Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The unkissed pedestrian

Twelfth and Baltimore in the heyday of Kirby McRill.
Anderson Photo Company Photograph Collection (K0489). The State Historical Society of Missouri.
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Kirby McRill has not been forgotten. A few years ago there was a 5K walk named for him in Tonganoxie, Kansas, near the land he once farmed. He’s immortalized in a few books, notably Tom’s Town, a definitive account of the Pendergast years in Kansas City. He even has his own web page. That some memories of him are incomplete, or inaccurate, probably would not have mattered much to Kirby, so long as his name was still out there. He hasn't disappeared, as he did for a time in the summer of 1920, weeks after following railroad tracks out of town, on foot, toward a different life.

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Fifty years ago, a Kansas City Times reporter recalled seeing Kirby McRill downtown in the 1930s, “silhouetted against the sun, moving hell for leather behind his loaded wheelbarrow.” Passing gambling joints along Twelfth street he “pounded through Baltimore avenue, his great red beard and his shoulder-length tresses quivering, clad in his 1918 baseball pants and a shirt as green as the gamblers’ aprons.” 
Kirby McRill late in life.
This is the Kirby McRill that evolved from the summer of 1920, the eccentric old man in the weird outfit who walked around town wearing a sandwich sign for a pet store or pushing a cart full of splintered wooden boxes that he rebuilt and sold for income. The guy who lived in a fleabag hotel near the city market, who did time in the municipal farm for creating a fire hazard with his pile of broken wood. Guards there held him down and shaved his hair and beard. He filed a $160,000 suit against the city, without success. 

That old guy resembled his younger self only in that he walked everywhere.

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In the summer of 1920 Kirby McRill was 44 years old. He farmed more than two hundred acres of Kaw Valley bottomland in Leavenworth county, northeast of Lawrence. He had his own threshing equipment, which he hired out at harvest time. He tinkered with his machinery, traveled to implement shows, and in winter sometimes worked at equipment dealers in Kansas City. 

Back then Kirby was tall, dark, blue-eyed and handsome, with carefree hair and a thick mustache. He didn’t consume alcohol, coffee, or tobacco, was a Shriner and a member of a group of bachelor farmers in his rural neighborhood. He was a big eater, favoring rare beef and blackberry pies. He enjoyed walking. A lot. 
The younger Kirby.
For years he had walked to Tonganoxie and Lawrence and Topeka, for business or pleasure. In 1911 he covered the forty miles of Union Pacific railroad tracks between Lawrence and Kansas City’s old Union Depot in nine hours and seven minutes, against a head wind. It would have been quicker had not several trains come along.

Sometimes business and pleasure mixed. He’d start from home around midnight, arrive in Kansas City mid-morning, and check into the Baltimore or Muehlebach hotel, Twelfth and Baltimore. Then bathe and eat a big meal, visit a few threshing companies, and start home in the late afternoon.

In 1917 jury duty in Leavenworth meant twenty-seven miles each way in the snowy cold for several days. A local newspaper took notice. “Americans don’t walk enough,” Kirby was quoted as saying. “If they walked more they would have better health; it is the best exercise in the world.” His favorite walking uniform consisted of his old amateur baseball uniform, wide-brimmed hat, and size 12 shoes.

As Kirby kept walking, reporters kept writing about him. In the spring of 1920 he announced he would walk to Chicago, visit a few threshing houses, take in the Republican National Convention, see the sights. With permission to use the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way he set out on May 14 and pulled into Chicago eight days later.  The Chicago Tribune published a small story:

Days later the Tribune ran a story about five young Evanston women seeking husbands, promoted by the local justice of the peace. Soon Kirby showed up at the judge’s office, saying he’d read about the women and would like an introduction, having decided he “ought to a got hitched up long ago.” Unfortunately, the judge was out of town, so Kirby walked on. 

Next day the Tribune’s front page story began:

 “I haven’t ever kissed a girl,” he had told the paper. “And I’m 44 years old.”

By August, worried friends and relatives had not heard from him in weeks. Meanwhile, Kirby continued walking, visiting Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His crops and business were suffering from neglect. When he finally returned in early September, the bank had foreclosed on his livestock. But Kirby would not stop walking, or seeking publicity. He began spending even more time in Kansas City.

Now the stories were in papers nationwide, usually referring to him as The Unkissed Pedestrian. The Heart of America Walking Club here in town recruited him to help promote walking and the city. He participated in publicity stunts. In 1921 a Post reporter ambushed him with a showgirl named Flossie Devere. “You can’t tell me he’s never been kissed before,” she said after planting one for the camera. Kirby looked surprised, but not displeased. He was still searching. 
Kissed at last.
Finally, in the summer of 1922, he was seen with a young female walking companion. A trainee, he called her. She was Daisy Belle Hicks, half his age, daughter of a neighboring farmer in Leavenworth county. All that fall, as Kirby trained for another Chicago walk, this time sponsored by the HOA Walking Club, Daisy Belle was there. Though he hoped she would soon be ready for long-distance walking, he paid for her to attend barber school in the meantime. “She's going to get a job in one of these here lady barber shops,”  he told the Post.

In December, leaving the steps of city hall in Kansas City, bound for Chicago, he passed her school whistling “The Girl I Left Behind.” She waved goodbye with her clippers.

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Of course, Daisy Belle Hicks ran off with another man. Kirby never recovered. As a silent protest he grew his hair and beard long, and sued Daisy for breach of promise. The suit was thrown out of court. 

Walking had become an obsession. He lost his farm. His plan to break the transcontinental record of Edward Payson Weston never materialized. Kirby was growing old, and the only walking left was behind a wheelbarrow in the streets of Kansas City. 

“This never would have happened if I had not been kissed the first time,” he told a reporter. “Kissing is a dangerous habit. It is like opium. The more you get the more you want. I wish the women would leave me alone forever now.”

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The end came for Kirby McRill in 1950, when he was hit by a car on Third street in the cold hour before a January dawn. At first no one claimed his body, but four hundred Kansas Citians filed past his wooden coffin at the Lapetina funeral home on Campbell street. Finally, some relatives and friends buried him in a little cemetery near his old Kansas farm. 

Some of them recalled the old Kirby, before his walking became newsworthy. 

“After that,” said one, “Kirby wanted nothing greater out of life than to get his name and his picture in the newspapers.”
In death, he made the front page of the Star.

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