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‘A Prairie Peter Pan’

October 5th, 2010 at 11:10 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Beverley Buller talks about her new book to an audience on the porch at the William Allen White State Historic Site in Emporia.


“Using her father’s words as a frame really tells her story,” Beverley Buller said.

When Buller first began to write the biography of Mary White, she tried to do so without relying on William Allen White’s famous editorial, “Mary White,” that he wrote after his daughter’s death in 1921.

Focusing on White’s editorial would be too predictable, Buller thought, so she tried to tell the story in chronological order. That didn’t work for her. Approaching Mary’s life in that manner made the writing dry, she said.

“I finally realized that – who knew her better than her father? And who loved her more than her father? And so much of what I was able to share with the reader was from her father,” Buller said.

“So that’s when I went through the editorial and jotted down the phrases that I thought were especially good, especially revealing, about Mary – starting with ‘She was a Peter Pan who refused to grow up.’”

On Sept. 26, at the William Allen White House, Beverley Buller told an audience for the Sunday On the Porch series about the process of writing her new children’s book, “A Prairie Peter Pan: The Story of Mary White,” which was published by Kansas City Star Books.

Buller is a middle school librarian in Newton. Her first book, also for children, was titled “From Emporia: The Story of William Allen White.”

Most Emporians are familiar with the story of Mary White, a 16-year-old girl who struck her head on a tree branch while riding her horse. Mary was knocked unconscious and died a few days later.

Weaving in lines and phrases from White’s heart-wrenching editorial, Buller tells Mary’s story. Both of Buller’s books have been written for youngsters, but I personally have learned interesting bits of local history from these two well-researched biographies.

“A Prairie Peter Pan” is full of illustrations – family photographs, newspaper clippings, and even sketches that Mary drew.

Included in the book is a picture of a telegram sent to the Whites from President Teddy Roosevelt on June 25, 1904, in honor of Mary’s birth. “Good for the baby girl,” it read in part.

W.A. White had already attained a national reputation as a journalist, and Pres. Roosevelt was a friend who sometimes visited the Whites in their Emporia home.

“Mary wanted no special treatment because her father was famous,” Buller writes. “She once told a teacher, ‘I’m sick and tired of being William Allen White’s daughter.’ She wanted people to like her for who she was.”

This teenage girl was friends with others regardless of their race or social standing, Buller said. Even though the races were segregated at the time, Mary had numerous black friends. And she served her community in various ways. But she was also a spirited girl, full of pranks. Buller quoted her father’s editorial, “She was mischievous without malice, as full of faults as an old shoe.”

Buller gave the audience several examples of Mary’s orneriness such as when she’d sneak out of her art class every day and slip into another classroom so she could cross off the date on the calendar just to prove that she had been there.

Mary was a high school junior at the time of her death. Because she was W.A. White’s daughter, news of her passing spread quickly across the nation on teletype machines.

The story of her life, told by her father in his editorial, also made its way across the country. “Mary White” was first published in The Emporia Gazette on May 17, 1921 and then it appeared in the Kansas City Star. Buller writes, “By June 21, it was showing up in newspapers across the United States. Magazines asked to reprint it.”

The editorial was published in a book of essays and in high school and college text books. Buller writes, “For two decades, her father and mother kept track and found that the article had appeared in more than 40 such books.”

The White family donated the land for Peter Pan Park in Mary’s honor and the girl’s memory lives on in Emporia. With Beverley Buller’s book, new generations of Kansans will be able to read and learn about Mary White’s short but well-lived life.

Copyright 2010 ~ Cheryl Unruh

history, Kansans, other people's stuff, WAW

  1. Roger
    October 5th, 2010 at 11:23 | #1

    I just posted a review on Barnes & Noble online.

    Had Mary White not died from a head injury while on horseback in 1921, she would have left a mark on America. Dead at 16, Mary White would never grow up but would become immortalized in the joyous, compelling and touching editorial eulogy written by her renowned father, William Allen White, the Sage of Emporia, Kansas. Mr. White’s “Mary White” leaves a mark on the heart.

    White’s 1921 “Mary White” editorial was embraced instantly by the reading public and was reprinted in the nations newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and school textbooks across the US and beyond for the next 20 plus years. The editorial was the most widely published piece of writing Mary’s prolific father ever wrote and very well could be the most widely published single profile on any Kansan/American.

    The editorial inspired a 1977 ABC Movie of the Week 56 years after her death. In 2010, it inspired Beverley Olson Buller to bring the life and times of this inspiring Kansas girl to a whole new generation of young readers. Buller’s storytelling is geared for the 3rd to 5th grade reader and is wonderfully researched and written. The book is designed beautifully and is lavishly illustrated with vintage images and archival material central to Mary’s life and story. The editorial words of her loving father are a part of Buller’s book and provide a framework for the biography.

    Beverley Buller’s 2007 first book “From Emporia: The Story of William Allen White” is a classy youth biography about Mary White’s father, well written, illustrated and designed for an older reader. “A Prairie Peter Pan: The Story of Mary White” transcends regional boundaries. Mary’s is a life story that reverberated across America in the first half of the twentieth century. It echoes back now in the first half of the twenty-first century in this marvelous book to inspire another generation of young readers. The story of Mary White stays forever young like a prairie Peter Pan.

  2. Steve Scott
    October 5th, 2010 at 12:02 | #2

    Growing up in Emporia, I was always enthralled by my mother’s story of Mary White riding her horse, one afternoon, into the kitchen of my mother’s parents home just South of the White’s home…a prank that endorses her mischievous reputation! My mother probably had more stories of her friend, but I have forgotten them, if I ever heard them.
    MS. Buller’s book will be an important book to the White legacy in Emporia, Kansas and the nation. Steve Scott, Lindsborg, KS

  3. October 6th, 2010 at 10:53 | #3

    I’m so glad you reminded me of this. It was a good journey to the porch. I loved Beverly’s first book and I’m really looking forward to getting a copy of this one.

  4. October 6th, 2010 at 10:53 | #4

    I’m so glad you reminded me of this. It was a good journey to the porch. I loved Beverly’s first book and I’m really looking forward to getting a copy of this one.

  5. Lynne
    December 29th, 2010 at 01:23 | #5

    I’ve loved the Mary White editorial since I first read it in a school textbook. It’s interesting to imagine what Mary might have done with her life had she lived.