Ryan Kelly has a story.
Ryan Kelly has a story. But really, it’s the story of his great-great aunt. And his great grandparents. And his great grandmother. And his sister.
And Thursday, Ryan Kelly’s story was tied to the story of Fort Scott National Historic Site and the story of Kansas. Kelly was one of the five winners of the I, Too, Am America essay contest that attempted to let students tell the previously untold stories of the people of Kansas.
Each winner received $200, a family tour of one of the five national parks in the state, and an on-air episode of “Sunflower Journeys” on PBS about their visit.
But from every perspective, this event was about stories.
Ryan Kelly is going to be a freshman at Seaman High School in Topeka when school starts again in August. But last year, his computer teacher, Mary Absher, asked her students to enter the contest as part of an assignment.
The story Ryan told starts around the turn of the century in north-central Iowa. In a span of 26 days in early October in the late 19th century, his great-great-grandparents, with last names spelled either Mullen or Mullin, lost five children to black diphtheria.
“I’ve heard that part of the story from my father over and over. It’s one of the few stories he tells that he gets choked up over every time he tells it,” said Patrick Kelly, Ryan’s dad.
Following that horrific time period, his ancestors adopted a child named Josie off the so-called Orphan Train. Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 children were placed on trains heading westward and adopted across the country.
Years later, the Mullens naturally had another child, Ella.
Ella later married into the Kelly family and was Ryan’s great-grandmother.
“My aunt did a lot of genealogy work,” Patrick said. “She went to Ireland and Brigham Young University and did a lot of local searching for our family’s stories. She compiled those stories into a book. Nowadays, she has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home in Columbia, Mo.”
But Ryan Kelly’s story did not stop at the adoption of Josie. His essay connected Josie’s trip on the orphan train with his own direct family’s adoption of his sister a little more than five years ago from China. Her name is Ella, after Patrick’s grandmother (and Ryan’s great-grandmother).
“My sister, whose name is Ella, and Josie were both adopted and that just tied in together,” Ryan said. “The connection is amazing to me.”
That connection is something that surprised his father.
“We didn’t bring it up when we adopted Ella, because it wasn’t something that influenced our decision, we thought,” Patrick said. “From his perspective, there was. He saw the threads that connected the family histories. It’s stronger than happenstance. It just goes to show you history does repeat itself.”
Fort Scott’s story
For winning the contest, the Kellys were taken on a tour of Fort Scott National Historic Site and got to be involved in several re-enactments of various scenes in Fort Scott’s history.
At the start of the tour, Ryan got involved, as the re-enactors put him in the situation of a sick Civil War-era soldier at Fort Scott.
The “surgeon” explained the various ways of bloodletting, a common form of medicine at the time and demonstrated each tactic on Ryan, including cutting, leeching and cupping.
It was just the first day of the exclusive two-day tour for the Kellys, and yet another opportunity for Fort Scott NHS to shine.
“This contest gives our site’s story more exposure,” said Barak Geertsen, Fort Scott NHS ranger. “More importantly, the winners are the youth, and we can connect this story to our youth. That generation will decide whether our history is going to be important to them. We’re trying to communicate value to our future generations.”
The Kellys were not alone on their tour through the historic Fort Scott site. Following every scene, every footstep and every smile was Scott Williams, producer for KTWU 11 (PBS).
Williams is filming each of the winners’ tours through the five Kansas National Historic Sites as part of a television series called “Sunflower Journeys.” Moreover, “Sunflower Journeys” will act as a lead-in to a documentary in fall 2009 by famed historian Ken Burns called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”.
Williams said he is filming all five contest winners’ trips within a two-week span, and the Fort Scott trip was his third of the five.
“In some ways, I feel like the winner, because I get to go to all the sites and no one else gets to see each kid going through,” Williams said. “Even though I’ve been to each site before, it’s still fun to see it through someone else’s eyes.”
He said the Fort Scott portion of “Sunflower Journeys” would air September 17.
As for the Kellys, the contest and tour was truly about the story.
“I’m so proud of Ryan for taking the story further. That’s what the contest is all about,” Patrick said. “He saw a connection he wanted to tell people about. That’s what history’s all about. Getting one of those stories that hadn’t been heard before uncovered.”
Andrew Nash can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 231-2600 ext. 132.