For many Americans, the chance to move from poverty to wealth is just a dream

7% Chance a Kansas City child will move from bottom fifth of income to top fifth, in his or her lifetime.

13th Kansas City's ranking on list of most income-segregated cities in America

51% Number of Kansas City children living in single-parent homes


Allison Gibbons has lived a lifetime of problems.

A difficult childhood in a broken home. An eating disorder, drug abuse, depression, alcohol — “obviously I was self-medicating,” she says.

She is the mother of a young son whose father is in jail.

Today she works for a better life, with dreams of becoming a nurse.

“I know it’s going to be a struggle,” she says.

It’s a strain Mary Jo Vernon understands.

Thirty years ago she was a single mother with three small children and three jobs, hoping others in the grocery store didn’t notice her food stamps.

“I was trying to keep my nostrils above the waterline,” Vernon recalls.

Education, hard work and public support marked the road back. Today, Vernon earns a six-figure salary as Platte County’s health director — a married, doting grandmother with grown, thriving children.

Mary Jo Vernon embodies the American dream, the deeply held belief that anyone who works hard and follows the rules can succeed.

Allison Gibbons

Yet studies show that dream has been fading for decades.

Now experts believe meaningful mobility may be dangerously close to disappearing entirely. A wealth gap and stagnant growth have made success increasingly an accident of birth — more like feudal Europe than can-do America.

Social scientists are scrambling to learn why. And they’re advancing theories: financially divided cities, missing fathers, crumbling social institutions, broken politics. Those long-standing problems now take on a heightened urgency.

It’s clear the old questions and answers have failed, at least in part. Even Vernon’s success shows how far apart the rungs on America’s ladder to success are spaced.

“It feels some days like the American dream is slipping away,” she said.

Better than our parents?

Economists, politicians and academics have spent years examining the growing wealth gap among the rich, the middle class and the poor in America. They found that real income for all but the highest earners has barely grown for three generations.

Less noticed is the ongoing slump in social mobility, the ability to transcend one’s circumstances and achieve greater success.

Americans see rags-to-riches opportunity as their birthright.

“Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise,” former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican, said just a few years ago.

Yet studies repeatedly suggest Americans face steeper odds of escaping poverty than their counterparts in other modern economies. Some studies show children in France, Japan and even Pakistan stand a better chance than U.S. children to rise above their parents.

“There are an awful lot of people who are struggling, who will never get out of poverty,” says Stephanie Kelton, an economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“It’s roughly three times harder to get from the bottom into the middle, or from the middle into the top, in the U.S. as it is in a place like Japan or some of the Nordic countries.”

Americans, President Barack Obama said last December, think “their kids won’t be better off than they were. … This is the defining challenge of our time.”

He and others have offered some responses: a higher minimum wage, more job training and education, a broader social safety net.

Experts worry that such efforts stumble because policymakers rely on outdated assumptions and ineffective repairs.

What if stable, two-parent families and financially integrated neighborhoods are more important for mobility than nutrition programs or job training? How might communities of faith and fellowship bind neighborhoods closer together?

Fully answering those questions will prove enormously difficult, researchers caution.

“It will be 10 years or more before we have anything close to a consensus” on reasons and remedies for social immobility, said Lane Kenworthy, a sociology and political science professor at the University of Arizona.

Yet finding the answers is critical.

“Americans can tolerate a lot of inequality compared with people of other nations,” write researchers Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “but only if everyone has a chance at upward mobility.”

Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor at New York University, agrees: “This realization that the United States … is unique in how low its level of mobility is, that’s kind of eye-opening to a lot of people.”

Rich streets, poor streets

Mary Jo Vernon

Mary Jo Vernon’s journey from poverty to success began early. She grew up in a home built by her father, helping to care for a sister with Down syndrome.

“My goals were pretty small,” she recalls.

Her challenges grew dramatically as an adult when her marriage fell apart.

“Just trying to keep the lights on and water running and the groceries coming in was all I could do,” she said.

Vernon and her children might have fallen into a poverty trap too deep to escape. It’s a desperation all too familiar to Bianca Hunter, a single mother raised in a single-parent home.

