by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Though she’s certainly been known to watch college basketball, Bethel College’s Rachel Epp Buller, associate professor of visual art and design, would not describe herself as a sports fanatic.
Over the past nine months, as she has been working to put together “Root for the Home Team,” the special exhibit currently at Kauffman Museum on the Bethel campus, Epp Buller says she’s been asked, “more than once: ‘Why are you doing this?’
“I watch Jayhawk basketball,” she says, “but I’m no athlete.”
The clue comes in the exhibit’s subtitle: “Building Community Through Sports.”
Epp Buller is in her fourth year teaching at Bethel fulltime and also being a Liberal Education Adviser, a professor who each fall leads one section of First-Year Seminar.
Part of the curriculum for this class, required of all first-time freshmen, is to read common texts, one of which, for the past several years, has been Warren St. John’s Outcasts United.
The book tells how the small town of Clarkston, Georgia, finds itself overwhelmed by an influx of resettled refugees from dozens of different countries. One woman decides to start a soccer program for refugee boys to give them something familiar in a foreign land and help them connect and adjust to their new reality.
“Outcasts United is about using soccer and the lessons of teamwork to help each other overcome obstacles and hardship,” Epp Buller told the audience at the official opening of “Root for the Home Team,” Sept. 10.
And that ties right into a goal of First-Year Seminar, to help with the sometimes difficult transition from high school to college.
Sports can play an important role in that transition. “Upwards of 70 to 75 percent of first-year students are athletes,” Epp Buller says. “Maybe the first community they encounter on campus is their team.”
Then in 2014 came a call for grant proposals to the Kansas Humanities Council.
Kansas had been chosen to host the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit “Hometown Teams” in 2015. So the Kansas Humanities Council invited proposals from groups and organizations for ways to tie their communities to the exhibit’s presence in the state.
Epp Buller’s successful proposal made Bethel the only college to join 16 libraries, museums and historical societies in the initiative. However, Kauffman Museum was an essential piece, not least for hosting and fabricating “Root for the Home Team: Building Community Through Sports,” the exhibit that remains on display through June 3, 2016.
This fall, in addition to reading Outcasts United, First-Year Seminar groups will visit “Root for the Home Team,” and the students are asked to attend a number of special convocations that the Kansas Humanities Council grant is making possible (see sidebar).
These programs are also open to the public, free of charge, with most taking place in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center.
To develop “Root for the Home Team,” Epp Buller relied on Kauffman Museum’s collection and also put out a call in the Newton community and through as many Bethel alumni avenues as she could for both artifacts and stories.
Her hope was to use sports to tell stories of overcoming adversity, fostering international friendships and generally building community.
“We wanted this exhibit to be not [about] just the stars, and not only the athletes, but the community around them as well,” she says.
Sometimes the stories were unexpected, as with Brian Stucky’s broken hurdle, a symbol for him that tells a family story.
Stucky, now retired from a long teaching career at Goessel High School, ran track at Bethel in the 1970s and broke the hurdle during practice. It represents a family legacy of broken records in hurdles – Stucky’s father, Ransom Stucky, set records in hurdles at Bethel in 1948 and Brian Stucky set new ones in 1972 and 1973.
“The broken hurdle ends up being a vehicle to tell a meaningful story of how a sport was passed on through generations,” Epp Buller says.
“The stories aren’t all sunshine and roses, though,” she continues. “In many cases, it became clear that sports communities arose in an atmosphere of segregation and separation.”
That was the case for the Mexican-American fast-pitch softball leagues that began more than 70 years ago. Newton now has the longest-running tournament in the country, though the leagues still exist in a region that covers Kansas City to Houston.
“Many of the photos and artifacts testify to how, even though the Mexican-American teams in Newton began playing separately out of necessity, softball soon became not only a local community builder but also a way to connect with other communities around the state,” Epp Buller says.
“There was a whole circuit of Mexican-American softball leagues – in McPherson, Emporia, Topeka, Kansas City, and in other states – Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma. When they traveled to play other teams, it wasn’t just a game … It was a time to socialize and build community with people … who knew your experience … of being an immigrant, or an outsider in a mostly white community.”
In putting together “Root for the Home Team,” Epp Buller discovered that “nearly everyone has a sports story to tell about themselves or a family member or a favorite team.” And of course, she couldn’t use them all.
However, part of the exhibit is a “sportswriter’s desk,” complete with an old manual typewriter, pens and yellow pads, where people are invited to write down their stories to leave as part of the exhibit.
“What I’ve told my students,” Epp Buller says, “is that I was offered so many stories, and in many cases, my job was mainly to be a good listener.
“Even if I thought we might not include their stories in the eventual exhibit, it’s so important for people to feel heard – which is a good reminder for all of the students and faculty in First-Year Seminar to really listen to each other.”
Regular Kauffman Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Tuesday–Friday, and 1:30–4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission to the special exhibit “Root for the Home Team: Building Community Through Sports,” as well as the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6–16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website or Facebook page.
SIDEBAR: “Hometown Teams” events
All events are free and open to the public.
|Sept.14, 11a.m.||Michael Zogry, Kansas Hometown Teams traveling scholar, “Anetso: A Cherokee Ball Game”||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Sept.18, 11a.m.||Marlo Angell, Lawrence, presents her short film, From Football to Fútbol (how the Garden City High School soccer team reflects the recent demographic shifts taking place in the town)||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Sept.20, 3p.m.||Ben Chappell, KU associate professor of American studies, “Hecho in America con Mexican Parts: Fast-pitch Softball in Mexican America”||Kauffman Museum|
|Sept.21, 11a.m.||Ben Chappell, “Ballplayers in Mexican America: Softball as a Cultural Resource”||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Sept.21, 7p.m.||Chappell also hosts “Every Fourth of July in Newton: Memories of the Oldest Mexican-American Fast-pitch Softball Tournament in the United States,” a panel of Newton community members who have been part of the tournament||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Sept.25, 11a.m.||Phil Dixon, baseball historian and author, “The Kansas City Monarchs in Our Hometown”||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Oct.9, 11a.m.||Fall Festival convocation – Allison McFarland, Bethel professor of business, moderates a panel of Bethel alumni and former coaches on Title IX as it changed the face of women’s collegiate athletics||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Oct.12, 11a.m.||Columbus Day – Travis Larsen, sports historian, Salina, “The Sports Mascot Controversy” (about the use of Native American imagery in sports mascots)||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|
|Oct.16, 11a.m.||Lorraine Madway, WSU archivist, “The Kansas Jayhawks and the 1936 Olympics”||Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center|