“Even though I’m going, I’m going to carry Kansas around with me in my heart,” Chapman Rackaway said in his almost empty office in the graduate school housed in Fort Hays State University’s Picken Hall.
Rackaway — political science professor and interim dean of the graduate school at FHSU this last year, and commentator on Kansas politics in print and TV — will leave Hays next month with his family for Carrollton, Ga., where he will be chair of University of West Georgia’s political science department.
The university, approximately 45 miles west of Atlanta, shares a spirit with FHSU, he said.
“When I came here and interviewed in February 2003, Fort Hays was in the middle of our huge growth curve,” he said, creating partnerships with schools in China and growing the Virtual College.
“I loved that Fort Hays was willing to take that kind of risk, and as a result, they grew from it,” he said.
“West Georgia now is 13,000 students almost exclusively in person, and they’ve been growing significantly over these last few years because they’ve been very risk-acceptant in getting some new programs. That kind of spirit really attracted me to West Georgia, too,” he said.
Still, it’s a move he said he and his wife, Andrea, took two weeks to decide, in part because of their ties to Hays.
Those are ties Rackaway didn’t know he would make when he arrived in Hays with a newly minted doctorate in political science in 2003. His plan then was to give the job a few years at least.
“I’d never lived in a town this small before. I didn’t know if I was going to adapt,” he said.
Colleagues from his doctorate program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, knowing his area of study was in campaign politics, thought he would be bored because Kansas was seen as a one-party state.
“Little did they know,” he said with a laugh.
He admits that, at the time, all he knew of Kansas politics was Sen. Bob Dole.
He got a crash course when Dick Heil, then the chair of the FHSU political science department, asked him to help out with Smoky Hills Public Television’s “Kansas Legislature” program, which he moderated.
“Being a young, tenure-track professor, the worst word you can ever use is ‘no,’ so I decided OK, I’ll do it,” he said.
His first shows were terrible, he said with a laugh.
“I had no idea what I was talking about,” he said. “I hope that recordings don’t exist of those shows.”
But he learned, and reporters covering Kansas politics would call for comments and he began writing columns. As newspapers began cutting back on their statehouse bureaus, Rackaway was approached by what he called “the real deans of political science” in Kansas — Ed Fientje of Wichita State University; Joe Aistrup, who had taught at FHSU and was then at Kansas State University; and Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas — to form Insight Kansas, providing syndicated commentary on political news in the state.
“We were concerned about the lack of real attention to things going on in the Statehouse. Insight Kansas was born out of that. We started in 2010, which was perfect timing because we had this significant shift in how the Legislature operated at that time,” he said.
“I really hope that if I leave a legacy at Fort Hays State, it is that by being the western Kansas outpost here, I was a good representative for Fort Hays State,” he said.
Observing Topeka from western Kansas gave him a great appreciation for the region, he said.
“I do see this place — and I don’t mean just Fort Hays or Hays, I mean all of western Kansas — as a wonderful place that needs to be preserved and is going through a particularly rough time right now,” he said.
He said eastern Kansas legislators tend to see the western half of the state, with its agriculture and oil economies, as a “cash cow to be milked” without seeing the state of the schools and the declining population.
“I’m hoping that for western Kansas, there’s someone else who can step in and help be that advocate and really get people to understand the circumstances here in western Kansas. It’s a great place under great threat,” he said.
Hays will remain a special place for Rackaway on a personal level, too. It’s here that he met his wife and they started their family, adopting two children from Ethiopia.
An adopted child himself, Rackaway said he always knew he wanted to adopt. He and Andrea tried to adopt through foster care and domestic programs, but found those to be broken systems that broke their hearts, he said. They turned to international adoption, even though they had concerns about how the children might be accepted.
“There’s always that concern that you’re in a small town and is there going to be someone who is going to say something,” he said.
“In the main, people here have embraced me as an outsider and the rest of my family here. Hays has been the most community-minded city I’ve ever lived in, and so I will definitely miss that spirit we have here in Hays.”
Leaving Andrea’s parents, Pat and Tony Schumacher, also made the decision difficult, Rackaway said.
“My father passed away early in my life. My mom passed away just two years after I got together with Andrea, so the Schumachers have been very much family to me,” he said.
“There’s a strong correlation between the things I’ve done successfully here, my family and Andrea coming into my life.
“Andrea is a Hays native. She’s really chucking everything to follow me halfway across the country. The decision had to be right, and it weighs on me that this is a huge sacrifice that she’s making, and I just want to do right by her.”
He also will miss the connections with his students and colleagues at FHSU, along with Hays’ restaurants, he said.
“Kansas and specifically Hays and western Kansas have been very good to me. I’m going to miss that,” he said.
“I hope I’ve left a good mark here. I hope I’ve done something beneficial in my time, but there were others before me, there will be others after me.
“I’m just one of the people who has flowed through here. But this place has left a big mark on me.”