By John M. Wylie II
My mother, Laura Wylie, died at the age of 71 on Veterans Day 20 years ago today. It was ironic that her completely unexpected death, believed to be the result of medical malpractice, occurred on Veterans Day because she had devoted countless volunteer hours to the Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project and its publication, Veterans’ Voices.
In June 2017, four months before her death, she was honored by Women In Communications Inc. with its Unsung Hero Award for her work on the project, which provides therapeutic support to veterans by providing them an outlet to write and be published.
Like so much else she did, the continual work-in-progress had to be cleared from the long dining room table of the family’s three-generation home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She was just starting to get ready for Thanksgiving 1997 when she died, and had already gotten the cash—secreted in the everyday-stainless steel utensil drawer under the steak knives—to buy the special ingredients for family recipes sold only in stores so small and old-fashioned they didn’t take credit cards or checks.
She was truly a pioneer. She was born and raised in Kansas City, studied journalism at Northwestern University, and wound up at NBC affiliate KIDO-AM in Boise, Idaho where she met my father, Wilder E. Wylie. He was a writer, she was an air personality, and they worked together in live radio plays which then were still part of the entertainment landscape.
They were part of the transition from network radio to network television and moved to Hollywood. I was born March 1, 1953 in Santa Monica with both parents involved in media in one way or another.
My father died when I was very young and mother returned to Kansas City where I grew up.
My mother—all 4’10” of her—wasn’t about to be just another secretary, although she was for a year each for a company that made major heating and cooling systems and a lawyer.
But while Dwight Eisenhower was still president she started what would become a major force in the mail-order business, Country Club Gifts—on, of course, the dining room table.
From the start she involved me in the business. Those were the days when ZIP codes hadn’t been invented, mail for cities not big enough to have their own mail processing centers were sorted to go to the state capitol, and the Post Office still used standard state abbreviations.
She hand-typed mailing labels for catalogs (using forms that allowed you to type one label and get four carbon copies to use later), tore them along the perforations and gave me marked paper cups in which to sort them by city and state or state capital.
When I started grade school, I already knew my states, where they were and what the capitols were. And I got my allowance for doing it.
She outgrew the dining room and got office space in the old Manufacturer’s Exchange Building, where she and Hal Kaufman formed a partnership that led to a mail-order juggernaut that sold everything from unique kitchen ware to its most famous product—Naval Jelly, the first effective “brush it on—wash it off” rust remover available only by mail in 8-oz. bottles to 55-gallon drums (yes, the Navy ordered it by the pallet load and it was used to restore an entire passenger train parked for ages at Kansas City’s historic Union Station).
They also sold exotic canes (including one similar to the sword cane Patrick MacNee used to pluck a flower from a vase for Diana Rigg to put in his lapel in the opening of the huge British spy drama hit The Avengers).
Want flash? They had mini-canons that made much more 4th of July noise and flash than firecrackers far more safely using calcium carbide. Nostalgic? They had a huge selection or working model steam tractors and an enormous variety of products from mechanical banks to personal safety devices.
Their building was a historic jewel, made famous in Curly’s Ballad “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” from the musical Oklahoma, where he describes an amazing “skyscraper seven stories high, About as high as a buildin’ oughta grow.”
But it was the day of urban renewal, which meant razing such marvels to make way for new construction was all the rage. (We at least have some of the Florentine marble as our entryway floor.)
When the same thing happened to the next building they leased, she identified and they bought the American Bank Note Co. Building at 10th and Broadway, all ready to go on the National Register of Historic Places.
It did and because of it I own part of Kansas City and world history. Before it was home to Naval Jelly the building was where South and Central American governments had their currency printed—and dried in two underground stories of cells said to have been surplus after the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. was built.
It didn’t hurt anything that she gained a seat on the city’s historic landmarks commission.
So I grew up in a different world. Women were not limited in what they could accomplish except for their vision and drive. She had plenty of voice.
(There was one exception to direct mail marketing of Naval Jelly—a 60-second live spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We got a lot more than 60 seconds—he and Ed McMahon went off script with jokes and the segment lasted several minutes. Neither she nor Hal were on the spot but the commemorative Miss Naval Jelly Bottle was, a depiction of a contestant who’d win a Miss Anything contest wearing a “Naval Jelly Removes Rust” sash and the minimum that Standards and Practices at NBC would let on the air. Didn’t haer many Naval Jelly jokes cracks after that!)
Laura Wylie also was an incredible Mom, knowing just how much leash to give me and when I showed I could handle it giving me the next length. She was there when I needed her, but so much of what she gave me was the ability to look at a question, problem or issue; find a solution; and do it.
She was no soccer Mom. By age 10 I was using public transit alone all over Kansas City including areas around her office that, while far from danger zones, weren’t exactly gated communities either.
