PITTSBURG, Kan. — Dr. Ted Sperry married Dr. Gladys Galligar in 1935, and in 1946 took a job at Pittsburg State University. Three years later the pair of biology professors — notably memorialized today in the name of the local Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society — bought a one-acre lot on South College Street and named it "Paradocs."
"I had an Ecological Idea," Sperry said in opening a 1960 address, titled "An Ecological Paradox," to the Kansas Academy of Science.
"Its general description is that of a wild area, within the encompassment of a western civilization," he said.
"I was engaged at the time in the development of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, located on the edge of the city of Madison within easy view of the State Capitol building. Here, where the corn stalks of earlier crops were still present, was restored a wild area of hardwood and evergreen forests, prairie, and marshland, around the shores of Lake Wingra. Within this area were deer, fox, mink, swans, orchids of several kinds, and hundreds of other species in uncounted variety, both common and rare, all living under natural, wild conditions. The past had not yet disappeared even with the present very much with us."
Sperry later had another chance to make his idea a reality for a few years in Decatur, Illinois, and finally on his one-acre lot in Pittsburg, Kansas.
"This area," he said, "was formerly underlain at the depth of a few feet by the Pittsburg-Weir vein of coal. This coal was removed around the turn of the century by team and scoop, and the area left rough, with a shallow open pit in its eastern half. Building lots were sold all around it, but it remained for a pair of biologists in 1954 finally to build a residence on this acre, one of the last remaining undeveloped lots in the vicinity."
Dr. Sperry retired from PSU in 1974, though he remained "a very active retiree" until his death in 1995, the university notes on a web page dedicated to his legacy. Another major part of that legacy was that he left his one-acre Paradocs property at 1413 S. College St. to PSU.
"We’re one of the neighbors and we observe that area quite often," said Tamara Crowell, who remains involved in the Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society — though not as closely as she was when she used to frequently attend its meetings with her husband.
"But we don’t actually walk in that area because we assume that Pitt State would want to be in charge of what’s going on there, since Dr. Sperry thought the best thing to do was to leave it to PSU so the students could observe a little wildlife right here in the city."
Though the Sperry home and Paradocs property were left to PSU with an endowment to maintain the space, however, that money has since run out. For years, another "pair of docs," PSU biology professors Steve and Cindy Ford, were instrumental in making sure the Sperry conservation area was put to its intended use and often visited by students. But the Fords retired in 2016, and the university has since struggled both to utilize and maintain the property.
"As with any discipline, the interests of the faculty members in particular have shifted over time," said Kathleen Flannery, vice president of university advancement at PSU. "The faculty that we have in the department now just have a different interest from Dr. Sperry’s time with us here at the institution. It used to be that, you know, the faculty would go over to the Sperry property and have their department meetings and those kinds of things. That hasn’t happened so much in the recent past."
The home on the property, which Sperry called Lyrrose (lear’rose), could use some updating, but the university has made some improvements, including putting a new roof on the building in recent years. While Sperry’s intent for the property was for it to be maintained in a natural state "with a minimum of interference from the human custodians," Flannery pointed out that "even that comes with a price tag," adding that at one point PSU even employed a dedicated caretaker for the property.
As the coronavirus crisis has impacted university budgets nationwide, the question of how to pay for maintaining the property has become more pressing.
"It’s difficult, because we want to maintain his legacy, but also there are evolving needs," Flannery said.
"We’ve been trying to find a way to move forward to have the facility support itself in some way. Of course, this last semester got us thinking creatively about what we could do virtually in the space, and you know, maybe having Dr. Sperry’s artifacts talked about in a virtual format, so you know, nothing is off the table right now, we’re trying to figure out all kinds of things."
Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society members expect the university will eventually try to get rid of the property.
"I am sure it is so costly to maintain and the university most likely doesn't want to handle it. I am just speaking out that if there is any one or any way to preserve it, it would be a good thing," Audubon Society member Mavis Benner wrote in an email.
"I think they’re going to sell it off," said Robert Mangile, who handles publicity for the Audubon Society. "We’ve been trying to save that property for 20 years and I don’t think it’s going to happen."
Flannery said, however, that although PSU is exploring its options, whatever course it decides to take, it will do its best to honor Dr. Sperry’s intent for the property, and Mangile agreed that the most dire predictions aren’t likely to happen.
"I heard a rumor that somebody wanted to buy it and build houses," he said, "but it’s only an acre property, so you’re not going to build that many houses there."
If PSU decided to sell the Sperry home, Crowell said, it could impact the university’s reputation as a responsible steward of property entrusted to it.
"I think more people in this area would be interested in leaving property to PSU," she said. "In fact I’ve thought about it myself. But you wouldn’t want to leave it to PSU if they were just going to turn around and sell it. I think it should be a wildlife area and it should be open to PSU students. Let them study the wildlife. I’m sure there’s a lot out there that students would enjoy seeing."
Flannery said, however, that while she frequently hears from people interested in donating property to PSU, accepting those offers is often not a practical option.
"If it were property that’s not adjacent to the institution itself, we would certainly need some funding to tie along with that property for the upkeep," she said, "and so that’s been part of all of our conversations with any potential donors at this point."
Flannery said the university has explored ideas including turning the Sperry home into an event space or a museum, although the lack of parking space and the property’s location in the middle of a residential area make those options somewhat impractical. PSU has also been looking into grant opportunities to support the facility.
"We’re actively exploring a variety of options, but sale is not one of those at this moment," Flannery said, adding that she would be happy to talk with anyone who has ideas or concerns about what might be done with the property.
While the property is not officially on the market, however, "if someone were to come forward and offer to purchase it, we would consider that," Flannery said.
"It would be in everyone’s intent, I mean from myself and the rest of the administration here at the university, that we would try to honor Dr. Sperry’s legacy," she said. "You know, ideally I would love to find somebody who would want to live in the facility and care for it and maintain it, I mean that would be kind of an ideal scenario, we just haven’t found the right fit yet."
Mangile said he understands that PSU has made efforts to adhere to Dr. Sperry’s vision for the Paradocs property, but was not optimistic about the prospects that it will be able to do so indefinitely.
"I really don’t think they’re going to save it," he said. "I don’t think they know what to do with it."
If the university can find the right solution or benefactor, though, the historic acre of wild land within Pittsburg’s city limits may still be able to endure the test of time.
"It would be, you know, trying to find someone who understands the intent," Flannery said, "and appreciates the nature and the environment that are preserved there."