USA Famous People of Kansas

Kansas Biographies

Walter Johnson baseball pitcher, Humboldt Walter Perry Johnson (November 6, 1887–December 10, 1946), nicknamed "The Big Train," was a right-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball between 1907 and 1927. One of the most celebrated players in baseball history, Johnson established several pitching records, some of which remained unbroken for nearly a century.

Walter Johnson was the second of six children born to Frank and Minnie (Perry) Johnson on a rural farm four miles west of Humboldt, Kansas. Although sometimes said to be of Swedish ancestry and referred to by sportwriters as the "The Big Swede", Johnson's ancestors came from the British Isles. Soon after he reached his fourteenth birthday, his family moved to California's Orange County in 1902. The Johnsons settled in the town of Olinda, a small oil boomtown located just east of Brea.  In his youth, the young Walter Johnson split his time between playing baseball, working in the nearby oil fields, and going horseback riding. Johnson later attended Fullerton High School where he struck out 27 batters during a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High School. He later moved to Idaho where he doubled as a telephone company employee and a pitcher for a local Weiser, Idaho-based baseball team in the Idaho State League. Johnson was spotted by a talent scout and eventually signed a contract with the Washington Senators on July 1907 at the age of nineteen. • Walter Johnson Books

Buster Keaton comedian, Piqua Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton VI (October 4, 1895 – February 1, 1966) was an American comic actor and filmmaker. Best known for his silent films, his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face". Keaton was recognized as the seventh-greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Keaton the 21st-greatest male actor of all time. Critic Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton's "extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." A 2002 worldwide poll by Sight & Sound ranked Keaton's The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the magazine's survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator. • Buster Keaton Books • Buster Keaton Films
Emmett Kelly clown, Sedan Emmett Leo Kelly (December 9, 1898 – March 28, 1979), a native of Sedan, Kansas, was an American circus performer, who created the memorable clown figure "Weary Willie," based on the hobos of the Depression era. Kelly began his career as a trapeze artist. By 1923, Emmett Kelly was working his trapeze act with John Robinson's circus when he met and married Eva Moore, another circus trapeze artist. They later performed together as the "Aerial Kellys" with Emmett still performing occasionally as a white face clown.

He started working as a clown full-time in 1931, and it was only after years of attempting to persuade the management that he was able to switch from a white face clown to the hobo clown that he had sketched ten years earlier while working at an art firm. "Weary Willie" was a tragic figure: a clown, who could usually be seen sweeping up the circus rings after the other performers. He tried but failed to sweep up the pool of light of a spotlight. His routine was revolutionary at the time: traditionally, clowns wore white face and performed slapstick stunts intended to make people laugh. Kelly did perform stunts too—one of his most famous acts was trying to crack a peanut with a sledgehammer—but as a tramp, he also appealed to the sympathy of his audience. • Emmett Kelly Books

Stanley Newcomb Kenton (December 15, 1911 – August 25, 1979) was a pianist who led a highly innovative, influential, and often controversial American jazz orchestra. In later years he was widely active as an educator.

Stan Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised first in Colorado and then in California. He learned piano as a child, and while still a teenager toured with various bands. He attended Bell High School, in Bell, California, where he graduated in 1930. In June 1941 he formed his own band, which developed into one of the best-known West Coast ensembles of the Forties. In the Mid 40's Kenton's Band and style became known as "The Wall of Sound", a tag later used by Phil Spector. Kenton played in the 1930s in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim, but his natural inclination was as a band leader. In 1941 he formed his first orchestra, which later was named after his theme song "Artistry in Rhythm". A competent pianist, influenced by Earl Hines, Kenton was much more important in the early days as an arranger and inspiration for his loyal sidemen. Although there were no major names in his first band (bassist Howard Rumsey and trumpeter Chico Alvarez come the closest), Kenton spent the summer of 1941 playing regularly before a very appreciative audience at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, CA. Influenced by Jimmie Lunceford (who, like Kenton, enjoyed high-note trumpeters and thick-toned tenors), the Stan Kenton Orchestra struggled a bit after its initial success. Its Decca recordings were not big sellers and a stint as Bob Hope's backup radio band was an unhappy experience; Les Brown permanently took Kenton's place. • Stan Kenton Website • Stan Kenton Discography • Stan Kenton Books