“It’s almost impossible. It really is,” she said. “That’s why people are so bitter and angry and why kids don’t get the attention from their parents that they need.”

A Kansas City area child has just a 7 percent chance of moving from the bottom fifth of earners to the top fifth, according to a landmark 2013 study by the Harvard University Equality of Opportunity Project.

The national average — 8 percent — is less than half that of Denmark.

A child born in the bottom fifth of incomes in Memphis has just a 2.8 percent chance of reaching the top fifth, the worst urban performance in the nation. By contrast, a similar child in San Jose, Calif., has a 12.9 percent chance of achieving the top rank of earners.

“The U.S. is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations,” the Harvard researchers write, “and others in which few children escape poverty.”

One explanation for that pattern is a history of racial segregation. Places with mobility problems, like Kansas City, often have a history of dividing the races.

Researchers increasingly believe economic segregation — the tendency of wealthy people to live with others equally wealthy, or for the poor to live with other poor — better explains why social mobility stalls.

“There are some places where growing up poor has less of an impact on kids,” Sharkey says. “They don’t live apart from the rich.”

A 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded that “the most economically segregated U.S. metro areas — those where the very rich and the very poor live far from each other — are also the least economically mobile, and vice versa.”

A wider range of incomes within a closely knit neighborhood, some researchers believe, builds the aspirations among the poorer children. At the same time, it helps convince higher earners to offer neighbors a hand up with better schools, health care and other services.

Vernon thinks her diverse neighborhood played a role in her own escape.

“Exposure to range of incomes and wealth gives children a broad perspective on life,” she says.

For decades, by contrast, Kansas City’s poor and wealthy spread away from each other in isolated pockets, driven by developers, cheap land and a car culture.

“Poverty is highly concentrated in the core of the Kansas City region,” the Brookings Institution concluded after the 2000 census.

A 2012 study said Kansas City’s “residential income segregation index” — a measure of the isolation of its poor — was higher than St. Louis, Boston, Chicago and the national average. It’s the 13th biggest residential income gap among the country’s 30 largest metro areas.

Some of that is changing.

A few local communities have relatively strong mixes of income levels. Between 2005 and 2009, figures show, residents in one part of Grandview had the most equal incomes in the nation. Olathe has a wide range of incomes in similar neighborhoods.

Both communities are likely to foster mobility better than places with more segregated incomes. Salt Lake City’s incomes, for example, are also among the most equal in America, and that area is near the top of most economically mobile cities in America.

Atlanta, by contrast, is highly unequal — and immobile.

One answer to social immobility in the Kansas City region, then, may be to use zoning, incentives and regulations to develop neighborhoods with fully mixed incomes.

Some wealthier Kansas Citians may be drawn to such an environment.

Deanne Ricke

Deanne Ricke of Leawood is raising two teenage sons, children who have enjoyed the amenities a suburban upbringing implies. She has worked hard to carve out a successful career as a communications and marketing specialist and author.

She wants her children to do better than she has, but through health and fulfillment, not necessarily material success.

“Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t do (my children) a disservice by bringing them up in a wealthier neighborhood,” she says.

“Because — we call it the bubble. The Johnson County bubble, where everybody is affluent that they know, and it just feels like it’s easy and it’s natural.

“It isn’t easy and it isn’t natural, and that’s what I’ve tried to impart to them.”

The schoolhouse door

Mary Jo Vernon’s recovery began when she returned to school — while raising three children.

“They couldn’t have Nikes,” she says. “They couldn’t have Jordache.”

But the quartet would often study together in the evenings, giving the young students an early lesson in focus and discipline, key skills learned in the home and at school.

Kansas City’s struggles with providing K-12 public education are well known. Decades of underperforming public schools provide at least a partial explanation for lower social and economic mobility in the community.

“One thing we know matters is schools,” said Kenworthy, the social scientist. Good schools “do help equalize opportunity.”

In 2012, the 34-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the U.S. was one of just three member countries spending less on disadvantaged students, on average, than wealthier students.

“The most able teachers rarely work in disadvantaged schools in the United States, the opposite of what occurs in countries with high-performing education systems,” the OECD declared.

