Joco Opinion

November 19, 2013

Matt Keenan — Testing conventional notions, thanks to a first-rate contrarian

A high school history teacher provides a greater appreciation for JFK’s life and death.

At St. Patrick’s, where I attended grade school from 1965 to 1973, there were two photographs that embraced every wall in every classroom: Pope Paul the VI and John F. Kennedy. My older siblings, Tim and Kathy, remember distinctly the moment Sister Mary Rose announced on the school’s PA system the news of Nov. 22. Everyone has their own recollection.

But it took another few years of schooling before I gained a fuller appreciation for Kennedy’s life and, as it turned out, his death. And that was when my educational pathway intersected with a high school history teacher named Homer Kruckenberg.

A fixture on the Great Bend faculty for more than 30 years, he was a part-time hog farmer prone to cowboy boots, short-sleeved shirts from which his bony elbows would extend and, more than anything else, a contrarian streak of the first order. In life you sometimes have teachers who speak from a podium, read from a textbook and lure your mind to count ceiling tiles. That wasn’t Homer. He would move around the classroom, pose questions, challenge answers and assign nicknames to his students while sometimes burnishing a button that declared “Hogs are beautiful.”

He had timeless expressions that I still use today to befuddle my sons. “Putting the hay down where the goats can get it” is one. If Homer respects someone, he’d say, “He’s all wool and a yard wide.” He also had a fondness for Wild Turkey — the kind you drink, not hunt.

We learned to test conventional notions, to bring a skeptical eye to “the truth” — especially if the truth-teller hails from Washington. And Homer’s biggest bulls-eye was reserved for the Warren Commission. In 1976 our school had a portable VHS player resting below a monstrous television that weighed at least a hundred pounds. Today it would be worthy of the Smithsonian. That was the platform he used to share PBS specials, documentaries, 60 Minutes, and of course, the Zapruder film. The ‘single bullet theory’ was dissected, discussed and, ultimately, laughed off as a preposterous illustration of power run amok.

“The sad chapters in American history” is what we studied. It included the Lincoln assassination, the Trail of Tears and other illustrations of unchecked power. Our class had the benefit of fortuitous timing — with Watergate, the Nixon pardon, the Church Committee — officially named the “United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,” chaired by Idaho Sen. Frank Church. It was a fertile ground for anyone needing proof of Homer’s hypothesis.

Homer had his challenges, for sure. Juxtaposed against his zeal, you had a collection of seniors who tried to check out roughly when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Unlike some of today’s seniors, our final year wasn’t devoted to drafting college essays, taking and retaking practice tests for the ACT, or answering college application questions like ones posed to today’s students: “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, or risk that you have taken and its impact on you.” Say what?

Fox 4 anchor John Holt was in the class with me. “Homer introduced us to great ‘muckrakers’ like columnist Jack Anderson. But he wanted us to go beyond the textbooks for our learning — newspapers, magazines, anything that would expose us to journalism that made a difference. He made me want to study politics, American history, and ultimately was one of the teachers who inspired me to follow my heart and pursue a career in journalism.”

Texas assassination researcher William Penn Jones Jr., who was one of the early critics of the Warren Commission, was one of Homer’s buddies. He came to Great Bend to speak on his criticisms of the Warren Commission and demonstrate that Oswald didn’t act alone. Another published author on the topic was Mark Lane — and as fate would have it, Barton County Community College had Lane as a speaker for their lecture series. We all attended.

Amazon shows 340 books dedicated to theories of the JFK assassination. I don’t need to read a single one. Thanks to a hog farmer who, at age 77 in Great Bend, is still putting down the hay.

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