The Heroines

Marie Reichard

is honored with a Medium Bench from Lynn Stephan.

 Marie  Reichard A CIRCLE OF WOMEN: Reichard-Kincheloe-Stephan

The spiral of my family history turns upon the stories of a set of remarkable women, each of whom, in her own inimitable fashion, met the challenges life tossed her way and kept our family whole--bruised at times, but whole. While it revolves around our need for one another, it also affirms our many connections to Wichita State University.

My grandmother was strong in character, strong in her home. Marie Anderson, the second child and only daughter among three brothers, was born in 1888 in Paola, KS. An extraordinary beauty, she married her high school sweetheart, Walter Reichard, in 1909. Having starred together in grand opera in Paola (he sang romantic tenor, she, soprano), my grandparents shared a love of music and the stage that has become a family heritage, playing itself out in new patterns in each successive generation.

The Reichards had three children, Drusilla Adele, born in 1910; Albert, 1912; and Lucy Elizabeth, my mother, in 1917. Moving to Wichita in 1926 (population 50,000), they weathered the early years of the Depression well. My grandfather worked for the Internal Revenue Service, while my grandmother created a home for her young family.

Among Marie's daily housekeeping chores were cooking and ironing, but not the laundry, which was sent out because Walter didn't want his wife doing this "demeaning" job. Ironing, however, was okay since it was "woman's work," as was cleaning his clothes by dipping them in benzene behind the garage! Marie became quite accomplished in the kitchen, learning from her mother-in-law how to cook with "cheap meats." Consequently, my Aunt Drue remembered that meals like stuffed beef heart, creamed sweet breads and boiled tongue with vegetables and meat sauce on potatoes were anticipated occasions. Unlike many other families, whose mothers cut the meat for dinner in the kitchen and brought it to the table, my grandfather carved at the table, presiding over meals, serving my grandmother first, no matter what kind of meat.

For entertainment, the family often drove "way out of town" on Sunday afternoons to watch daredevils jump out of biplanes at the airport. They also enjoyed company picnics, where the cakes were always made from scratch, and trips to Paola in a Chevrolet that topped out at 40 miles an hour. Most essential for the Reichard family, however, were movies and concerts, shared experiences that helped shape the children's interests and dreams.

Unexpectedly, Grandfather died on Dec. 28, 1932, marking the family's memories of the holiday season and leaving my grandmother to make her way in a world with severely limited opportunities for women. While Marie's eldest children were 23 and 20 years of age, my mother was just 15 when her father died. Drue had graduated from the University of Wichita with a degree in Education in the spring of 1932, and Al, now at WU studying Business Administration, would earn his degree in 1934.

After her husband's death, Marie lived on the money from his small insurance policy. Then, calling upon her inherent resourcefulness, she learned how to buy houses from owners who were in arrears for non-payment of taxes. She would bring the taxes up to date, sell the house back to the previous owner and then move on to the next
According to my aunt, Grammy was "the gentle type, but there was no deviation from her standards." Drusilla never remembered her raising her voice, yet she could be very firm, could "beat you with feathers." My mother once described Grammy this way: "Mother was very quiet, with Victorian values and manners. She was steadfast and had common sense with a practical sense she had acquired for managing money. She laughed a lot and always managed a good outlook with much courage. I never heard her ever complain about her circumstances, although she had to go it alone from age 44."

During the 1940's, Marie determined to use her domestic skills for the benefit of more than family and became the gracious and hospitable house mother of the Alpha Gamma Gamma fraternity (now Beta Theta Pi), 1845 N. Hillside. Calling upon her uncommon knowledge of etiquette, she regularly instructed on manners, introductions, and the proper use of tableware. After "Marie's boys" left the university, many returned, not only to visit, but to thank her for "the graces" that helped turn their former social awkwardness into self-confidence. Her work there deepened our family's tie to WU.

One of the wonderful and rather unusual things my grandparents provided their children was encouragement, along with the "best teacher in town," to pursue their performing talents. My aunt played valve trombone, and my uncle, slide trombone and trumpet. Drusilla, for instance, played in Thurlow Lieurance's orchestra at WU and in the Sorosis sorority (now Delta Delta Delta) Girls Band, for which she conducted and composed music. Both Drue and Al became quite accomplished and made extra money playing in dance bands both in and out of college. My mother took piano lessons, but the most important thing in her young life was dance.

