“I write daily. I would write with my students daily. I love coaching young writers and helping them find their voice. It’s a profound experience. But, I guess I will fall back on the words Thoreau wrote, ‘My life has been the poem I would have writ/ but could not both live and utter it.’ I just have never published much.” — Linda Bybee Kapfer, 3/15/22
Who is Linda Bybee Kapfer?
Linda Bybee Kapfer is an educator and writer who grew up about 20 miles from where I grew up in central Kansas. We first met when we did our student teaching together at Topeka West High School while we were attending The University of Kansas. I’ve always thought of Linda as someone who’s truly smart, funny, and kind… the type of person who would loan me her brand new car to drive to an interview for a teaching job. Linda recently retired from a career teaching literature, composition, and the dramatic arts to high school students in the Kansas City area, and now focuses on activist work (e.g., she’s a census worker) and is shifting from teaching to writing for herself.
J: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?
L: I was born and raised in Hutchinson, Kansas. Hutch for short. A town of 40,000, both then and now, Hutchinson does have some claims to fame. The film Picnic, adapted from the play written by William Inge, was filmed in Hutchinson and Sterling, Kansas. William Holden and Kim Novak stayed at the Baker Hotel in downtown Hutch while filming. My second grade teacher, along with many others from Hutch, was an extra in the film. A high school friend and college roommate was just an infant in her stroller on set when Kim Novak came over and commented how cute she was. Hutchinson also claims to be the childhood home of Clark Kent, and we all know who he grew up to be. Parts of the 2013 movie Man of Steel were filmed in Hutch. Mostly the big fight scene at the end where Superman and General Zod pretty much destroy the south end of Main Street, which is a very weird viewing experience — to see your hometown erupt in rubble due to supermen. Hutch even petitioned the state legislature to be able to change its name to Smallville once a year in the summer, when they have a comic-con festival celebrating “the superhero in all of us.”
Hutch is a postage stamp-sized town as far as its boundaries and doesn’t have a hill or valley in sight. This meant growing up in Hutch allowed us to traverse the town by foot or bicycle. Mom’s only caveat was that we not cross Main Street. The busiest and only 4-lane street in town made it too busy for young children to cross without an adult. No worries about weirdos or pedophiles back then, just traffic. Fortunately, my two favorite summer hangouts were on the correct side of Main for me, my sister, and our friends to travel to on our bikes independent of our parents. The Hutchinson Public Library and The Dolphin Swim Club. Riding my bike to the library and perusing the stacks for reading materials definitely made me love books, but riding my bike to the Dolphin did not make me love the act of swimming, just going to the pool. Swimming lessons were early in the morning and the water was cold. I hated going, but my mother never learned to swim, and it was obvious by her insistence on yearly swimming lessons, that one of her greatest fears was we would get into a crisis while swimming, and she would not be able to save us. So off we would go, two weeks out of every summer, to the Dolphin just after sunrise until we passed Intermediate Swimmer. The frigid water itself was enough to make us want to master the strokes and kicks quickly. On hot afternoons we’d cannonball into the pool to cool off, and then out to slather baby oil mixed with iodine all over our bodies (1960s idea of sunscreen), or spend our chore money on BBQ Guys potato chips and a small cherry Coke. To this day when I smell chlorinated water, I immediately crave some BBQ chips and a cherry Coke.
A community is often defined by its places — a church or movie theatre of historical significance, a park, or riverbank. Hutch had all of these that provided many happy memories. This spring, however, as I watched the George Floyd trial, I began to think about Cup Foods in Minneapolis, and how nine-and-a-half minutes changed the story of this little corner market both in its community and beyond. All the stories that were fond memories of those who made Cup Foods a part of their lives would now somehow need an asterisk, a footnote. It made me wonder about some of those places in Hutch that I remembered nostalgically, so I did something I swore I would never do. I posted a question in a Facebook Group for people from Hutchinson, Kansas. “Does anyone know if the Fox Theatre ever had segregated seating? Was the Carey Park pool segregated as well?” Lots of responses. Mostly civil. Many members of Hutch’s black community shared their memories of places I loved going to as a kid. The Fox Theater? The balcony was “the colored section” many replied. Most restaurants did not serve black Hutchinsonians. They had to go to the back door and get their meal as carry out. And the Dolphin Swim Club? It and another swim club in town were built when the public swimming pool in Carey Park was integrated. The Baker Hotel where William Holden and Kim Novak hung out when not shooting Picnic was strictly Whites Only, including the hotel’s barber shop where my mother took us for hair cuts because, “salons charge more than barbershops.” There were many people who claimed they “didn’t see color,” and that Hutch was not a racist community. Some were mad at me for asking the question because “none of that matters any more.” I asked the question because I knew the answer. One of the things I learned from from watching video after video of George Floyd’s murder from every angle was that buildings have a story of their own. My memory of a building or a place is not the complete story. Each person’s story is part and parcel of the story of a place, and if some stories are ignored or labeled “not to matter,” then we never learn our full history because that history is not complete. It is true for me but not the historical Truth.
