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Under a Big Sky On the annual Wheat State Whirlwind Tour, KU faculty and staff get to know our state and its people

By Kirsten Bosnak

What do you get when you load 45 curious KU minds onto a bus and whisk them 1,200 miles through 35 Kansas counties in just five days? Endless conversation, beef dinners, salsa, vast prairie views, and for many of the travelers, a newfound sense of place.

The Wheat State Whirlwind Tour, based on an idea Chancellor Robert Hemenway brought from his previous employer, the University of Kentucky, has been going 10 years now. As soon as the spring semester ends, jeans- and T-shirt-clad academics, who applied for the trip months before, begin their adventure. KU Endowment funds cover about two-thirds of tour costs, primarily fuel, meals and lodging.

Word about the annual tour has spread among the KU community. “The first year, we couldn’t get enough people to apply,” said tour director and native Kansan Don Steeples, vice provost and McGee Distinguished Professor of Geophysics. Now there’s a waiting list.

The route varies each year. This year’s tour visited 23 communities. Their first stop: the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. Their last: the ZBar/Spring Hill Ranch near Cottonwood Falls. On the bus, learning continues; travelers hear en-route presentations about historic ethnic settlements, water issues, the livestock industry and more.

Kansans appreciate the direct contact with KU. In Palco, a small but thriving town of 270 in Rooks County and a regular annual tour stop, residents sat down to a catered lunch at the town hall with their visitors. “We’re excited to talk with the people from KU,” said Palco mayor Leo Von Feldt. “I really enjoy the interaction.”

For tour participants like Bill Myers, the experience yields both the expected and the unexpected. “The trip reaffirmed my sense of Kansans as among the most hospitable folks on the planet,” said Myers, director of information services for KU libraries. “It also enhanced my appreciation for rural communities. They are discovering ways to remain viable in spite of shifting economies and diminishing resources.”

"Under a Big Sky" was originally published in the Fall 2007 (Vol. 1, No. 2) issue of KU Giving, which is a publication of KU Endowment. To visit the KU Endowment site, please visit KU Endowment.