tin Man" riding in a golf cart; a character named Pawnee Bill and his trick horse; a police car; a dozen or so vintage tractors; a guy with a small kite on a fishing pole; an ambulance; more tractors.
During the parade, Kurtis is treated like a small-town mayor, or perhaps an old-fashioned Chicago precinct captain, as he shakes hands with strangers, greets friends, discusses ongoing renovations with local tradespeople. You almost expect someone to stick a baby in his face for a kiss.
"Thank you for what you're doing for Sedan," says a woman dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Another man stops in front of Kurtis and says, "You went to high school with my brother. Glad you're back where you came from."
"Glad to be here," says Kurtis, laughing.
All of those who stop to talk with Kurtis this parade day are pleasant. "He's one of us," they'll say.
If there is any resentment toward Kurtis, it's hard to find--and impossible to get on the record.
"Sure there are some people who resent Bill," says one local business owner. "I didn't like him at first, thought he was trying to pull something. I'm warming up, though. He seems like a straight shooter, but time will tell."
Kurtis observes: "For some people, any change is difficult, but my strategy was never to be sneaky. Much of the property in Sedan was within a year of falling down. I've always been open and honest about what I'm trying to do."
"And he's always paid over market value," says Dick Jones, who has brokered some of Kurtis' real estate deals. "He won't quibble with folks."
So far, Kurtis has poured more than $2 million of his own money into his projects, and is saddled with some $5 million more in debts and mortgages, most involving the ranch. He does not expect to get rich off his investments; the tenants in his buildings pay $1 a year in rent.
"I would like to see the ranch turn a profit," he says. "But this has never been about making money. It's about making something more important."
One of the dignitaries in the parade is a leader of the Osage Nation, the tribe that once inhabited this area before being settled into reservations just over the Oklahoma border. If there is a wild card in Sedan's future, it comes in the recent purchase by the Osage Nation of more than 100 acres along the Kansas/Oklahoma border, only 18 miles southwest of Sedan. Plans are to build a Las Vegas-style casino-resort on the site.
"Who knew?" Kurtis says. "As good as that might be for the area--casinos bring in jobs and people--I think there is enough of a buffer for us. But if big winners want to come up here and buy things, that's great. We'll just make more doughnuts."
Kurtis says he has no plans to move here permanently, as some of his Chicago friends and employees secretly fear. "But there are a lot of good reasons Dorothy wanted to get back to Kansas," he says.
After the parade, he drives the three miles to the Red Buffalo Ranch and finds about 2,500 people gathered for the buckboard and chuck wagon races. A hillside fronting the 30-acre field on which the races will be held is dotted with lawn chairs, umbrellas and cowboy hats.
"Going good?" asks Kurtis.
"Great," says Horton, who spent six months organizing this event.
Before the races start, Kurtis climbs into the front seat of a buckboard that is sitting in the shade of a huge oak. In the back are about a dozen little children.
"You have a white hat," says one kid. "You're the good guy."
Kurtis lets out a deep laugh.
"Hold on, kids," he says, "here we go." And off they ride, into the sunshine.