Stumbles in K-12 education hurt social mobility, some researchers believe, because they put college out of reach.

“A college degree can be a ticket out of poverty,” the Brookings Institution recently concluded. Vernon’s experience helps prove the point.

The claim is controversial.

Almost everyone agrees a man or woman with a college degree typically earns more than someone with only a high school diploma. But they say many disadvantaged students won’t finish college because they’re poorly prepared by public schools.

Families and parents

In 2012, according to data compiled by Kids Count, 51 percent of all children in Kansas City lived in households like the one Mary Jo Vernon headed — just one parent.

The national average is 35 percent.

Researchers increasingly believe stable, two-parent families are critical for social mobility.

“Having just one parent makes it harder,” says Kenworthy.

The Harvard research team is blunt. “The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure, such as the fraction of single parents in the area,” it writes.

Most often, those single-parent families are run by a woman.

Conservatives say the breakdown of the traditional family explains much of the poverty trap, providing a rationale for making it harder to divorce and easier to deny benefits to single parents.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has organized seminars on the topic and urged policies and legislation promoting two-parent families. Conservatives have suggested caps on benefits for single mothers or grants for low-income families with two parents.

Others say single-parent homes compare poorly because a second income is missing.

“You cannot do well in school if you’re hungry,” says Alice Lieberman, a researcher and professor at the University of Kansas. “You cannot work and function adequately if you’re hungry.”

Shanna Love

Some researchers say the number of adults in a home matters less than stability and positive role models. Children with bickering parents, for example, may be more harmful to mobility than conflict-free single-parent households.

Shauna Love of Kansas City, 29, grew up in a home without a father. She now raises two children without a spouse.

It’s tough.

“You definitely need two parents to raise a child,” she says. “It is so much harder by yourself.”


Asked to explain her triumph over poverty, Mary Jo Vernon mentions education and work.

Then: “My faith. My groundedness in a power greater than myself.”

Social mobility researchers aren’t completely sure why, but there is evidence that moving up the economic ladder comes easier in communities organized around faith — churches, synagogues, other gathering places for worship.

Salt Lake City, a community largely organized around the Mormon religion, is highly mobile.

Yet the influence of a church on social mobility is complicated.

Churches remain important institutions in many poor neighborhoods, for example. Yet mobility is a problem because of other factors — education, family structure and the like.

Some communities considered more secular are still socially mobile. Boston and San Francisco are in the top 10 of socially mobile cities, Harvard says, but a Gallup poll puts both near the bottom of the list of the nation’s most religious cities.

That suggests the influence of a church may be part of a broader picture, experts say. The goal is a strong community. Active engagement in civic life, strong social structures in neighborhoods, an ethic of shared sacrifice and ambition all contribute to socially mobile populations.

Writes Brad Wilcox for the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “Giving poor kids a shot at the American dream may depend on the nation’s capacity to revive communitarian virtues and institutions” — churches, schools, neighborhoods.

Maintaining strong community structures grows more difficult as a city or region diversifies. Some in Salt Lake City fear poverty and social dysfunction are on the rise, threatening the city’s ability to remain near the top of the list of socially mobile cities.


Mary Jo Vernon had a strong faith, help from sympathetic friends and neighbors, a strong work ethic and a little luck.

She also had help from the the community and government.

“I applied for food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, I got rental assistance,” she said. “Medicaid. I got a Pell grant to go to school.”

While social scientists agree on what helps mobility — economically integrated neighborhoods, stable families, good schools — they say fully fixing the problem will require a broader approach than tackling any one concern.

“What does it mean to be poor in Kansas City?” asked NYU’s Sharkey.

“Does it mean you’re growing up in a place with a higher level of violence where kids are under constant stress? Does it mean you’re exposed to higher levels of air pollution, and unclean water, and toxins in the soil?

“These are questions that are fundamental to ask. “It’s not just ‘Are there people with low income there?’ It’s ‘How does that poverty affect all the aspects of that family’s life?’”

Indeed, those studying social mobility — and those fighting to improve it — worry the emphasis on family, neighborhoods and community may mean less support for other traditional tools: nutrition programs, for example, or rigorous job training and job creation.