So the history of Smallville is not idyllic as portrayed in the DC universe. It is messy and welcoming, biased and kind, forgettable and unforgettable, troubled and carefree. It was a great place to grow up, just maybe not for everybody, and that is an important part of the story as well.
J: Damn, Linda… that is one of the most creative, timely, and poignant reflections on growing up I’ve ever read. And it makes coming up with a suitable follow-up question a bit of a challenge. I will say as an aside that I enjoyed seeing both of our hometowns in your comments. I’ve watched Picnic a couple times in recent years and just fast forwarded to the scenes in my home town at Sterling Lake, a spot I truly loved. But getting back to the interview, I guess one question that comes to mind, when I consider the profound level of empathy in your words, is if you have always been that intuitive and empathetic in your approach to life… or has your way of experiencing the world evolved over time?
L: This question has sent me into a complete block of how to answer. I have written bits and pieces in my head, on paper, and on the computer, but I think I’m still wrestling with the idea that I have a “profound level of empathy” to use your words. That quite possibly is directly connected to the meanness of the times, and the complete lack of empathy for human suffering that permeates nearly every interaction in the Ozarks right now.
I don’t see myself as more empathetic than others. I tend to remember the times when I wasn’t empathetic and realized that the fact that I wasn’t made things worse for others or me. When those times happen, it’s usually because I was rushed, got caught up in a situation, and didn’t take the time to listen, and reacted without much processing. Sometimes it happens when I make a remark that was intended to be lighthearted, but was hurtful because I was not queued into what someone’s backstory was before I opened my mouth.
My husband used to tell our kids, “Help, don’t hinder,” When I find that I am lacking empathy, I reflect on how my words or actions hindered instead of helped. And maybe that’s a key to empathy, reflection — mindfulness about your actions and their impact on others. Empathy is a lesson we all grow up with. The Golden Rule. Atticus Finch telling Scout to walk in another person’s shoes before judging them. Dr. King reminding us to judge people by the content of their character. Even the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm”.
Ironically, we must be mindful of ourselves before we can live by those words, I think. Since I know that I tend to react quickly with a comment, I try to say, “Let me think about that” to slow my thinking down. If I’m feeling that I lack the courage or desire to connect with someone who is in a complicated situation, I ask, “How can I help,” instead of “Let me know if I can do anything.” That’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. When someone says, “Let me know if I can do anything,” it doesn’t create a link of trust or empathy because that phrase is as ubiquitous as “thoughts and prayers.” I try to make the question about what action I can take — how can I help — rather than relying on the action of the afflicted — you let me know…
Recently I broke a second social media rule I’ve tried to make for myself about not commenting on others’ comments regarding toxic perspectives — masks, vaccinations. No one’s mind is going to be changed from a social media post, but there I was, pushing enter while the voice in my head kept saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t.” The local hospital had posted a letter from their CEO that there were 2 ICU beds left, and included the statistics on COVID cases admitted and COVID deaths for the past two weeks. This gentleman had posted that the hospital was lying, the CEO was a hack, and we should all just quit wearing masks or getting vaccines and start living our lives. “Why,” he asked, “should I wear a mask that you can’t prove works.” I replied, as a few others had, that wearing masks helps keep others safe from me in case I am sick, and I ended by citing John Donne, “any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved with mankind.” So I hit enter, thinking there might be a lesson in empathy in there for the gentleman. He replied, “You’re a moron. And good luck with that book.”