"From nine years old on," my mother, Elizabeth, who was called "Liddy" by her friends, remembers, "I performed in a Kiddy Revue at the Uptown Theatre just about every Friday night, doing toe dances, tap routines and line numbers. As I grew older, I started performing in big dance programs, revues at the Miller and Orpheum Theatres and at local night clubs. During my junior year of high school, I was the drum majorette for our East High Band and Drum Corps. I loved leading the band and putting them through their maneuvers for school functions and downtown parades. I also danced almost every night at one club or another in floor shows, and usually got my homework done between shows. I got to bed many times between 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning, but had enough initiative to get up and go to school."

During my mother's senior year at East High, the Edler Cavaness School of Dance put together a road show with its own big band and different acts, made up of talented students from the school. My grandmother recognized my mom's talent and supported her decision to be part of this show even though it meant she would not graduate with the class of 1935. "We traveled for a year around the country," mom recalls, "playing many large, wonderful theatres, part of the Orpheum circuit, traveling from Oklahoma to Colorado, to Georgia and Florida. Then I returned to finish high school--and was never so glad to get home."

My mother has always been creative, finding expression early-on through dance, and later, through music composition and painting. One of her most endearing traits is her wont to play the "good audience," rewarding the storyteller, no matter how silly the tale, with her lyrical, totally infectious laugh.

Her exuberant love of life and appreciation for natural beauty are illustrated by my mother's description of "a wonderful memory of a still, cold night in Wichita," which evokes a lovely picture of her lifelong optimism: "It was right after a snowfall which left large snowdrifts all over the yards and along the curbings. The streetcars could not run so I walked in the middle of the street and down the streetcar tracks. The street lights had an amber glow half-covered with snow. There was no wind. It was peaceful and beautiful, and I was in love with life."

The Reichard sisters, separated by seven years of age and vastly different personalities, also held vastly different world views. My Aunt Drue, a 1928 East High School graduate, began her young adult life at the beginning of the 1930,s, and her interest in serious, liberal, intellectual subjects, along with her disinterest in marriage, never waned. In contrast, my mother's young adulthood marked the end of the decade, when, like many of her friends, she was preoccupied with looks, popularity, beauty contests, movie stars, how well a person danced, and marriage. While it may be unusual for two sisters co-existing under the same roof to be so opposite, together, they typified the era's diverse views of women. The new radio soap operas, for example, vacillated between depicting female characters who chose to make their own way in the world and those who found fulfillment through men, this from "Inventing the American Woman" (1986).

My mother married her Wichita dance partner, Jack Kincheloe, in Los Angeles in 1937. My beautiful and flamboyant parents worked as a professional dance team and traveled together, dancing in night clubs and theatres across the U.S. I was conceived on the dance circuit somewhere between L.A. and Dearborne, Mich., where I was born in 1942. My sister, Judy, arrived 15 months later in Louisville, Ken. Six months after that, my restless father asked my mother for a divorce.

Like her mother before her, my mother now called on inner strength and resourcefulness to pull herself and her small daughters through this hurtful time. With no real ties to any of the places she had performed, she took us to Minnesota, where my aunt and grandmother were then living.

My Aunt Drue's favorite Christmas memory occurred during these years, "from the days that are worth remembering." Dressed in rented red suit and beard, and chauffeured by her lifelong friend, Ivy Hildebrand, Drue played Santa for another family, then refilled her sack and headed over to our place. My aunt remembered "ho-hoing in as deep a voice as I could manage all the way up the stairs." When she opened the door, there I stood in front of mom and Judy, where I exclaimed, "Santa, you already left us all these presents!" Choking up, and with her voice starting to rise, Drue later credited Ivy for saving the day. "Santa," Ivy intervened, "you must be getting a cold, your voice is getting higher." Quickly diving to a lower pitch, Aunt Drue "unloaded the presents, and got out while I still had control."

Three years later, Mom, Grammy, Judy and I moved back to Wichita, where Mom worked during the week as the receptionist for WU President Harry Corbin's office and taught dance classes on Saturdays. Once in a while, I visited the president's campus home, where I played with his son, Harry, Jr. "Kim," my second grade "boyfriend."