“There are three reliable ways to help or ‘lift’ the bottom,” writes economist Jared Bernstein. “Subsidies that increase the poor’s economic security today, investment in their future productivity and targeted job opportunities at decent wages.”

It involves more than just cash benefits. Recipients, some believe, must be convinced government programs can help.

Bianca Hunter

“I felt like more than dirt,” Vernon recalled. “But you know what? When people use it for what it’s designed for, it’s a very good tool.”

At the same time, government aid can be a trap — a snare acknowledged by some who get benefits today.

Bianca Hunter is studying to be a radiologist. To pursue her education — and feed her son — Hunter relies partly on government assistance, just as her mother did.

Generational dependence on government aid is a common feature of uniformly poor neighborhoods, researchers say, because information on available support programs travels quickly from parent to child and from neighbor to neighbor. Eventually it becomes a multigenerational habit.

“You have people who settle,” says Hunter. “I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to depend on the government.”

Politics of mobility

All of this leaves policymakers in a tough spot.

What works in one city might not work in another.

Addressing any one shortfall might not change the others.

Liberals and conservatives increasingly say social mobility should top the country’s to-do list.

Yet researchers deeply doubt the political class has the patience or imagination to carry out better ideas.

“All of the areas that you talk about that might predict mobility — neighborhoods, schools, health care, infrastructure — we could shore some of those things up,” KU’s Lieberman says.

“But we do not have the political will and wealthy people do not have the desire.”

Still, people who have battled the poverty trap — Shauna Love, Mary Jo Vernon, Allison Gibbons, Bianca Hunter — show that while the American dream may be in trouble, American dreamers remain.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Love said. “But remember: It’s your village. You’re controlling the village.

“You can do anything you set your mind to.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

Two shot in Kansas City attempted carjacking

Breaking News

Updated: 2014-06-01T03:35:06Z

Kansas City police on Saturday evening were investigating a double shooting that they said began as an attempted car jacking.

Read more Breaking News

Police responded to a report of shooting at 107th Terrace and Sycamore Avenue and found two people with gunshot wounds. Police said neither person suffered life-threatening injuries.

No arrests had been made.

Mará Rose Williams, mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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More than 50,000 turn out for a soggy Rockfest

Three downpours combined with 90-degree temperatures to turn Kansas City’s 22nd Rockfest into a bit of a mudfest on Saturday.

Fifteen bands played as more than 50,000 fans converged on Penn Valley Park around the Liberty Memorial to watch, listen and enjoy.

Most didn’t seem to mind the sporadic soakings, which turned grassy areas around the two stages into mud ponds.

Maybe it was the seduction of the thunderous, electronic rhythms. But as tradition would have it, the moshing in the pits in front of the stages, and the crowd surfing throughout, went on as expected.

It was a good time for most, but not all.

Alyssa Caperson, 17, of Leavenworth said this was her fourth year attending what has been billed as the largest outdoor, single-day music festival in the country.

This year, she and friend Ben Churchill, 18, of Leavenworth left the 10-hour festival early — four hours after the first band began playing at noon.

“I’ve never left this concert before it ended,” Caperson said. “But it was just a muddy mess in there. It’s nasty. People are slinging mud on everyone. There are people in there so covered in mud the only thing you can see are their eyeballs.”

Mud was splattered from head to toe on Tawney Reeves, 28, of Excelsior Springs and Ashley Kirk, 26, of Cameron, Mo.

It was no big deal, they said.

“It’s a lot of fun and its cheap,” said Reeves. The women each paid $30 for their tickets. “Usually the average concert is going to run you about $70 a ticket,” Reeves said.

AEG Live, entertainment presenters, has brought the concert to Liberty Memorial for 10 years. In addition to hearing the bands — 14 national and one local — concertgoers could visit a vendor village where beer flowed freely. And they could ride a zip line over the park.

March of Dimes Bikers For Babies collected donations just outside the park gates. Last year they raised nearly $20,000, but totals for this year weren’t announced Saturday.

Joe Litvag, executive producer of Rockfest and AEG’s senior vice president, said people started lining up at the gates by 7 a.m.