J: Based on your first two answers, I think perhaps laying off social media for awhile might be a good idea. I essentially gave it up some time ago, and experiences like yours help reinforce for me the benefits of my decision. Those same two answers also make clear that you are a genuinely empathetic person, which is important in all weathers, and especially in such unforgiving times as these. My experience with empathy is similar to yours, I think, in that we brought some of it with us into our lives and picked up the remainder along the way, and in my case, often at the expense of others’ feelings. I’ve made many comments in my life that I hoped would get a laugh, but instead were hurtful, so I definitely agree with you that reflection is necessary. Following the Hippocratic Oath’s “First, do no harm” precept is also helpful. Interestingly, that intention of “do no harm” is the fundamental teaching of Buddhist philosophy, which I think is pretty cool. And I think it’s cool that you quote John Donne. Hemingway quoted Donne, too, at least with his book title. If you had to pick between John Donne and Ernest Hemingway to write a paper about, who would you pick?
L: I would definitely write a paper on Donne over Hemingway. Though a comparison/contrast might be interesting. Both men were womanizers, both seemed to be conflicted with their outer selves and their inner desires. But, I am not a Hemingway fan. I appreciate his prose style, but honestly, his female characters… Even Ken Burns couldn’t change my mind with his PBS series. I gravitated more to early English literature classes in college, by choice.
Why? Not sure. I loved the reading challenge for one. I read both Donne and Hemingway for the first time in high school. I loved the thousand foot view of humanity I first saw from writers like Donne or Thoreau. There just wasn’t much in The Old Man and the Sea that I connected with at 16. In college I read The Sun Also Rises and The Short and Happy Life of Frances Macomber for an American lit class. I believe my thesis statement for the paper was, “Do his female characters have to be such castrating bitches?” So, yeah, that would be my short and happy review of Papa Hemingway.
J: Your response had me laughing out loud. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be interested in a project focused on either writer, but if forced to choose, I’d pick Hemingway because it would require the least effort. I’ve always been, and still remain, lazy to my core. I liked Donne first, because English poets wrote sonnets and sonnets captured my attention early on. Keats was my first favorite poet, and a leather bound collection of Keats poetry was the first and only collection of poetry my parents ever gave me. However, I gravitated to American lit because the Americans spoke my language. I actually enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea at 16… but I’ve always been a little odd, so there’s that. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls also made an impression on me (not as big an impression as Donne’s poem, of course). But when I read Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway seemed so full of himself that I gave up on him. Although I will admit that many years later I read A Moveable Feast and enjoyed it… I didn’t like Hemingway, but I liked hearing about his friends. Also, and this one is a stretch so go with me for a moment… I liked the film Key Largo because I thought Lauren Bacall at that moment in her life was as beautiful as any woman could be, and it was set in the Florida Keys, which is where Hemingway lived, so sometimes I think of him when I remember that film. I have no similar memories of John Donne. But now my question is, since it doesn’t sound like either Donne or Hemingway were favorites of yours, who are a couple of your favorite writers? And any genre is an option… I add that because I know you’re a theater lover.
L: I’ll share my three favorite authors. Dorothy Parker. I read the Penguin edition of her complete works in high school. Probably not on many people’s lists, but as a young woman, I connected with her humor and her psyche. I also admired how she was able to maneuver her way through what was definitely a man’s world at the New Yorker in the early to mid 20th Century. John Irving. I’ve only read one of his books that I didn’t enjoy, Until I Find You. It was just way too dark for me. Toni Morrison. She is such a challenging and tough read for me, but when I feel I need to pick up something really literary, I usually go to her. Mostly, I do audio books now. I live anywhere from three to seven hours from my family, and I prefer listening to a good book on long trips. I save music and podcasts for the short trips.
J: An interesting trio of writers, to be sure. Of the three, I’m most familiar with Dorothy Parker, but I doubt I’m as knowledgeable about any writers as you are. You taught literature your entire career. All I’ve ever done was occasionally read stuff that temporarily caught my fancy. I can feel your sense of commitment to knowledge in your comments. You seem so grounded, in a strong, positive, enthusiastic way. It’s admirable. Am I reading you accurately? Do you feel like you’re the solid person you seem to be? And if so, where does that come from? Or maybe you see yourself differently?
L: When I was six, my father died from surgical complications. That was a pivotal moment in my life. I was a late in life baby. Both my parents were 43 when I was born, and though Mom had worked when my oldest siblings were young (it was the Depression), by the time she reached her forties, her life had evolved into that of a middle class, stay at home mom. It was very hard to be an observer of my mother’s grief at that age — not quite understanding everything that was happening, but knowing that it was hard and sad. I remember my mom collapsing on a bed she was making and just sobbing, asking, “Why does this have to be so hard?”.
