Star Magazine

Staffers past and present recall their favorite Kansas City Star Magazine stories

Reporter Judy Thomas got a lot of response to her mag story of her family’s final wheat harvest in Kansas. Here, a child peers out of the cab of a combine at the start of cutting a new field.
Reporter Judy Thomas got a lot of response to her mag story of her family’s final wheat harvest in Kansas. Here, a child peers out of the cab of a combine at the start of cutting a new field. The Kansas City Star

Star Magazine would not be much without its stories. We asked current and former Kansas City Star staffers to share memories about their work for the magazine.

High fashion in an RV

Kady McMaster, Star Mag editor, 1995-96: I was fortunate enough to work with a favorite creative team — fashion editor Jackie White and photographer Talis Bergmanis — as they produced the semiannual fashion edition of the magazine.

In those days, The Star rented an RV for several days for the fashion shoots. It was a hulking, clunky, rolling photo studio/hair and makeup room/changing room carrying models, stylists, clothing and equipment from location to location.

Late one afternoon during one of the shoots, I got a call from Jackie, who in the sweetest drawl only Jackie — a native Southerner — could pull off, informed me that someone, bless their heart, had forgotten to pull up the stairs of the RV before taking off. There had been a slight mishap with a parked car.

Ever the professionals, the team insisted the shoot must go on. So after reporting the accident and dealing with insurance, Talis and Jackie continued with the photo shoot, generating yet another beautifully photographed and well-executed fashion edition.

Those half-page holes

Tim Engle, features writer: When I started in 1997 as magazine staff writer, I was supposed to do a certain number of cover stories and “seconds” (one- or two-page articles).

Soon, though, the mag editors were called upon to help out with The Star’s other features sections, so my role expanded. I typically edited almost everything in the magazine except the cover story — departments such as the Remember When nostalgia column and the Last Bite recipe.

I also started writing more, shall we say, hole-fillers. We often had half-page spaces that needed something in them. This array of short-short features included A-List (a list of anything local), Time Machine (an old news photo from the files, usually tied to something current) and KC Star (a questionnaire-style profile).

My favorite of these was Doofus & Delightful, an homage to Goofus and Gallant from Highlights for Children magazine. Doofus always screwed things up; Delightful always did things right. Lisa Morgan, a mag page designer and artist, found some retro clip art to depict our two heroes.

Example: The boys attend a musical at Starlight Theatre. “Doofus waits until a tender moment in the show to remove the cellophane from his cotton candy, which makes so much noise that even the animals over at the zoo are annoyed. Delightful takes a sudden interest in his program, even though it’s too dark to read.”

I know — silly. But I had fun.

Milking our Cowtown

Sharon Hoffmann, assistant features editor: I grew up in Kansas City, but I learned the most about my hometown when I was editing Star Magazine from 2001 to 2003. We lived for stories about KC, cows and Cowtown pride. Impress your friends with some of these nuggets I picked up from our fine writers:

▪ “Blue Highways” author William Least Heat-Moon does have a bit of Osage Indian in his blood, but his real name is William Trogdon. That exotic pen name is from his KC Boy Scout days in the Tribe of Mic-O-Say. (“Finding His Routes,” by Michael Mansur)

▪ The Zambezi Zinger, my favorite ride from the early days of Worlds of Fun, is reportedly still zipping along at an amusement park in Colombia. As in South America. The “worlds,” by the way, were based on Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.” (“As the World Turns,” by Tim Engle)

▪ Every year, crews put up 80 miles of holiday lights on the Country Club Plaza from August to November. Most strands follow a set pattern: red, blue, yellow, green. But the lights on the towers are always all one color. (“Ready, Set, Glow,” by Ronda Cornelius)

Our readers are so creative. We asked people to combine the holiday spirit with the Kansas City spirit and write hometown carols. Here’s a snippet of one of the winners, to the tune of “Carol of the Bells”: “Hark how the Bowl, sweet Super Bowl, seems to elude, Chiefs fans all brood.… Very, very, very, very close game! Very, very, very, very close game!”

Good times.

Dancing around town

Jill Wendholt Silva, food editor: My first Star Magazine story didn’t have anything to do with food.

I was a fashion writer at the time, on loan to the magazine for a short stint. The story that mag editor Bill Luening helped me craft was a waltz through popular dance styles across Kansas City, from a brisk square dance to pulsing free-form choreography at a disco.

The photos were shot in black-and-white. I will always remember the swirling petticoats on the cover by photographer Jean Shifrin.

Following stories that grew and changed was one of the best parts of writing for Star Magazine. The last story I wrote, in November, traced the evolution of the Broadmoor Bistro featuring chef/educator Bob Brassard’s dedication to creating a farm-to-table experience for his talented students.