Omar Knedlik (1916–1989), was the inventor of the ICEE frozen drink. He was born and raised a poor farm boy in Barnes, Kansas in 1916. Knedlik was a World War II veteran who bought his first ice cream shop after the war. He owned several hotels and cars before moving to Coffeyville, Kansas, where he became the owner of a Dairy Queen in the late-1950s. Knedlik did not have a soda fountain, so he served semi-frozen bottled soft drinks. He found that they were an immensely popular, so he worked with a Dallas company to develop the ICEE machine. It took him five years to replicate the consistency in slushy soft drinks. In the mid-1960s, the first ICEE machines were sold in the United States.

In 1965, 7-Eleven bought some of the machines, calling its version the Slurpee. Knedlik and his family received royalty checks for about 17 years until his patent expired. He moved his family from Coffeyville to the bigger nearby town of Joplin, Missouri in 1983, when Knedlik developed kidney problems and needed dialysis. He died at age 73 in 1989. • Omar Knedlik Books

William Lear (1902 - 1978) One of the outstanding pioneers of aviation; lived in Wichita. In 1960, Lear moved to Switzerland and founded the Swiss American Aviation Company. In 1962 he sold Lear Incorporated to the Siegler Corporation after having failed to persuade its board to go into the aircraft manufacturing business. That company thereafter was known as Lear Siegler. Bill Lear next moved to Wichita, Kansas to manufacture the Lear Jet. On October 7, 1963, Lear Jet started test flights on the Learjet 23, the first mass produced business jet.

On April 10, 1967, all of Bill Lear's assets – he held approximately 60% of the company (US$27,000,000) – were acquired by the Gates Rubber Company of Denver, Colorado, United States. However, Lear remained on the board until April 2, 1969. Later, in 1969, the company was merged with Gates Aviation and the company name was changed to Gates Learjet Corporation.

In 1987, the Gates Learjet was acquired by Integrated Acquisition and the next year the name was changed to Learjet Corporation. By January 1989 all production had been moved from the Tucson facility back to Wichita. The next year, 1990, Bombardier Aerospace purchased the Learjet Corporation. The aircraft were then marketed as the "Bombardier Learjet Family".• William Lear Books

Harold Lloyd actor, Burchard Harold Clayton Lloyd, Sr. (April 20, 1893 – March 8, 1971) was an American film actor and producer, most famous for his silent comedies.

Harold Lloyd ranks alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as one of the most popular and influential film comedians of the silent film era. Lloyd made nearly 200 comedy films, both silent and "talkies," between 1914 and 1947. He is best known for his "Glasses Character", a resourceful, success-seeking go-getter who was perfectly in tune with 1920s era America.

His films frequently contained "thrill sequences" of extended chase scenes and daredevil physical feats, for which he is best remembered today. Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the street in Safety Last! is one of the most enduring images in all of cinema. Lloyd did many of these dangerous stunts himself, despite having injured himself in 1919 during the filming of Haunted Spooks when an accident with a prop bomb resulted in the loss of the thumb and index finger of his right hand (the injury was disguised on film with the use of a special prosthetic glove, though the glove often did not go by unnoticed). Although Lloyd's individual films were not as commercially successful as Charlie Chaplin's on average, he was far more prolific (releasing twelve feature films in the 1920s while Chaplin released just three), and made more money overall ($15.7 million to Chaplin's $10.5 million). • Harold Lloyd Books • Harold Lloyd Films

Edgar Lee Masters (Garnett, Kansas, August 23, 1868 - Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, March 5, 1950) was an American poet, biographer, and dramatist. He is the author of Spoon River Anthology, The New Star Chamber and Other Essays, Songs and Satires, The Great Valley, The Serpent in the Wilderness An Obscure Tale, The Spleen, Mark Twain: A Portrait, Lincoln: The Man, and Illinois Poems. In all, Masters published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman.

