Fred Krebs, My Unexpected Friend

Fred Krebs

Fred Krebs, 1946 – 2012

I met Fred Krebs when I worked as a reporter for The Campus Ledger. Fred, dressed as Benjamin Franklin,  sat at a table in the Commons building handing out copies of the US Constitution.  He saw me coming down the steps from The Ledger offices and said, “You need to have one of these.”

I thought he was one of those annoying guys handing out Gideon bibles.

Pocket-sized U.S. ConstitutionLooking closer, I saw it was a pocket-size US Constitution. I thanked him and took it. I continued to walk down the hall then I turned around and went back into The Ledger office.

“There’s a guy handing out little mini-Constitutions in the COM. Get a photog out there,” I told the photo editor. “Oh, and tell everyone to get one of those mini-Constitutions and bring them to the staff meeting.”

That was the beginning of our annual Constitution Day feature story and Fred was always our “go to” source.

As an employee of the library, I’d seen Fred a few times as he scheduled classes with the librarians. When I became a Diversity Fellow, I started to see more of him as he collaborated with our director, Carmaletta Williams on projects, most notably on The Souls of Black Folk.

Sure, I still thought he was kinda crazy for dressing up as all those historical figures but, everyone has their thing, right? And his wasn’t hurting anyone, in fact, people enjoyed it. He was helping them understand history.

When Fred’s mother, Virginia Krebs, stepped down from the Board of Trustees, I submitted an application to fill the vacancy. I guess word got around and Fred came into the library and said, “I hear you applied to fill my mother’s seat on the board.”

Oh geez, was I really gonna get a beat-down in the library from Benjamin Franklin? 

“Well, I think it’s a great opportunity to add some diversity to the board,” I said. “Your mother wasn’t just the first employee of the college, she was the first diversity employee of the college. She was a grassroots organizer at a time when women were supposed to stay at home and be seen and not heard. I think if there’s anyone on the board that I have the most in common with, it’s your mother. And if I’m selected to fill that seat there’s no way I could replace her, but I’d do my best to honor her legacy.”

Fred gave me a warm smile and said, “I just wanted to wish you good luck.” He set down the case he was holding (which he always seemed to be holding) and shook my hand.

When the board selected another person to take the seat, Fred came back to visit me in the library. He asked if I considered running for a seat on the board in the upcoming spring election. I said I was thinking about it. He said this would be best the time for a newcomer to make a run since the board expanded from six to seven members. He also noted that board member, Shirley Brown-VanArsdale,  would not run for reelection and another board member, Benjamin Hodge, most-likely would not keep his seat. While Krebs didn’t convince me to run, it was very comforting to know he thought I had a good chance and that he was encouraging me.

Well, I didn’t win a seat on the board and I’ll be honest, it devastated me. A week after the election, Fred came into the library and spread out a bunch of papers.

“These are the votes you won,” he explained. “This is the minimum you needed to win a seat.”

I must have looked pathetic because he leaned into me and said, “That’s not very much. You almost won.”

Again he gave me that famous Fred smile.

“If you start now, you could gather those numbers by the time the next election comes around,” he said. “You’d be the top vote-getter.”

Clearly he’d been thinking about this.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t get the support of the Faculty Association. Yeah, I’m upset that I lost … but I’m really upset that the people I’ve worked with for all these years didn’t believe in me. They’re the ones who’ve seen me fight everyday for this college and for the students. They really hurt me and I don’t know if I wanna go through that again.”

Fred gathered up his papers. He handed me the one with all the numbers.

“Take a look at those numbers,” he said. “You think about that. We can get those numbers up.”

Two years later, another election came and I did not run.

Then last October, Don Weiss, resigned from the board leaving the trustees with the task of selecting a new board member.  I applied and launched a vigorous online petition to the board to become a trustee. Uh, well, since this is a story about Fred and not my failed political aspirations, I’ll cut to the chase — once again the board looked me over for the vacant seat.

The next week, I came back to campus. As you can imagine I was pissed off and … well, anyway. Fred came into the library with his case of papers. My frustration pushed aside and this time I was the first to offer a warm smile. Fred took a deep breath and shook his head. He tilted his head forward, looked at me, and raised his eyebrows.

“I know,” I said. “think about the numbers.”

Fred nodded and walked away.

He came into the library a few more times but just passing through, he’d wave at the desk and we’d wave back.

Sure, some people will remember Fred as the guy who wore funny costumes, but I’ll remember him as an unexpected friend — a friend who happened to wear funny costumes. But, you know, when you really think about it, who doesn’t?

Posted Jan. 2 on the Johnson County Community College electronic mail server, Infolist:

Fred Krebs dies; services Jan. 5 in Polsky

Fred Krebs, JCCC professor, history, died Friday, Dec. 28. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, in Polsky Theatre at JCCC.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Rotary Foundation, Johnson County Community College or the Johnson County Library.

Krebs was one of the first professors to join the staff at JCCC where he continued to teach until his death. He embellished his teaching with portrayals of historical characters in costume including Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Ben Franklin, William Allen White, Huey Long and many others.

Ingram’s Magazine named Krebs an Icon of Education in 2012.

Vincent Clark, JCCC professor/chair, history, wrote that Krebs taught many of the history courses the college offers and was largely responsible for promoting and shaping JCCC Western Civilization classes. He developed the system of graded discussions that those who have taught Western Civ over the years have used, not only in Western Civ. but in many other courses as well.

Krebs promoted historical and other knowledge throughout Johnson County, the state of Kansas and beyond through his work in the Chautauqua movement, Clark wrote. He believed fervently in good citizenship and civic engagement and traveled to the distant corners of Kansas (and towns large and small in between) to promote these values. Clark wrote that Krebs saw the prospects of civic renewal in small-town institutions, particularly town baseball teams, and supported small-town festivals, such as the Buster Keaton Festival in Iola, Kan., where he was a regular speaker.

“He brought the same optimistic beliefs about the importance of the liberal arts and his students’ ability to benefit from them to his teaching,” Clark wrote. “Students’ lives would be enhanced, he was sure, by reading, thinking, discussing, and writing about original documents in his Western and Eastern Civilization courses. And he was convinced that if students would use the systems he had developed to help them learn, they could excel. He often told me that if students would work with him in these challenging classes, he could get them to succeed without sacrificing academic standards. His greatest frustration was with those who seemed to lack interest in doing so.”

A complete obituary, with an online guestbook, can be found here.

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