“Rockfest in Kansas City has become a rite of passage. We get the kids of people who came 20 years ago. It’s kind of a tradition in the rock world in Kansas City to kick off the summer.”

For the most part, “It has been a pretty well-behaved crowd,” Litvag said. “But when you have more than 50,000 people — well, there were a few alcohol-related incidents. But nothing unusual.”

Police reported only one arrest as of 9 p.m., for trespassing.

As for the muddy park, Litvag said if park officials say the grounds are ruined, as happened at the 2010 concert later dubbed “Mudfest,” then AEG will reseed the lawn.

“It may not be everyone’s cup of tea musically,” Litvag said, “but we try to put on an event that is fun, and leave the park in the condition we found it.”

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Sporting KC's winless streak reaches five games with 1-0 loss to D.C. United

The two overriding themes of Sporting Kansas City’s last five games — injuries and lack of victories — didn’t relent on Saturday in Washington D.C.

Fabian Espindola curled in a cross toward the far post that drifted into the net in the 28th minute, the lone tally in D.C. United’s 1-0 victory over Sporting KC at RFK Stadium.

Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, perhaps reacting to a run by D.C. United striker Eddie Johnson, came out off his line.

By the time Kronberg realized the ball was drifting on target, it was too late.

“The guy got a cross in and he misjudged it. You’ll have to ask him what happened,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “From my perspective he overran it and it went in.”

As for the injuries, defender Aurelien Collin aggravated a previous hamstring ailment and departed in the ninth minute in favor of 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown.

The Lee’s Summit teenager didn’t fare so well in his MLS debut at Chicago on May 18, conceding a penalty kick and leaving with a red card.

He fared much better on Saturday. He adapted to the speed of the game and more than held his own throughout the match. In fact, Vermes had nothing but praise for his squad despite the loss.

Sporting KC is missing three players (Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Lawrence Olum) to international duty at the moment. Three more (Ike Opara, Peterson Joseph and Chance Myers) are out for the season with injuries. Then Collin left early on Saturday.

“The team played very well. Energy, tactically… with as many guys as we miss within our team and how many guys are out of position, the resemblance to the way we always play is right there,” Vermes said. “For all the guys giving everything they have to get a result, I have absolutely nothing but praise for the guys.”

It wasn’t the loss that irked Vermes moments after the match concluded. He instead focused on the pace of the match, or lack thereof.

“The only frustration in the game was the fact the game not managed well by the referees. The management of the game was horrendous,” Vermes said. “The fact from the start of the second half, the slowing of the game down and taking until the 90th minute before you deal with it, it’s not good enough. As a fan, it’s not something I would want to watch.”

Vermes then cut off a reporter’s question and continued to vent his frustration before allowing the reporter to continue.

“To watch a game where every time there’s a foul and a player kicks the ball away, there’s a rule against it in the rule book. And players do it time and time again, you guys are asking the wrong questions,” Vermes said. “You ask what’s frustrating? That’s what’s frustrating. … We controlled the game and for 90 minutes we want to play and the game’s not managed, and I don’t understand how that’s not a topic of discussion.”

Sporting KC (5-5-4) lost to DC United for the first time since May 5, 2010, and fell behind DC United to third place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Sporting KC will try to end its winless streak on Saturday at Houston. It’s one of just two June MLS matches for the club — both away from home — as MLS goes on hiatus for a few weeks because of the World Cup.

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Little legs learn to love kid-sized triathlons

Kids soccer? So last decade.

If blocked-off streets Saturday near the Gladstone Community Center were any indication, the weekend sport to prod children of 2014 into is the triathlon.

Swim a little. Bike a little. Run to the finish line.

In 20 minutes, more or less.

About 170 children, ages 6 to 14, huffed through the seventh annual Kids Triathlon, which kicked off what will be a busy summer of triathlon events for Murphy Corum.

“It wasn’t my favorite thing when I first started” several years ago, said Murphy, 12. “Then I began to love it.”

Meet his mother, Jennifer Corum — the ultimate Triathlon Mom. She helps coach a half-dozen kids on Murphy’s team, which is affiliated with Z3 Triathlon. The organization serves young triathletes through satellite groups in eight states.