Born on August 23, 1868 to Emma J. Dexter and Hardin Wallace Masters in Garnett, Kansas, his father had briefly moved to set up a law practice. The family soon moved back to his paternal grandparents' farm near Petersburg in Menard County, Illinois. In 1880 they moved to Lewistown, Illinois, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. The culture around Lewistown, in addition to the town's cemetery at Oak Hill, and the nearby Spoon River were the inspirations for many of his works, most notably Spoon River Anthology, his most famous and acclaimed work. Spoon River was Masters's revenge on small-town hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. It gained a huge popularity, but shattered his position as a respectable member of establishment. • Edgar Lee Masters Books

Hattie McDaniel (1895 - 1952) The first black woman to win an Academy Award; won for her role in “Gone with the Wind”; born in Wichita. McDaniel is remembered as the first black to win an Academy Award, but her lengthy career also included work in theater, radio, and television. Jackson has done extensive research on her career, but goes beyond straight biography when he uses her story to illustrate the struggles of black entertainers and the pressure they must have felt at being caught between the need to work and the increasing demands of black activists that they reject available but stereotyped roles. Although the bare facts of McDaniel's life and career make a relatively slim book, the occasional broader perspective provides some interesting insights. - Barbara E. Kemp, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman • Hattie McDaniel Books • Gone with the Wind
William C. Menninger psychiatrist, Claire Menninger (1899-1966) was a co-founder with his brother Karl and his father of The Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, which is an internationally known center for treatment of behavioral disorders.

William Menninger was involved with the Boy Scouts of America's Sea Scouts program in the 1930s. He was skipper of the S.S.S. Kansan, which was the National Flagship for 1931 and 1933. The skipper's manual he wrote for the Kansas Sea Scouts was later used as the basis for the BSA's published Handbook for Skippers. He was also be a member of the National Sea Scout Committee during this time. All three of his sons, Roy W. Menninger, Philip B. Menninger, and W. Walter Menninger are Eagle Scouts and recipients of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

William Claire Menninger was born on October 15, 1899, in Topeka, Kansas. He graduated from Washburn University in 1919 and entered the Cornell University College of Medicine, graduating in 1924. He married Catherine Wright on Dec. 11, 1925. After completing a two-year internship at Bellvue Hospital, he studied psychiatry at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1927. • William C. Menninger Books

Charlie Parker (1920 - 1955) One of the most influential improvising soloists in jazz, and a central figure in the development of bop in the 1940s; grew up in Kansas City. Parker played a leading role in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique, and improvisation based on harmonic structure. Parker's innovative approaches to melody, rhythm, and harmony exercised enormous influence on his contemporaries. Several of Parker's songs have become standards, including "Billie's Bounce", "Anthropology", "Ornithology", and "Confirmation". He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Although many Parker recordings demonstrate dazzling virtuosic technique and complex melodic lines – such as "Ko-Ko", "Kim", and "Leap Frog" – he was also one of the great blues players. His themeless blues improvisation "Parker's Mood" represents one of the most deeply affecting recordings in jazz. At various times, Parker fused jazz with other musical styles, from classical to Latin music, blazing paths followed later by others • Charlie Parker Website • Charlie Parker Discography.• Charlie Parker Books
Gordon Parks - Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was a groundbreaking American photographer, musician, poet, novelist, journalist, activist and film director. He is best remembered for his photo essays for Life magazine and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft

Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of Sarah (née Ross) and Jackson Parks. Parks was married and divorced three times. Parks; married Sally Alvis in Washington, D.C., 1933 (divorced, 1961); married Elizabeth Campbell, 1962 (divorced, 1973); married Genevieve Young (an editor), 1973 (divorced, 1979). For many years, Parks was romantically involved with the railroad heiress and designer Gloria Vanderbilt.

Parks had four children: David, Leslie, and Toni Parks Parsons. His oldest son, Gordon Jr., was killed in a plane crash in 1979. Parks had two grandsons: Alain and Gordon III, and was honored to be named the godfather of Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.

Parks lived in the fashionable New York address of 860 United Nations Plaza on the east side. He died of cancer at the age of 93. • Gordon Parks Books

Zasu Pitts actress, Parsons (January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963) (pronounced /?ze?su? ?p?ts/) was an American film actress who starred in many silent dramas, although later, her career digressed to comedy sound films. She overcame her unglamorous looks and wallflower tendencies by using them to craft her stage and screen persona in scores of comedies.

