The most impactful KMUW News stories of 2021
KMUW reporters and producers share the stories that helped shape their 2021.
In contrast to the challenges that faced us in the previous year, 2021 was a year of recovery. As the world began to open up, many got vaccinated to face a new and uncertain world. A new baseball stadium finally had its opening day. Restaurants and businesses began to fill up again. Even our reporters and producers got out into the field like they used to.
As we usually do, we asked them to share the stories that shaped their year. Although they are not always the most significant stories of 2021, these are the pieces that have struck a chord with our reporters and producers.
Here is KMUW News in 2021:
The Range, our weekly show about where we live and the people who live here, celebrated its 100th episode this year. As part of that special show, we interviewed three Wichitans who also turned 100 in 2021.
“It was fun to talk with all of them,” said Tom Shine, host of The Range. “They had great stories to tell and so many memories. It was a treat.”
The remains of Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Kansas, were identified this year, 70 years after he died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. His return to Kansas was a moving story.
“I’ve followed Father Kapaun’s story closely for a decade now,” news director Tom Shine said, “and it’s as inspirational now as it was when I began.”
There are certain iconic brands Wichita is known for: Pizza Hut, Coleman, Cessna, Beech. Learjet might be the biggest name of the bunch.
But its parent company plans to halt production of the famous business jet this year.
“If Frank Sinatra thinks you’re cool, then you’re pretty cool,” said news director Tom Shine. “He was one of Learjet’s early customers, and he gave the jet a certain aura."
“Any chance I get to do a story about baseball, I’ll take,” news director Tom Shine said. “And I’ve always been intrigued about all the work it takes to make a baseball field look perfect. I found out it’s more work than I imagined.”
Jason McKenney ditched his day job and decided to pursue his passion: skateboarding. He opened his own shop and indoor skatepark in Andover.
In October, the city painted lines around United Methodist Open Door in downtown Wichita in order to clean up homeless encampments that have sprung up around the building.
"Had KMUW not shed light on the city’s plan," reporter Kylie Cameron said, "this likely would have gone unnoticed for a while. Often, our homeless population is forgotten, but they’re people just like us, and deserve to be listened to. Shedding light on the city’s plan to create the white lines outside of resources for homeless individuals forced the city to answer questions they probably didn’t want to, but that’s our job as journalists."
Kindergarten enrollment dropped nearly 9% in Kansas last year, as thousands of families opted to keep kids home during the pandemic.
"This was one of my favorite pieces this year because it was good to finally get back into classrooms again," says reporter Suzanne Perez, "talking with teachers about some of the effects of the pandemic and what it means for day-to-day learning. Parents also struggled during COVID-19, trying to figure out the best thing to do for their children and their families, so I appreciated Lindsay Drees sharing her story with us."
The reluctance to climb on a roof is good news for the growing number of businesses installing Christmas lights.
"This piece was fun to put together, just in time for the holiday season," says reporter Daniel Caudill. "I think next year, my family will hire someone else to hang our lights."
The sisters at Heartland Farm are just one of several religious communities in Kansas turning their attention to a modern crisis — climate change. Motivated by their religious beliefs, they make a faith-based case for environmentalism.
"I really enjoyed reporting this story," said reporter Brian Grimmett. "It combined two interests of mine that one doesn’t often see together. In the past few years (and for some of these organizations, even longer) more and more faith based organizations have begun to focus on their role in caring for all of God’s creations, the earth and its environment included. It’s not always easy and there is often pushback, but it was fascinating and touching to see the dedication of so many who believe there’s a legitimate connection between preventing climate change and their duty to God."
Russell Horning began his journey as an educator in Mexico. Then, after teaching high school and middle school in Wichita, he decided to make a career change.
"This was a fun story to produce," says host Jedd Beaudoin. "It's always nice to get in touch with someone when they're first starting out."
Singing, dancing and acting were part of Karla Burns' DNA.
Sadly, Burns died on June 4 after a long illness at the age of 66. Director of cultural diversity Carla Eckels remembers the beloved icon in this story.
"The passing of mezzo-soprano and actress Karla Burns stunned many in the community" said Eckels. "The 66-year-old Wichita native performed around the world. She was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Queenie in Show Boat and is the first Black to win the prestigious Lawrence Olivier award. Burns was involved in theatre here in Wichita up until her death and was known for her performances of her idol, first Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, who also is from Wichita. After producing the remembrance story about Karla, I received an email from Janice Osborn who works alongside her sister Ellen Lamont, owner/trainer at LaMont Stable.
We are both Karla Burns fans and loved your piece from June 10.
Meet “Hi Hat Hattie” born April 24, 2021. The day we heard of Karla Burns passing, we finally had the perfect name for this year’s baby. We were stunned by the news and an homage to her life and spirit seemed to help. Hattie (barn name) is friendly and fearless. We are hoping this little filly will grow up to be a winning show horse. (American Saddlebred)
A unique and delightful way to pay homage to Karla Burns. Win, Hattie, win!"
The 143rd annual homecoming took place in July in Nicodemus, a small western Kansas town founded in the late 1800s by Black pioneers. The homecoming brings families in from around the country to celebrate the town's heritage.
Director of cultural diversity Carla Eckels and Korva Coleman diversity in journalism intern Katelynn McIlwain joined nearly 400 people in the celebration.
"For years I had heard about the annual homecoming in Nicodemus, a small western Kansas town founded in the late 1800s by Black pioneers," said Eckels. "In the summer of 2021, I traveled to Nicodemus to learn more about it and produce a story. Angela Bates, the Executive Director and Founder of Nicodemus Historical Society, says Nicodemus was settled in 1877 after emancipation and at the end of reconstruction.
'Nicodemus represents those all-Black towns that started to pop up all over the west. It's the oldest and only remaining.'
What was also truly rewarding was taking along two KMUW interns to the 143rd Homecoming. They engaged with the descendants, absorbed some of the rich history lessons and helped bring the story to life. Katelynn McIlwain, our KMUW 2021 Korva Coleman Diversity in Journalism intern, assisted with interviews and my son, KMUW intern Sam Eckels, captured all the photos for the story."
South-central Kansas has been missing from Amtrak's map for decades. President Joe Biden's massive infrastructure plan could bring passenger service back to the region.
Reporter Nadya Faulx visited Ark City in September, where local officials say the return of passenger rail could be a game-changer … if Congress makes it a reality.
"It seemed like every couple of years local officials would say passenger rail could be back in the region in 'a couple of years,'" said Faulx. "But the new infrastructure package could be the step forward so many advocates have been waiting on, and it could bring a whole new economy to smaller towns along the route."
After a year-long delay caused by the pandemic, Wichita's minor-league baseball team finally played its first home game in May.
“It feels great,” said Jim Rheem. “It feels like it’s starting to get back to normal.”
News director Tom Shine and reporter Nadya Faulx were there for the first pitch.
"This was the culmination of years, literal years, of developments surrounding Wichita's new baseball team," Faulx said. "I know more about sports than I ever wanted or needed to. But it was incredible to see so many people come out to enjoy the Wind Surge's first game after such a long wait."
Over the summer, producer Beth Golay introduced us to a woman she met riding the Route 16 bus whose wheelchair had broken, making her regular trips to get groceries even more complicated.
The story reached a man who wanted to help repair her wheelchair.
"I’m proud of this En Route segment not because of anything I did, but because it illustrates the goodness of our listeners," said producer Beth Golay. "Patrick Collins heard about Dana’s wheelchair, and he immediately called to say he wanted to fix it."