During that time, fall of 1961, I missed a lot of school, so I fell behind in about everything. My teacher, Mrs. Mopp, had to quit at semester because she was pregnant, and so coming back after missing most of 2nd quarter, meant first a sub and then a new teacher, neither of whom cared about catching me up. In second grade, I seemed to have every childhood illness possible, measles, mumps, chicken pox, strep throat. So a lot of school missed again. So much that fourth quarter, my teacher, Miss Harris, arranged with Mom for me to stay after school every day until I got caught up, or she was going to recommend I not be promoted to third grade. My 4th quarter grade card from that year says, “Linda still does not know all her phonics.” And math facts… I still used my fingers to add and subtract.
That spring, the spring of 1963, my mom remarried. My sisters and I were not happy about it. Again something my older sister understood much better than I, but I sensed that this was something my mother needed. So I entered third grade with a new last name that I didn’t want, couldn’t read very well, and my math skills were worse than my reading skills. And frankly, I’m still a terrible speller.
I look back at that time in wonder. How in the world did I end up liking school so much, loving to read and write, and an honors math student? I know that I clearly learned that I could not depend on a man to take care of me. I had to do it myself, and education was the way. I also know that growing up, no one ever did anything but encourage me. My brother would stop by to visit, and help me with fractions and leave me books to read. My mom and my older sister would read to me, and I in turn, would read to my little sister. I just never doubted through their words and actions that my family believed in me, and so I believed if I wanted to learn, I could. Another thing I learned to do from that time was deal with adversity. I still challenge myself when life gets tough — how could it get worse? and then see what is a positive about the now. What are other solutions? and then try a different path. I also learned to own my problems — it wasn’t the teacher’s fault, it wasn’t my family’s fault, if I wanted to succeed, I had to put in the time to catch up, and though I hated staying after school every day in May, when August of 1963 came round, I was glad to see that I got Miss Voth for a teacher — lots of art and music in her class. Oh, there were things that I didn’t like– adding and subtracting multiple digits, borrowing to subtract, dictionary work, but there was plenty that I did like — being in school almost every day, reading real books with lots of chapters, making the best Kansas Day notebook in the class.
So I don’t know if I just always tend to look for the good or the positive. It would have been easy to take an entirely different turn when my dad died, but I know that I consciously chose to find positive things, and that I was encouraged to do just that by my mom.
J: That’s an impressive outlook, and one that deserves more attention. But I just read through all of your answers, and this interview is getting long enough that I should probably bring it to a close, which is unfortunate because I’d love to reminisce with you about our college days and student teaching together and also hear stories about your experiences teaching English, but the question I feel compelled to ask is… why aren’t you a writer? You write brilliantly… so why aren’t you writing books? I mean, you should at least write a memoir. What do you think?
L: First, I do see myself as a writer. I write daily. When I taught I would write with my students daily. I love coaching young writers and helping them find their voice. It’s a profound experience. But, I guess I will fall back on the words Thoreau wrote, “My life has been the poem I would have writ/ but could not both live and utter it.” I just have never published much. Feature and news stories for a local paper occasionally, but nothing larger.
However, your question has motivated me to pick up my research again on an incident that happened when I was eight. My mom and dad had been married less than a year, when we received a late-night call from the sheriff of Osage Beach, MO (where we live now) notifying my dad that his oldest brother and wife had been murdered in an armed robbery. I had not yet met Uncle Cecil and Aunt Ruth, so it was an odd experience to be thrust into such a horrifying and sensational event. You have inspired me to load up as many newspaper articles that I can find, and send FOIA requests to the the Camden County prosecutor’s office, the Missouri Highway Patrol, and the Camden County sheriff requesting files, photos and transcripts pertaining to the crime.
I doubt they’ll still have any of the records, which brings me to the thing that I would need to do if I really wanted to tell this story as nonfiction. I have written to John Abercrombie, the murderer, who is at the Missouri correctional facility in Jefferson City (about an hour from here). But I have never sent it. To do this, I’d have to give him my address so he could reply. I’ve considered checking with the warden to make sure he isn’t going to be released on parole again. He received life in prison with the possibility of parole, which he received, and has violated three times. He was on parole for 1st degree robbery when he killed my aunt and uncle. Obviously, I would need to be sure he’ll never be released, or I’d have to find another way to contact him, like go there and interview him. But that’s just too hard a step to take — lots of feelings, as you can imagine. So I’m pretty sure I’ve decided to fictionalize the story. I think I prefer to imagine the conversation I would have with John Abercrombie rather than actually having one.