Her unusual first name was coined from parts of the names "Eliza" and "Susan," female relatives who both wanted Pitts' mother to name the child after them. In many film credits and articles, her name was rendered as Zazu Pitts or Zasu Pitts. Though her name is commonly mispronounced */?zæzu?/, in her 1930s film shorts with Thelma Todd (see below), Todd clearly pronounced it /?ze?su?/ ZAY-soo. However, her name was consistently pronounced /?ze?zu?/ ZAY-zoo during her recurrent guest appearances on the Fibber McGee and Molly show in 1939. • Zasu Pitts Books

Damon Runyon (October 4, 1880 – December 10, 1946) was a newspaperman and writer.

He was best known for his short stories celebrating the world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. To New Yorkers of his generation, a "Damon Runyon character" evoked a distinctive social type from the Brooklyn or Midtown demi-monde. The adjective "Runyonesque" refers to this type of character as well as to the type of situations and dialog that Runyon depicted. He spun humorous tales of gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters, few of whom go by "square" names, preferring instead colorful monikers such as "Nathan Detroit," "Big Jule," "Harry the Horse," "Good Time Charley," "Dave the Dude," or "The Seldom Seen Kid." Runyon wrote these stories in a distinctive vernacular style: a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, almost always in present tense, and always devoid of contractions. A passage from "Tobias the Terrible", collected in More than Somewhat (1937) illustrates Runyon's memorable prose:

Damon Runyon was born as Alfred Damon Runyan to a family of newspapermen in Manhattan, Kansas. His grandfather was a newspaper printer from New Jersey who had relocated to Manhattan, KS in 1855, and his father was editor of his own newspaper in the town. • Damon Runyon Books

Barry Sanders Wichita • Barry David Sanders (born July 16, 1968(1968-07-16)) is a former American football running back who spent all of his professional career with the Detroit Lions in the NFL. Sanders is best known for being one of the most prolific running backs in NFL history, and left the game just short of the all-time rushing record. Sanders is widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game, and certainly the most elusive.

A Wichita, Kansas native, Sanders attended Wichita North High School. Sanders did not play running back until the fourth game of his senior year in 1985. He rushed for 1,322 yards in the final seven games of the season, which earned him all-state honors. He was, however, overlooked by most college recruiters because of his 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) size. He chose Oklahoma State out of the few scholarship offers made to him. • Barry Sanders Books

Eugene W. Smith  Wichita William Eugene Smith (December 20, 1918, Wichita, Kansas – October 15, 1978, Tucson, Arizona) was an American photojournalist known for his refusal to compromise professional standards and his brutally vivid World War II photographs.

Smith graduated from Wichita North High School in 1936. He began his career by taking pictures for two local newspapers, The Wichita Eagle (morning circulation) and the Beacon (evening circulation). He moved to New York City and began work for Newsweek and became known for his incessant perfectionism and thorny personality. Smith was fired from Newsweek for refusing to use medium format cameras and joined Life Magazine in 1939. He soon resigned from Life, too. In 1942 he was wounded while simulating battle conditions for Parade magazine.

As a correspondent for Ziff-Davis Publishing and then Life again, Smith entered World War II on the front lines of the island-hopping American offensive against Japan, photographing U.S. Marines and Japanese prisoners of war at Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. On Okinawa, Smith was hit by mortar fire. After recovering, he continued at Life and perfected the photo essay from 1947 to 1954. • Eugene W. Smith Books

William E. Stafford - William Edgar Stafford (January 17, 1914 – August 28, 1993) was an American poet and pacifist, and the father of poet and essayist Kim Stafford. He was appointed the twentieth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970.

Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, the oldest of four children in a highly literate family. During the Depression, his family moved from town to town in an effort to find work for his father. Stafford helped contribute to family income by delivering newspapers, working in sugar beet fields, raising vegetables, and working as an electrician's apprentice.

He graduated from high school in the town of Liberal in 1933. After attending junior college, he received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937. He was drafted into the United States armed forces in 1941, while pursuing his master's degree at the University of Kansas, when he became a conscientious objector • William E. Stafford Books

John Cameron Swayze (April 4, 1906 – August 15, 1995) was a popular news commentator and game show panelist in the United States during the 1950s.

Born in Wichita, Kansas the son of a wholesale drug salesman, Swayze first sought to make his way as an actor but his move to Broadway in 1929 was derailed by the scarcity of acting roles following Wall Street's stock market crash.

Swayze returned to the Midwest and hired on with the Kansas City Journal Post as a reporter.