They have their own uniforms.

“It’s about more than being a triathlete,” said Jennifer Corum, who is director of curriculum for the Park Hill School District. “Z3 teaches the seven pillars of character.”

Integrity, respect, humility, accountability, sportsmanship, safety and goal setting.

The local Z3 group has been practicing twice a week, sometimes cycling around the airport downtown, and soon will travel to Des Moines, Iowa, for Z3 Camp.

The secret to success in kids triathlon? “Pacing,” said Murphy. Swim too hard at the start, and a child will be gassed while lacing up shoes before hopping on the bike.

The swimming portion for the 12-14 age group covered 200 yards. Then followed three miles on bikes and a quarter-mile run. The best posted times under 19 minutes.

They’re not racing head to head, but hustling in all directions at different times. Individual times are recorded on electronic ankle bracelets monitored by computers.

The swiftest in the 6-8 age group clocked about 11 minutes for swimming 50 yards, biking a mile and a half and running a quarter mile.

“The hardest part was riding uphill,” said Abigail Hallman, 8, participating with her brother in their first triathlon.

Their dad, Anthony Hallman of North Kansas City, wore his “Team Hallman” shirt. He said the main objective was to “force — no, make that encourage” his children into a physical fitness routine at an early age.

People at the Gladstone Community Center spent six months planning the event, which was sponsored by North Kansas City Hospital and several area businesses.

Price Chopper catered 550 sandwiches. A DJ played songs, Google Fiber manned a booth, 70 volunteers helped direct the race, 10 police officers patrolled and an ambulance was parked at the ready.

A walkie-talkie hung from the belt of community center administrator Justin Merkey, who said of kids triathlon: “Oh, it’s a major thing. It’s huge.

“We have families here from as far away as Columbia and Springfield, and they’re regulars.”

An online triathlon calendar, TriFind.com, lists 12 events for kids this year in Kansas and 10 in Missouri.

Merkey said many adults who run triathlons will get their children interested.

Other young people get hooked because, unlike kids soccer, triathlon is less about team than about individual achievement, he said: “It’s about pushing yourself.”

And like kids soccer, all of Saturday’s triathletes received a medal, of course.

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Proudly raised, never razed: Winner of iconic barns contest was reinforced by friendship

When we heard back in February that Coke was looking for the perfect barn in Kansas to shoot a commercial, but with very limiting specs — weathered, preferably red, wood-shingled roof, gaps in the sides for the obligatory shafts of dusty sunlight, surrounding field of waving wheat — we decided to go one better and solicit photos of great barns in Kansas and Missouri, any color, any condition, any location.

Coke hasn’t announced its winner yet, but we have ours.

We looked at about 100 entries (see them all at Mingle.KansasCity.com, in the “Home & Garden” section) from as close as eastern Jackson County to as far away as Stockton, Kan. (north of Hays) and Patton, Mo. (south of St. Louis). Big barns, tiny barns, pristine restored barns, barely there ghosts of barns.

In a Hollywood twist, the barn that won us over with its looks turned out to have a heartwarming history as well.

And so, with apologies to John Mellencamp, here’s a little story ’bout Jack and Diane, and a great American barn they fixed in the Heartland.

That’s right. Our winner, a beautifully restored, sage-green 1935 dairy barn in Raymore in Cass County, belongs to Jack and Diane Aaron. Until last November, the Aarons lived in a tiny house across the street from a bar in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan.

The couple, in their mid-60s, traded in city life for country life when they inherited the barn from its previous owner, an 86-year-old widower and longtime friend the couple had been helping for more than a decade so he could stay on the farm he loved after his wife died.

The previous owner, the Aarons’ friend Don Hutchinson, has a neat story, too. Hutchinson owned a real estate company in Kansas City and used profits from his business to finance his passion — archaeological digs in Israel — and to support local hospitals and animal shelters.

And the original owners, the family that started Beltz & Sons Dairy, poured bushels of Midwestern toil and resourcefulness into raising the barn. They pieced together different sizes and colors of mostly salvaged lumber so meticulously that the frame and interior are straight and sound 80 years later.

