2013 50 Kansans You Should Know


Susan Wagle, Kansas Senate, Topeka

Susan Wagle

Kansas Senate, Topeka

For a state that prides itself on its populist heritage, it sure took a long time between electing its first woman mayor—Susan Salter of Argonia, in 1887—and seeing the first woman become president of the Kansas Senate. But when a new and decidedly more conservative Kansas Legislature convenes this month, Susan Wagle will hold the gavel in the upper chamber.

Wagle, 59, brings to that task a wealth of legislative experience and connections between both Senate and House. She has represented Wichita’s 30th District in the Senate since 2002, and for a decade before that, she was in the Kansas House. She’s the kind of poliician who can draw support from fiscal conservatives in the Tea Party, but even Democrats say she has a reputation as a consensus-builder who doesn’t march in ideological lock-step with any group. The Kansas Economic Freedom Index, for example, most recently rated her an 80 on its 100-point scale for positions that align with the concept of economic liberty—hardly the marks of an extremist. For all the talk of broken ceilings that followed her decisive 23-9 election by Senate Republicans last month, Wagle says being a cancer survivor is of greater significance in the leadership role than being a woman—she underwent successful chemotherapy last summer for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I know there are an awful lot of people looking for a reason to live right now and reason to go that extra step,” she said after the leadership vote, “and it teaches us to go that extra step, do what you have to do and fight for life.”

She and her husband, Tom Wagle, have four children.

Susan Sun, Kansas State University, Manhattan

Susan Sun

Kansas State University, Manhattan

If you’re going to work in grain science, go where the grain is. That’s how Susan Sun found her calling in America’s breadbasket. The division of grain science and industry in Kansas State University’s College of Agriculture, she says, “is the only department in the nation fully concentrating grain-based food, feed, and bio-based materials and biofuels.” Strong programs in agronomy and plant pathology, and research in such as areas as biological, chemical and agricultural engineering—plus chemistry, biochemistry and physics, she says—“provide me with a strong collaborative foundation for conducting multi-interdisciplinary research.” A native of China, Sun has been shining in Manhattan since 1996, and earned K-State’s highest academic ranking, distinguished professor in 2011. Her research has led to eight patents, including one for a container that holds nutritional supplements for cattle. She’s penned more than 120 scientific articles, but her work, she says, is not just pure research; it helps existing industries meet their specific product needs, and she takes a measure of pride in knowing that “I also helped Kansas people start new businesses that can transform the technology into commercial products.”

Tom Giessel, Giessel Brothers Farm, Larned

Tom Giessel

Giessel Brothers Farm, Larned

Call it “Mr. Giessel Goes to Washington.” Last spring, Larned farmer Tom Giessel testified before the House Agriculture Committee on behalf of a relatively new concept for grain-inventory management, one that could have saved the federal government $95 billion over a 13-year period while largely maintaining farm incomes. The panel’s reaction? “Courteous, but no questions were asked of me—it had a real ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ tone,” Giessel recalls. “Not entirely surprising, since it is quite a diversion from current policy.” But something’s going to change current policy, which, like a lot of things grown in Washington, is unsustainable. The government can’t continue with its current spending, and the world’s population—7 billion this year, 8 billion by 2028—won’t abide hunger. Not peaceably, anyway. Few understand those changing dynamics—or the connection between land and dinner plate—the way farmers do, Giessel says: “For a farmer, entrepreneurship finds its roots in stewardship. Farmers must be stewards of not only natural resources but also their local economies, communities, and commonwealths.” That means, he says, that real success comes from being mindful of the conservation ethic at all times—understanding the cycles of nature, and re-investing in the long term. Giessel and his brother raise wheat, corn, grain sorghum, soybeans, and alfalfa, both dryland and irrigated, and are pretty good at it, earning top honors in the World Forage Analysis Super Bowl in 1994 and 1st place in the National Sorghum Growers Competition, no till-division, in 1997. He and his wife of 36 years, have a son and two daughters.

