I met Velma Whipple Wancura two years ago. Her grandson, Dan Wancura contacted me, telling me I needed to meet his grandmother. He said the story of her life was simply amazing. He was right.
I made two trips to Dighton, Kansas, where Velma was a resident in the long term care facility. At 104 years old, I went in trying not to have any preconceived expectations. Velma did not disappoint me. Her presence told me she was someone who was used to being listened to, her advise was to be heeded, her decisions were final. She was an enigma. On one hand- the person sitting across from me was the grand matriarch of the Wancura family, her nails were manicured and painted, her hair in place, a beaded necklace around her neck, on the other- someone who just discovered the delights of cappuccino.
Velma Whipple Wancura was born February 2, 1907 in McCracken, Kansas, at the home of her grandparents, Thomas and Sara Neal, but the book of her life starts long before that with the story of her grandparents. She tells me one branch of her father's family came from England to Wisconsin, then drove sheep from Wisconsin to what would become Ness County, Kansas. The other branch were plantation owners in Virginia, and with the Civil War, lost everything. They couldn't feed themselves or their slaves, they packed up everything in a covered wagon, and headed west to homestead, first to Missouri, then to Kansas. Her mother's branch came from Kentucky to Kansas to homestead, however her grandfather didn't take to farming, lost his homestead when he moved to McCracken to blacksmith. Her mother and father met while both families were camped at Walnut Creek. They were the first couple married in Ness County, before it was Ness County.
Velma reminded me the truth of something Michael Crichton said, “If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ” Velma, the leaf, knew her tree... in detail.
Velma Whipple Wancura passed away shortly after our interviews. She is missed. Next week, we'll continue to revisit Velma Wancura's history, learning more about the leaves and trees that make up this community we call the high plains.