Amelia grew up in Atchison. Her home (her grandparents’ house) is just above the bridge. It would not have been a suitable place for a young Ojijaak to grow up. The steep hill just across the narrow street ends abruptly at the riverbank, and would have been an irresistible temptation. Amelia herself seems to have been the sort who might have taken a few flights there.
Atchison is also a college town. It is the home of Benedictine College, a coeducational liberal arts college founded in 1971 as the result of the merger of St. Benedict’s College (1858), and Mount St. Scholastica College, originally opened as St. Scholastica’s Academy, a school for local women, in 1863. As with many of the historic sites, Benedictine College hugs the river, but, unlike the downtown area, the campus is well above the flood plain.
The residential area grew northward along the hills rising from the downtown waterfront area. Today, those streets are brick paved and shaded by mature trees. The main downtown street, Commercial Street, was converted to a pedestrian mall after two floods. In the 1960s, Commercial Street was a nice place to spend time becoming acquainted with the local people. I became very fond of the local people; they are generally open and friendly, always rather plainspoken even when preferring to give no offense.
Lest any believe that I am extolling Atchison as some sort of Shangri-La, an idyllic island where life is always pleasant and prosperity abounds, I say categorically that I am not. While the brick-paved streets remain and are still shaded by old trees, look closely at the pictures of Commercial Street. Fifty-odd years ago, you could have bought your shirts, shoes, or jewelry in a shop on the mall that was locally owned, possibly through two or more generations. There was a motion picture theater that was truly a masterpiece of mid-Twentieth Century theater architecture where first run movies were shown. Today’s mall features many empty storefronts, and the theater, the Royal, is closed. I suspect that many who walk through the three block mall stroll with ghosts and memories of other days. Like many small city downtown areas, Atchison’s Commercial Street has been affected by the opening of that superstore on the edge of town. You know the one: Big hat, no cattle.
Atchison still retains at least two treasures, though: Mt. Vernon Cemetery, and another generation of young Kansans willing to give of themselves. I am pleased that the latter has agreed to give to the former. The Atchison High School Chapter of National Honor Society will be spending some time assisting the spring cleaning of the cemetery. It was during one of those long periods of good news drought for me that I received a message from the faculty sponsor (I withhold the name for the sake of privacy, but extend my thanks all the same) accepting my invitation to contribute to Mt. Vernon Cemetery’s upkeep.
As can be seen in this view of the back of the cemetery property, Mt Vernon is beautifully situated in the rolling hills perhaps two or three miles west of and far above the river. It is a quiet and peaceful place; often one’s only company is the Kansas wind and perhaps a few bird calls. What cannot be seen in this view is the history of the place. You are seeing the newest section of the grounds, the farthest area from the single entrance. The older area includes the gravesites of Amelia Earhart’s grandparents, three former governors, and at least one U.S. Senator…forgive me for any oversights, but I am old enough to have earned a few memory lapses.
I would imagine that the students have family members who are interred at Mt. Vernon Cemetery. It could very easily be imagined that some have many generations of forebears there. That is what makes Mt. Vernon special in the Atchison community: It is a window through which one can view a sense of place, and where the families of giants commingle with the rest of us. It is home. I hope the young people who will work in the cemetery this spring feel that connection, because some who leave Atchison as adults have been known to return to their quiet little city by the river at life’s end. I know that if Atchison had been my home, I would.
My interest in the community is on a deeper, more personal level. Therefore, to the National Honor Society members, to your sponsor, and to your school, my gratitude for your effort is equally deep and equally personal. I will not forget. I wish all of you great happiness and success always.
These are the words of Ojijaak.
This article was previously published at Ojijaak.com and is republished here with permission of the author.