Bill Simon, Freddy's Frozen Custard, Wichita

Bill Simon

Freddy's Frozen Custard, Wichita

He calls it a “Why Not?” attitude, and growing up in Wichita, Bill Simon was positively awash in it: Aviation pioneers made the city the Air Capital of the World; Vornado fans were born there, as were Coleman lanterns. “It was in that environment that I learned a ‘Why Not?’ atti-tude from people who had followed their passions,” says Simon, CEO and co-founder of Freddy’s Frozen Custard.

With guidance on the way up from founders of Pizza Hut and Rent-A-Center, two more Wichita-grown giants, Bill Simon turned his own passion into fast-casual dining—not fast food. In its first decade, Freddy’s has grown to nearly 80 stores in 10 states, and stores under development in nine more will yield a coast-to-coast footprint across the southern half of the U.S.

He named the business after his father, a decorated World War II veteran who has been a lifelong inspiration. “Fortunately for me and my siblings, we were raised by one of Kansas’ everyday heroes,” Simon says. “My dad, Freddy Simon, embodied the values of the era that our brand was born to personify.”

His team labored for years to get the first four stores up and running by the end of 2005, but by the following August, they’d opened seven more, and at that point, he knew the venture had legs to succeed. That came, in part, from measured risk-taking, Simon said: “Ideas are spawned in our stores by our owner-operators and our franchise growth is wholly dependent on autonomous business people willing to risk their time, talent and treasure on a brand for which they have developed a passion.” Other keys are state-of-the-art equipment, a no-skimping approach to the raw materials, and thin patties of ground steak that maximize carmelization to yield a unique taste. And don’t forget dessert. His personal favorite? “Our signature turtle sundae,” he says—vanilla custard, pecans fresh-roasted in the store, hot caramel and chocolate.

Greg Maday, SpecChem, Mission Hills

Greg Maday

SpecChem, Mission Hills

Fresh out of MU with a degree in finance, working at the Kansas City Board of Trade, “I thought I was going to be a master of the universe, going from there to Wall Street,” Greg Maday recalls. Instead, he and his wife Elizabeth bought a construction materials business and eight years later, after a 10-fold increase in its size, sold it. The sale, Maday says, “gave me a few years to spend time with our kids and do things I hadn’t done.” Like build meaningful connections. Serving on the American Royal board, he got to know a fellow named Neal Patterson and other key business figures in town. “It was serendipitous,” Maday said. “I’m a big believer in the decisions you make today determining the opportunities you have tomorrow.” He’s made the most of his own, as a partner in Rock Island Capital and with his wife formed GEM Holdings, then aligned with Cerner’s Patterson and Cliff Illig and others to found OnGoal—now Sporting Club, parent of Sporting Kansas City. All of those ventures have been successful, but Maday was the day-to-day driver for none. In 2009, he came back to construction materials with the launch of SpecChem, based in Kansas City, where he serves as the CEO.

Steve Baccus, Kansas Farm Bureau, Manhattan

Steve Baccus

Kansas Farm Bureau, Manhattan

Steve Baccus didn’t plan being the fourth generation to run the family farm—and he has a pair of psychology degrees to prove it. But when the hired man on his father’s Ottawa County farm moved on, the elder Baccus placed a phone call to Minot, N.D., and closed the deal: Soon, father and son were farming that spread near Minneapolis. “I was doing pretty well in my profession” managing substance-abuse treatments, Baccus remembers, “but I thought I didn’t want to be wearing a suit and tie when I was 50.” So it was back to working-man’s clothes for a spell, but while he indeed is a farmer today, Baccus is also back in the suit and tie—as president of the Kansas Farm Bureau. He’s in his sixth term as president of the advocacy group for agricultural interests. The family farm, 85 miles west, gives him an “on-the-ground perspective” for policy discussions that too often take place among a business-oriented crowd. That applies as well to national-level policy discussions; Baccus has been on the board for the American Farm Bureau Federation since 2004. A man who values integrity and perseverance, Baccus deplores the lack of both—as well as civility—in Washington. What that city needs, he says, is a dose of good, old-fashioned Bob Dole compromise. “The reason he got things done was his ability to work out compromises everybody could live with,” Baccus says. “That’s what’s wrong with the country today.” He’s raised five children with his wife of nearly 29 years, Patricia, who’s in an elected position herself as Ottawa County treasurer.