A 43-year friendship

Diane Aaron met Don Hutchinson through a family friend 43 years ago. For 22 years, the Aarons met Hutchinson for breakfast weekly at the former Nichols Lunch, until the landmark midtown diner closed in 2007. Hutchinson loved to talk about his world travels. In addition to his beloved archaeological digs in Israel, he had explored Africa, Asia and Turkey.

In 1992, Hutchinson told the Aarons he was moving from Overland Park to a farm in Raymore. Hutchinson was a country gentleman, not a farmer. He wanted to live on land that had its own water supply. The former Beltz Dairy property has a pond and three springs.

Life got difficult when Hutchinson’s wife moved toa nursing home in 2004. Over breakfast one day, after his wife had died, Hutchinson told the Aarons his wife had “stuff” that needed donating. It turned out she was something of a hoarder.

“That was the beginning of an overwhelming project,” Diane said. The Aarons, both retired from railroad jobs, started spending large chunks of their free time at Hutchinson’s farm.

While Diane sorted through the contents piled high in every room of the 5,000-square-foot house, Jack took over mowing and tree work on the surrounding 40 acres, to save Hutchinson the cost of hiring people to do it. Besides, Jack was getting hooked on spending time on the farm, with its swaying tall grasses, singing meadowlarks and sweet-smelling air. One hot summer when the springs ran dry, Jack and Diane brought in a trencher and installed pipes and a pump so Hutchinson could get water from the pond.

As Jack continued to work around the farm, he continued eyeing the barn, weathered gray with gaping holes in the front where siding boards had fallen off because urine from nesting raccoons had rusted through the nails.

Trading city life for country living

As Jack and Diane’s visits settled into a pattern of regular work days, and Hutchinson realized how much Jack was enjoying himself, he offered to give the couple the farm when he died. Jack told him no, because he knew Diane wouldn’t want to move so far from the young grandson she frequently babysat.

Four years later, in 2008, Hutchinson, who had no children, asked again. He told Jack he would donate the house to a hospital if Jack wouldn’t take it.

“I told him, if that was the case, I would be happy to live out my days here,” Jack said. In return, the Aarons promised Hutchinson that if he ever required around-the-clock care, they would move in with him so he could live out his days on the farm.

Three years ago, dementia caused Hutchinson to lean on the Aarons even more. Diane did all his cooking and cleaning, and Jack increased his visits from twice a week to daily. But a fall in early summer of 2013 sent Hutchinson to the hospital and then to nursing care for rehab. As the Aarons were readying the house for his return, Hutchinson died on Thanksgiving Day.

The Aarons had moved to the farm two weeks earlier, because they were taking turns staying with Hutchinson day and night at his nursing home a few miles away.

Like Hutchinson, the Aarons are not farmers. They are more interested in planting old-fashioned trees and flowers than vegetables. But even that takes a back seat to the work of keeping the fence lines clear and fighting brush and weeds.

The couple were a little nervous about taking on so much physical labor because they both suffered serious back injuries when they were younger, but Diane says they both feel much healthier now.

Jack says there is 10 times the work living on the farm, but also 10 times the joy. “My favorite part of living here is looking out the windows or sitting on the porch and not seeing houses, just pastures, trees and the barn.”

Jack was friendly with his neighbors in Strawberry Hill, but his true friends were railroad buddies who quit coming around after they retired. Now, his closest pals are neighbors of a mix of ages, all younger than him — 30, 48 and 53 — but as tight as a pack of teenagers.

“We all help each other and never question any amount of work that needs doing,” he says. His friends often stop by after work for “roundtable discussions” over beers at the kitchen table in cold weather or on lawn chairs under the big pin oak by the barn when it’s warm.

The Aarons, like Hutchinson, hope to remain at the farm the rest of their lives. Diane’s two children will inherit the property. “There is plenty of room to build a second house if they both want to live there,” Diane said.

The grandkids are already hooked. When they visit, they love going to the pond and riding the ATV, golf cart, lawn mowers and tractor. “Everyone grabs something to drive,” Jack said. This summer, the couple looks forward to christening a new pedal boat on the pond.