That was the second time I had written about Brassard for the magazine. But now he had an heir apparent, former Broadmoor student and next-generation culinary educator Justin Hoffman.

Lunch with the Bentons

Roy Inman, staff photographer from the first issue and later photo editor, then a regular freelancer. Here he remembers photographing artist Thomas Hart Benton in 1971:

“Make me look young and handsome,” Benton said.

I kinda liked his craggy features that echoed his signature folk art style of painting, but I did my best to honor his request. The final images worked out more to my vision than the one he was hoping for.

When magazine writer Jim Lapham and I visited Tom and Rita Benton in their Valentine area home and studio, we thought we might be finished by 11 a.m. or noon at the latest. However, when Jim started talking with Tom, it became obvious that this would be no quick assignment.

Lunchtime came and Rita offered to fix us all sandwiches. I followed her into the kitchen to document the process, and she started talking about how the light bulb was burned out in the kitchen fixture but she didn’t want Tom getting up on a ladder at his age (about 80 at the time).

The kitchen was pretty dark on this gray, late-winter day. I caught the drift: She was asking me to get up on a ladder and change the bulb. So I volunteered.

“Oh, would you? That would be so wonderful.”

I looked around for a bulb.

“We are out of bulbs, but there is a hardware store right up the street. By the time you get back, your sandwich will be ready.”

OK, so off I went, bought the bulb, came back and changed it out. We’d be there into the early evening.

Next day I realized I had left an extension cord at the Bentons’ and returned that evening to retrieve it.

Tom met me at the door, cord in hand. Several friends were gathered around the roaring fireplace, creating a scene I might have scripted for a world-famous painter: He holding court, surrounded by fellow creatives, writers, sculptors, hangers-on.

He tried to give me a couple of dollars for the bulb, which I refused.

“Godammit, I can’t have you buyin’ my lights!”

I smiled and walked off.

A number of Kansas Citians can say they were intimates of Thomas Hart Benton. Some were even used as subjects in his murals.

But how many can lay claim to changing a light bulb in his kitchen?

What the tornado left

Laurie Mansfield, assistant managing editor for features and mag editor, 2012-13: I really wanted Sarah Gish to write something for the magazine because she’s a great storyteller, and we were just waiting for the right story to reveal itself.

We heard there was a good story about a cat down in Joplin, Mo., so she went to investigate and came back with an even better story.

The man who owned the cat had thousands of envelopes of photos that were rescued after the EF5 tornado destroyed a portrait photographer’s house. He and the photographer’s daughter were able to give people who had lost everything in the tornado new photos of their loved ones.

My family is from Joplin, and their house was less than a mile from where the tornado hit. I was hoping my aunt, who’d lost her son when he was in his 30s, would find some old photos of him in the collection.

That didn’t happen for my family, but it happened to a lot of other people who didn’t know the photos existed, and I loved reading all their stories.

Too much barbecue

Tim Janicke, mag editor, 2003-07: In the spring of 2002, we cooked up the idea of forming a team to enter the Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue Cookoff at Kansas Speedway. We would barbecue and drink beer. We would write about it for the magazine. It would be fun.

Our crew consisted of Doug Worgul, former mag editor who had moved to Kansas City Star Books; Keith Robison, a deputy features editor; and me, mag photo editor then. It all sounded sexy to me until I arrived at our flimsy tent in the Speedway parking lot. Dark clouds loomed overhead, the air was chilly and a fine drizzle was falling.

I don’t know that any of us had competed in a barbecue contest before, but we considered ourselves up to the task. Doug had even authored a book on the subject. But we hadn’t counted on bad weather.

It was the kind of miserable not even beer could fix. The wind howled all night, the drizzle turned to hard rain, and there was plenty of thunder and lightning. At one point, Keith borrowed my camera to take a picture of me hunkered down under a couple of coats and wrapped in a truck rental blanket.

It was a long night. I’m not sure Doug slept at all. He did brisket and pork butt, Keith cooked ribs and my job was to prepare the chicken. It was not my best attempt. Doug’s pork did pretty well in the judging, but Keith and I were humiliated.

Feeling half-sick from the smoke and the cold, I didn’t want to ever see, smell or eat barbecue again.

Stalking the Lustrons

Elaine Garrison, copy editor: Something about the little enamel-painted, all-metal house on the path I walked through the Roanoke neighborhood several times a week made my writer instincts tingle. Old, obviously, but could there have been prefab houses that long ago?

One day a small plastic box was placed on a stake in the yard. The description of the house for would-be buyers sent me on a hunt that led through the Kansas City of World War II, to modern neighborhoods and to architect John Ware and his family. Around the country, the little houses were riding a wave of retro popularity.