I got a car for my 16th birthday—the oldest in the company’s lease fleet, complete with “Naval Jelly Removes Rust” signs. It got laughter from the guys at school—until they found out it also came with a company gas credit card.
I earned it by driving a route of more than 50 miles every Saturday to tiny towns far south of Kansas City in Cass County. All had one thing in common—no street names, since everyone picked up their mail at the Post Office. In mail order, you have to know which ads are “pulling” by generating orders, but few customers bothered to put in the department number or other “key” needed to gather that data. No problem. We simply got general delivery forwarding service for first class mail at all the tiny local Post Offices, and on Saturday I picked up newspapers, catalogs, returned packages and other items that would have cost extra to forward. So we had Easy Street and Prosperity Lane in Cleveland; something like Clown Blvd. and Joker Lane in Peculiar; Boardwalk and Park Place in Freeman and so on. (Twenty years later, the area was a growing suburban part of Kansas City and The Star assigned me to put together its first bureau, staff and coverage plan for Cass and three other counties. Once again, my mother had been prescient).
My last assignment at the company involved actually writing some sales copy and organizing and maintaining a library of the 1,000+ publication where we advertised.
By then I was ready for college and spent my last summer working for the city directory—where, with what my mother had taught me, I was assigned to provide the street numbering system for the entire brand-new Kansas City International Airport.
The city’s Aviation Department had named all the streets but forgot that every separate gate, hanger, drop-off package area, etc. also needed a number.
Once I hit college, I was never “home” full-time again except during vacations but Mom and I were in touch virtually daily by letter and later phone. As luck would have it, I had one of the first cell phones (one of those huge, heavy bags that weighed 5-10 pounds) and had to have a minute-plan bigger than I could use and bill clients each months.
So we had a tradition—on the drive home, 5 minutes from the office or 15 from the Courthouse—I’d call her and we’d just exchange news of friends in various places, music (she loved opera and took me to my first, La Boheme [grim story; gorgeous music]), and various issues we were working on.
When she retired in 1990, she took the archives of glass discs of old radio programs they’d saved from the trash once they aired on KIDO and spent several hours a day working with sound engineers in Kansas City to create what is now the Wilder Wylie Collection at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“The Wilder Wylie Collection was donated to the University of Missouri-Kansas City in June 1990. Housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections, the collection consists of radio scripts for KIDO-NBC, the Bob Hope Show, various radio plays produced by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), radio commercials for Borden dairy products, as well as scripts for several television shows. Many of these scripts are written by Wilder Wylie.
“Among the KIDO radio programs are nearly all the scripts for Down Memory Lane with Kathryn Kane, Fashion Club, and KIDO Showcase. [Kathryn Kane was mother’s air name, and the shows were all hers.]
“There are over 30 other scripts, as well as four KIDO program schedules from February 1946 to January 1948, fan letters to KIDO, and correspondence between KIDO and NBC. Most of the collection’s radio scripts produced by the Continuity Department of KIDO-NBC bear the initials, WW (Wilder Wylie).
“Another major component of this collection consists of scripts for the Bob Hope Show. Scripts from 1949 were sponsored by Lever Brothers Company while those from 1953 were sponsored by Jell-O. Also included is a sizable collection of ‘live’ Jell-O commercials written for Bob Hope.”
Most of the materials were the only copies and would have been lost forever without my mother’s efforts.
In retirement, she traveled frequently abroad on opera trips with friends from the Lyric Opera Guild and was always ready for the next one. She loved plays, a variety of quality movies, ballet, jazz and art. She was willing to listen to that music I enjoyed—and found some she truly enjoyed.
She loved Faith as much as I did. Faith’s father was a surrogate for mine after our son came along, and when lung cancer took him far too early she and Faith’s mother and sister became very close family. Faith’s mother was with her in the emergency room when she lost consciousness for the last time before the desperate daylong surgery that tried and failed to save her.
Most of all, she was a role model, a feminist before the word really existed because she firmly believed in herself and her abilities and if told that a woman couldn’t do that her answer was akin to Eliza Doolittle’s in “My Fair Lady”: Show Me.
Nobody ever did, which is why I grew up not really understanding how women couldn’t compete with men and win—my Mom could and did, and instilled a set of values I cherish to this day.
I hope she’s half as proud of me as I am of her. Twenty years later, I still sometimes find myself reaching for my car phone to that three-generation number which started as Jackson 5534 and grew with the city and America.
We wish we could tell you in person—we love you, we think about you daily, and we hope we’ve remember at least half the wisdom and character you taught us.
We wish you could know James. There is so much of you in him and you would be so proud of him.
And thank you on behalf of all the veterans whose lives you changed for the better. I was in touch with the people at Veterans’ Voices (they’ve formally taken the name as part of the official title) the other day and they were delighted to hear from me. They’re still looking for people to finish replacing all you did after 20 years, and you gave strength and new purpose to more lives than you’ll ever know.
Copyright 2017 John M. Wylie II