Restoring the barn

Jack began restoring the barn four years ago, shortly after agreeing to take over the farm. Although he has no practical use for it, he longed to bring it back to life, in part because of memories of a red barn on his grandfather’s Blue Springs farm when he was a kid. “It was small but it seemed huge when I was a kid,” he said.

His first task was eliminating the critters damaging it from the inside. Jack trapped skunks, raccoons and opossums, 39 in the first month.

Like many old barns, the former Beltz barn was full of metal, from machines to rusty nails to guttering — anything a farmer thought he might use in the next 50 years. A scrapper made three trips with a 16-foot trailer to haul the metal away.

When Diane broke her arm moving woodpiles and couldn’t climb the ladder to the hay loft, Jack built a staircase.

The barn has Dutch lap cedar siding, which has to be specially made, so Jack used pine car siding (originally used on boxcars) instead. Working alone and on a tall ladder, Jack removed boards, reinstalled or replaced them up to 45 feet in the air, the height of the barn.

When the siding work was complete, Jack replaced missing roof shingles, had new windows installed and hired a local company to paint the barn a soft sage green.

The barn quilt

By last summer, the barn was finished, and Diane wanted to make and install a barn quilt, a large wooden panel painted like a square of a quilt, as a finishing touch. Although Diane doesn’t quilt, she has an extensive collection of quilts made by her grandmother and other women in her family.

She didn’t want the popular state star patterns, but something with rounded lines instead of sharp angles. Her love of curves intersected with her interest in family history when she discovered a Civil War pattern named after the infamous General Order 11, which caused her great-great-grandparents to be displaced from their home in Tarsney in Jackson County. (The order, issued by the Union Army in 1863 after William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, required residents of rural areas in four Missouri counties bordering Kansas to move.) The pattern was published in The Kansas City Star in 1929.

Jack bought the boards and made an 8-by-8-foot square, and Diane painted the design, with help from a friend with a fine arts degree. The 150th anniversary of the issuing of General Order 11 was Aug. 25, and Diane asked Jack if he would organize a quilt-raising party that day as an early birthday present (her birthday is Aug. 30).

Jack enlisted eight men to help him load the quilt on a trailer, haul it to the front of the barn, hoist it up using a block-and-tackle pulley, hold it straight while standing on ladders and bolt it to the barn. They celebrated afterward with a cookout for 20 people.

“That was a monumental day for me and Jack,” Diane recalled.

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Elderly Spring Hill woman missing

Breaking News

Updated: 2014-06-01T00:42:42Z

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and Spring Hill Police Department issued a silver alert Saturday evening for an 82-year-old woman missing from her Spring Hill home.

Norma Smith

Read more Breaking News

Norma Smith, who is described by police as 5-feet, 3-inches tall and 130 pounds with long gray hair that she usually wears in a ponytail, went missing about 4:30 p.m. She had been walking near her home at 22550 South Franklin, in southern Spring Hill.

She was last seen wearing a long dress and carrying a black jacket and a tote bag with a flower design.

Mará Rose Williams, mdwilliams@kcstar.com

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

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'He was never forgotten': Obama is joined by parents of soldier held captive by Taliban for five years as family celebrate his release

By Ryan Gorman and Associated Press Reporter

The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed and is in U.S. custody, officials have announced.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release was part of a negotiation that includes the release of five Afghan detainees held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sources said.

'Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl,' U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Free man: Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years, has been released into U.S. custody

Free man: Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years, has been released into U.S. custody

The 28-year-old Berghdal had been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. The officials say he is in good condition and able to walk.

'[Obama] was able to call Sergeant Bergdahl's parents to let them know that US has recovered their son,’ Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a tweet. ‘We are so happy they will be reunited.’

The president's statement did not mention the prisoner swap, but noted the negotiation between the U.S. and the Taliban was mediated by the government of Qatar.

The gulf state has agreed to 'host' the Taliban inmates for at least one year, the Washington Post reported.

It also thanked the government of Afghanistan for it's role in securing the release.

The officials who disclosed the prisoner swap insisted on anonymity in order to describe the details on Bergdahl's release because they were not authorized to discuss the exchange.

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