Thousands of the Lustron homes had been constructed after the war and because they couldn’t be easily enlarged (even remodeling was a trick), they were disappearing, the metal sometimes worth more as scrap or the lots worth more than the house on it.

My story for the Star Magazine of Dec. 15, 2002, described the existing Lustrons around Kansas City and told of their devoted owners and quirky original appliances. My only regret: I never found an example of the infamous combo dish/clothes washer.

Learning about love

Deborah Shouse, Love Story writer: I love to talk about love.

Every week for nearly nine years I’ve been interviewing couples about their relationships. And every interview has surprised and delighted me.

I have been surprised at how often it’s “love at first sight” for at least one of them.

Sometimes people know it’s love when they’re teenagers, but they get torn apart and marry others, then come together later in life.

Here are some of the qualities that people say they most appreciate in their partners: He loves me just as I am. She makes me laugh. She always puts other people first. He always puts me first.

From my interviews, I’ve learned that love is strong and mysterious and always possible.

A woman recently said, “Tell your readers, never give up on finding love.”

Getting an icon its due

Mike Hendricks, enterprise reporter: It was a decade ago in the pages of Star Magazine that I kicked off my campaign to have the R&B classic “Kansas City” by songwriters Leiber and Stoller named the official city song.

At the time I was a Star columnist and free to crusade. My view was that “Kansas City” — with its “crazy little women” and “bottle of Kansas City wine” at 12th Street and Vine — was a better fit than the far-lesser-known “Kansas City, My Hometown.”

So off I went, and nine months and many columns later, the City Council cried uncle and made the switch.

But it was that Star Magazine article in November 2004 that was the foundation for the effort.

Exploring from A to Z

Steve Paul, editorial page editor: My first association with Star Magazine was 35 years ago, when I spent a couple of fun years as assistant editor, under the great story-spinner Giles Fowler.

Many years later, I developed an occasional feature called Architecture A to Z. It ran roughly from 2010 to 2013.

This was a period of self-education and exploration, which seemed to touch readers interested in the history of the city and the vastly diverse details of the built environment. Being a piece of Star Magazine, it often took quirky turns in topic and approach. It also gave me a chance to hand some quality time and experience to my inner photographer.

After making it through the alphabet twice, we turned the project into a book.

The Derrick Thomas story

Randy Covitz, Chiefs, NFL and racing reporter: My most memorable mag cover piece was a 1991 profile of Chiefs star linebacker Derrick Thomas. Derrick was coming off his second season with the Chiefs that was highlighted by his setting a club record with 20 sacks, including a league-record seven-sack game against Seattle.

But what made this story special was that it was mostly about Derrick’s growing up in Miami and how he was sent to a special school for troubled youth, an experience that would shape his life. It led to him creating the Third and Long Foundation, which encouraged children in Kansas City to read and avoid the pitfalls of his youth.

Derrick gave me and photographer Mary Schulte access to his house for interviews and photos, and we accompanied him on at least one appearance at a middle school.

Derrick died tragically as a result of injuries in an auto accident nearly 10 years later and eventually was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his greatest legacy was the impact he made on our community off the field.

Mary Schulte, features photo editor: I have been involved with Star Magazine since I began working at The Star in 1988. One memory that stands out is the assignment to photograph Derrick Thomas.

In addition to photographing him on the playing field and at practice, I went to his house in Independence, where we took a picture of him sitting in his car with the license plate I MAYD IT.

As part of that story I also photographed his coach, Marty Schottenheimer. I needed pictures of the coach with his family, so he invited me to his house around dinnertime on a Friday night. He cooked me a steak on the grill along with everyone else. Professional athletes and coaches were much more accessible then.

But my favorite magazines to work on were the year-end photo issues. Each of those was a perfect way to wrap up the year — page after page of beautiful images carefully designed to showcase the photographs as only Star Magazine could.

The last harvest

Judy Thomas, investigative reporter: I grew up on a family farm in central Kansas and never really strayed far from my roots.

Every summer for years, I spent my vacation helping my parents harvest the wheat crop. The event was a family affair, with Dad and I operating the combines; Mom driving trucks, cooking meals and herding seven grandchildren; and my husband, brother and sister filling in wherever needed.

But the summer of 1999 was bittersweet: After 43 years, Mom and Dad were retiring. I wrote a Star Magazine piece about the final harvest. Photographer Francine Orr spent several days in the wheat fields with our family to document the experience. She even convinced the local barber, who had a pilot’s license, to fly her above the fields.

Reader response was incredible. I quickly learned that lots of “city people” are only one or two generations removed from the farm. Many shared stories of helping their own parents or grandparents bring in the crop.

