During a time when women earned only an estimated 19 percent of all college degrees, Velma Carson refused to let Kansas State Agricultural College make decisions for her, even when that meant leaving the school with four years of education, but no diploma.
Born in 1896, Carson grew up on the outskirts of Morganville, Kan. The daughter of small-town farmers who encouraged education, she enrolled at Kansas State Agricultural College in 1915 to pursue a degree in journalism.
Carson refused to entertain the idea of an “average” college career, even by male standards. While at K-State, she was involved in Theta Sigma Phi Journalism Society, the Ionian Women’s Literary Society, the Young Women’s Christian Association, Prix Leadership Honorary, and XIX outstanding Women Honorary. Carson also served as the editor of the Royal Purple yearbook, staff writer for the Collegian, and as president of her class.
In her last semester of school, Carson was told by the registrar that she needed to enroll in a three-credit-hour course called “Kitchen Gardening,” a class required for women to graduate during that time. She refused, opting instead to take “Music Appreciation”, which left her sans a bachelor’s degree.
“It kind of gives you a little bit of flavor of the spunk that gal had,” local historian Art Vaughan said. “She was a very outspoken person and one of those people that if you liked, you really liked, and if you didn’t, you kind of kept your distance.”
However, even without a diploma, Carson persevered.
Gloria Freeland, associate professor of journalism and researcher of Carson’s contributions, said Carson’s “against-the-grain” mentality didn’t stop at the end of her college career.
“She worked with Margaret Sanger from Planned Parenthood and passed out pamphlets when she probably could have been arrested for that,” Freeland said. “She also helped unionize Pullman porters. Some people in Clay County would have called her a communist probably because she was so radical for the times.”
Carson applied her journalism knowledge and skills acquired in the classroom in a multitude of ways after leaving the school, publishing articles in various magazines and newspapers across the nation, including the New Yorker, Harper’s and a journal titled “Independent Woman.” However, in many publications, she chose to write anonymously or under pen names since the content she covered would not have been accepted, had the public known it wasn’t written by a man.
“In every sense of the word, Velma was an artistic type,” Vaughan said. “She preferred writing poetry, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the most commercially successful for her. Short stories and advertising copy were the sorts of things that did better.”
However, in 1948, Carson was presented with a creative outlet that allowed her to write poetry, and help others. A little town called Fevés in France, devastated by WWII, was in dire need of assistance, and Carson was determined to make a difference.
“When you’re thinking about Velma, you have to keep in mind that she was a very liberal, progressive thinker in a conservative town,” Vaughan said. “Velma felt strongly that people were people, no matter where they came from, and when people needed help, you should try to help them.”
Carson began attending meetings to gather information about affiliated towns, now called “sister cities.” With the help of a local minister, Carson was able to rally the citizens of Morganville in favor of adopting the town of Feves and offering support in the form of much-needed food and supplies. In a letter requesting the assignment of an affiliated town, Velma wrote, “Please find for us an interesting friend—one which needs us, and one which will exercise our growing vision of a world beyond our rim of prairie… We want to test our democracy, learn to accept strangers, and to make peace if possible.”
Once the inhabitants of Morganville were on board with Carson’s vision, she began brainstorming ways to collect money and supplies to send abroad. With her skills in writing and her love of poetry, Carson settled on an idea: Morganville would host a pageant and she would write it.
The pageant, which was about 4,500 words long, described the history and settlement of Morganville. Carson developed the entire piece herself, completing it in about two weeks. Of the nearly 300 citizens of Morganville, about 150 were cast in the pageant as performers.
On Aug. 7, 1948, the day of the performance, an estimated 3,000 people arrived in Morganville to view the pageant and donate to the Fevés cause. It’s believed that less than half of the people who attended were able to actually watch the show, due to the lack of space.
Carson’s pageant raised about $1,000, which, when adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to more than $9,700 today. With this money, the people of Morganville were able to purchase everything from seeds, to soap, and even socks, to help feed and clothe the people. Carson’s commitment to the big picture eventually allowed Morganville to become the smallest community ever in America to form a sister city relationship with a foreign country.
As a person, Carson is noted mostly for her self-assurance. Barbara Hart, whose family was close with Carson’s when she was a child, said she remembers her strong presence most of all.
“I didn’t know what all she did when I was little,” Hart said. “I just knew she brought this aura of glamour and sophistication. She was very intellectual and very confident in everything she did.”
Vaughan agreed with Hart’s assessment.
“I think it would be fair to say she was a character,” he said. “Depending on who you talk to, some people called her a bully, while some people said that she was just strong willed. But, she definitely had opinions, and didn’t have any trouble sharing them.”
Carson received an honorary degree from K-State in 1982 after the head of the music department heard about her forfeiture of a degree in lieu of taking music appreciation. Although her lack of a degree never kept her from success, a letter from Carson to the dean of the university said, “It is wonderful to be getting through school at last!”
Although she died in 1984, Vaughan said the memory of Carson still remains strong in the minds of those whose lives she touched.
“Whenever you ask someone about their impression of Velma, they’re always initially quiet,” he said. “Then, there’s a smile that says she was a force to deal with, she had energy, and she pushed for what she believed.”