From there Swayze graduated to radio doing news updates for Kansas City's KMBC in 1940 and reportedly, an experimental early television newscast. Four years later, Swayze went farther west, to Los Angeles and Hollywood where NBC hired him for its western news division before moving him to its New York news operation in 1947.

During 1948 Swayze provided voice-over work for the 'Camel Newsreel Theatre', an early television news program that broadcast Movietone News newsreels. • John Cameron Swayze Books

Clyde Tombaugh (1906 - 1997) The astronomer who discovered the planet Pluto; grew up in BurdetteClyde Tombaugh took a unique arc through the world of astronomy. Lowell Observatory hired him precisely because he was a Kansas farm boy without academic qualifications and would be thrilled to work for peanuts on a task that most astronomers considered futile. Tombaugh was indeed thrilled by the chance to observe the sky full-time. He was motivated by a basic deep love of astronomy that never left him amidst all the twists and frustrations of his further career. There are few biographies of astromoners in which the sheer joy of astronomy speaks so clearly. Levy also does justice to the scientific challenges involved in searching for Pluto. But Tombaugh's systematic sky survey had larger, cosmological implications: he was seeing the clumpy distribution of galaxies and challenged Edwin Hubble's opinion that the galaxies were distributed more uniformly. Tombaugh also had an adventure in pioneer rocketry, spending several years at White Sands in the 1950s, helping Von Braun's team develop some basic techniques that would become familiar to the public watching the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo programs. • Clyde Tombaugh Books
Vivian Vance actress, Cherryvale (July 26, 1909 – August 17, 1979) was an American award winning television and theater actress and singer. Often referred to as “TV’s most beloved second banana,” she is best known for her role as Ethel Mertz, sidekick to Lucille Ball on the American television sitcom I Love Lucy, and as Vivian Bagley on The Lucy Show.

Born Vivian Roberta Jones in Cherryvale, Kansas, Vance was the second of six children born to Robert Jones and Euphemia Ragan. When she was six years old her family moved to Independence, Kansas, where she eventually began her dramatic studies at Independence High School under the tutelage of Anna Ingleman, the drama instructor. William Inge was a classmate and fellow cast member in play productions at the school. Her love of acting clashed with her mother's strict religious beliefs, and it wasn't too long before Vance, nicknamed "Viv" by friends, became very rebellious, often sneaking out of her bedroom and staying out after curfew. She soon changed her surname to Vance (after folklorist Vance Randolph) and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to find work as an actress. Vance was a founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theatre, where she played a vamp in "This Thing Called Love" and a nun in "The Cradle Song," the local theatre community helped pay her way to New York to study under Eva Le Gallienne. • Vivian Vance Books • Vivian Vance Films

William Allen White (February 10, 1868 – January 29, 1944) was a renowned American newspaper editor, politician, and author. Between World War I and World War II White became the iconic middle American spokesman for thousands throughout the United States.

Born in Emporia, Kansas, White moved to El Dorado with his parents, Allen and Mary Ann Hatten White, where he spent the majority of his childhood. He attended the College of Emporia and University of Kansas and in 1892 started work at The Kansas City Star as an editorial writer.

White purchased his hometown newspaper, the Emporia Gazette for $3,000 in 1895. He rocketed to national fame and influence in the Republican Party with an August 16, 1896, editorial entitled "What's the Matter With Kansas?" The paper is still run by the descendants of White.

White developed a friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s until Roosevelt's death in 1919. Roosevelt spent several nights at White's Wight and Wight-designed home, Red Rocks, during trips across the United States. The house is now a museum and is on the National Register of Historic Places. • William Allen White Books

Charles E. Whittaker jurist, Troy Charles Evans Whittaker (February 22, 1901–November 26, 1973) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1957 to 1962.

Whittaker was born on a farm near Troy, Kansas, and attended school until he dropped out in the ninth grade. He spent the next two years hunting, trapping and farming, but developed an interest in law by reading newspaper articles about criminal trials. He applied to the Kansas City School of Law (currently the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law) and gained admission with the condition that he first acquire a high school education. He spent two years working, and taking high school courses from a private tutor before enrolling. While he was a student at the school, from 1922-1924, Harry S. Truman was a classmate of his. He received his law degree in 1924. • Charles E. Whittaker Books