Some even wrote my parents to wish them well. And the Kansas State Historical Society created a traveling display of the story that was exhibited at the state fair in 2002.

Mom put together a 4-inch-thick album of the story, photos and the hundreds of emails and letters we received. I’ll cherish that book forever.

A summer of Depression

Brian Burnes, crime and courts reporter: In October 1979, we ran a magazine story on the 50th anniversary of the Great Depression.

I remember going with another staff member to the Missouri Valley Room of the old Kansas City Public Library building and looking through glass plate negatives from early 20th-century Kansas City.

There were several images to choose from. One depicted the grotesquely shaped body of a Kansas City man who had jumped to his death for an unknown reason. Given the stories of those investors who allegedly did the same upon the stock market’s collapse in 1929, I thought it would work great.

Cooler heads prevailed, however, and I’m glad. The cover that ran wound up being declared one of the best Sunday magazine covers of 1979 at a convention of Sunday magazine editors.

Stolen stuff and chiggers

Jim Barcus, former staff photographer: There was pride when Tim Janicke (former mag editor and photo editor) would bring a photographer a just-off-the-press stack of magazines containing that photographer’s pictures. I knew I wanted to be that person. Eventually I was.

I always loved explaining to the people I was covering that they were my entire focus for the coming days and sometimes weeks. There was something about earning the trust of the person whose story I was telling.

I’m sure most people thought it was queer that I would show up and not take a picture for hours, maybe even leave without taking a picture that first time.

I photographed a musician named Carole Brown who lived in total seclusion in the Flint Hills. She would return to Kansas City from time to time to take care of her elderly parents.

The love she had for her parents and life as she lived it demanded the respect of a good writer and photographer. I was glad for my chigger bites because I believe I had a hand in illustrating the essence of her life, which was harmony.

A quirky crew

Barbara Hill-Meyer, designer: When I first arrived in the editorial art department at The Star, my boss, Tom Dolphens, gave me two assignments: design the cover of Look, a weekly fashion section, and design the Star Magazine cover and story inside. I was on cloud nine!

Well, it’s been a few years. The Look section was retired, but the magazine lived on.

The best part? Each week I get to peek into a different story and visuals and work on marrying the two.

The second-best part? The people: hard-working, driven and somewhat quirky.

I’ve worked with some amazing writers, editors, photographers and illustrators and have been so impressed with some of the incredible stories they’ve found, the visual moments they’ve captured and the incredible amounts of time they’ve devoted to getting it right.

Time for rough drafts

Jennifer (Howe) Heinemann, former reporter and columnist: Writing for Star Magazine was luxurious! There was time to hang out with your subjects, to observe them. Time for rough drafts, in-person editing sessions, discussion about the story. We invested in Star Magazine articles, believing that readers wanted more depth, more images, a richer reading experience.

For me that meant three months of near-daily visits to the home of a woman with ALS, including the night she passed away, for a story about dying.

It meant riding around town with Myra Christopher, the founding CEO of what is now the Center for Practical Bioethics, marveling at her ability to edit documents at stoplights and her passion for improving health care.

It meant shedding tears while listening to an old woman describe the day her parents put her on a train to a maternity home in Kansas City, once the nation’s hub for girls who were “in trouble.”

Reading Star Magazine was also luxurious. To me, detailed reporting, photo essays and real storytelling are not luxuries that we readers can live without.

New views of KC

Mary Lou Nolan, assistant managing editor for features, 1998-2012: I loved it when Star Mag found a new angle on life in KC: Going into the sewers to look at what needs fixing. Documenting the foodie boom with 35 exquisite photos. Hanging out at a city car tow lot. Helping teens present their real selves to the world.

But most of all, I loved how folks from three departments (features, photo and art) came together every week in a newsroom that, truth be told, functioned mostly as a collection of fiefdoms, and made magazines that were inventive and eye-catching. People just brought it. I felt privileged to work with them.

‘Your turn in the barrel’

Joe Popper, magazine staff writer, 1985-90: It was the best job I had during 30-plus years as a working journalist.

In the 1980s, the magazine was an outlet for serious long-form reporting, and it featured some fine investigative pieces, major profiles, political analysis and regional history.

The key to the magazine’s quality then was its editor, Bill Luening, a creative, incisive, encouraging and demanding force, who was himself a talented writer.

The staff was miniscule and so was the budget. There were just four of us working full time.

It could be a grind. Our stories were long and deeply sourced. The turnaround time was three weeks, so there wasn’t much breathing room. “OK,” Luening would say to whoever was on deadline, “your turn in the barrel.”

And that’s what it felt like. When you finished the story, you climbed out, took a deep breath and started another piece. We shared a lot of hard work and, with it, a great sense of pride.

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