During the school year, the four of us lived sedate and cozy, if not cramped, lives in a one-bedroom duplex near the university. A favorite place for Judy and me to explore was the WU science building, which we dared to enter by opening the exit door and crawling through the circular, interior fire escape. Once inside, we were simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the jars filled with floating specimens. Evenings were spent coloring or working on craft projects and Saturdays listening to radio programs like "Let's Pretend" and "The Lone Ranger." One Easter, Mom sewed twin dresses for us, complete with organdy pinafores. The dresses Judy's aqua, mine yellow weren't quite finished, but we wore them anyway, with Mom finishing the hems on the bus to church.

Each summer my grandmother, Judy and I took the train to Sauk Centre, Min., where my aunt lived. Along with our friends, we roamed and explored from morning until dark under the watchful eyes of Grammy and Aunt Drusilla, or "Annie Drue," as we called her. Annie Drue, who taught high school band for years before switching to English, like many female teachers of the day, did not marry, rather opting to end her seven-year relationship with Walter Duerksen, for whom WSU's fine arts center was named.

While my grandmother, a wonderful cook, tended to the domestic duties, Annie Drue spent countless hours with Judy and me, reading to us long into the night, passing on her intellectual curiosity and love of books, and tramping through the woods, teaching us to identify birds and appreciate nature. She was never too busy for swimming or fishing. One of my favorite memories is of Annie Drue's treasure chest, filled with books and toys. It was opened only on rainy days.

When I was 10, my mother married Clifford Anderson, a welcome and caring influence in my life. Three years later, they started a new family. First came Stephanie, and 15 months later, Christopher. Judy and I were crazy about our new sister and brother.

My high school and then college years at WSU were happy and carefree, filled with laughter, dances, football and basketball games, Doris Day movies, sorority, bridge in the student union, dates with a steady boyfriend, a few tears, and as little studying as possible. Despite this picture, I was not an aimless, social animal. For one thing, I couldn't wait to start working. At 16, I was the first of my friends to get a job, clerking at a downtown clothing store, where my charge account always exceeded my paycheck. For another, I put myself through college. Since my mother and stepfather had moved to California, I, again, lived with my grandmother, this time in a three-room apartment just two blocks from campus. I slept on Grammy's sofa and got through four years at WSU on student loans, my $1.15-an-hour job, and a wardrobe that belied my true fiscal status.

As a senior, I was swept off my feet by WSU's star quarterback. Six months after we met, we married; three months later, we graduated in 1964. With my undergraduate degree in English education, I taught for several years and then was startled to find myself the rising star in a Wichita advertising agency, winning awards as Creative Director and helping to build the business as Executive Vice-president. In 1982, I was recognized as Wichita's Advertising Woman of the Year.

After 13 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced, and it was my turn to find a way through the painful maze of personal loss. I later married my advertising mentor, Don Stephan, a 1959 WU graduate. Built on friendship and mutual respect, ours has been a long-standing and loving relationship.

Inspired by my aunt's love of learning, I, like her, returned to school in mid-life, earning my Master's degree in Liberal Studies from WSU in 1992. During the mid 1990's, my creative urgings shifted from advertising to interior decorating, and I now own and operate Showplace Designs, Wichita.

My sister, now Judy Fechtner, left Wichita in 1964 to become a flight attendant. Taking up residence in Illinois, she and her husband have raised a son, Marc. My half sister, Stephanie Ladd, a Los Angelean since 1970, is a therapist and the mother of my goddaughter, Chloe, born in 1996.

As I look back over my family history, I see repeating patterns of pain and loss, courage and resourcefulness, creativity and joy of life. And I realize that it is this unique matriarchy - my grandmother (1888-1975), aunt (1910-94), and mother (1917-), as well as my sisters, Judy (1943-), and Stephanie (1955-) - this circle of women that helps me define myself. I treasure, most especially, my grandmother's attention to the importance of home; my aunt's deep intellectual curiosity and independence; and my mother's boundless spirit and artistic talent. I also cherish Judy's steadfast devotion to those she loves and Stephanie's keen insights and unswerving support.

As different as we are, I see their reflections mirrored in me and in one another and hear their laughter inside me always. Surely, one could not have been without the others.

Submitted by Lynn Kincheloe Stephan

September 12, 1998 (for Marie Reichard)