C. Patrick Woods, Topeka School Board

C. Patrick Woods

Topeka School Board

It’s one thing to dabble in education policy—and something entirely different to roll up the sleeves and jump into it by serving in a forum as potentially contentious as a big-city school board. But when Zen Woods arrived in this world in 2006, his father, Patrick, decided he was going to get more involved. “I realized he was going to be in public school before my first term ended, and I thought, ‘Darn, I better get on this and make things better,’” Woods says. His goal was to help the Topeka district focus more on early childhood education because “we know that’s the best tool in our toolbox to eliminate the achievement gap,” he said. Woods brings intellectual firepower to the task: He holds a master’s in public administration from KU, where he’s working on his doctorate, and where his day job is serving as director of advancement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. During the administration of Kathleen Sebelius, he served as her education policy director and legislative liaison—a role he started at age 25. On the school board, he’s survived some bruising battles, including one over a charter school concept he opposed, but he was handily re-elected in 2011, and is committed to the task—especially after he and Ann added a daughter to the mix. “If I wanted to do everything I possibly could to make a dent in terms of helping students fulfill their potential,” he says, “this was the way to do it.”

Chad Kassem, Acoustic Sounds, Salina

Chad Kassem

Acoustic Sounds, Salina

Chad Kassem became a business owner just like he became a Kansan—the hard way. More than 25 years after a judge in his native Louisiana sent a troubled youth off to a halfway house in Salina, Kassem has not just turned his life around, he’s emerged as a national-level figure in the comeback of high-quality vinyl recordings. His love for recorded music—he doesn’t play an instrument himself—has morphed into Acoustic Sounds, Quality Record Pressings and Blue Heaven studios, businesses totaling more than 100,000 square feet of space around Salina—including the former First Christian Church, given new life as the recording studio.

All of it was a natural progression, Kassem says: Collecting records as a hobby. Then, buying, selling and trading them, first out of his two-bedroom apartment, then from the basement of his first home. “When the neighbors started complaining about the 18-wheelers pulling up on the residential street, it was time to move,” he says. From that venture came re-issuing some of his own favorites, then recording his own favorite artists, then making records himself with a high-end pressing plant. “It’s just gone on like that,” he says, and now, “we’re involved in vinyl from stem to stern.” Salina, says Kassem, is “one of the best places I could raise my six-year-old daughter, Jasmine. Now if Salina could only get jet service, it would be the best—but I realize I might be dreaming about that.”

Marilyn Pauly, Commerce Bank, Wichita

Marilyn Pauly

Commerce Bank, Wichita

Commercial banking is not known as a particularly forgiving line of work, and Marilyn Pauly will tell you that if you’re a lender, you need to make the right decision at least 99 percent of the time. “With such a small margin for error, my personal experience has been that Kansans are of high character—honest, hard-working and trustworthy,” she says. “They have not disappointed me in my expectations of them.”

The vice chairman of the Wichita market for Commerce Bank was one of nine children raised on a farm near Conway Springs, half an hour southwest of Wichita. Inspired by a scholarship she received from a hometown bank, she went on to Wichita State University, and was among the 20 women outnumbered 14-1 by males graduating with degrees in business administration in 1972. By age 24, she had become the youngest woman ever named officer at what was then the biggest bank in Kansas, Bank IV—later acquired by Bank of America—and she served seven years as president before retiring in 2000. Just a year later, Commerce lured her back into the business.

Pauly also has a rich history of community service, sitting on the boards of the United Way of the Plains, the YMCA, Catholic Care Center and the Riverside Health Foundation. She and her husband, Ken, have set up an endowed scholarship in business studies at their alma mater, where she is also on the board of directors for the WSU Foundation.

Ed Cross, Kioga, Topeka

Ed Cross

Kioga, Topeka

Let Ed Cross correct any misunderstanding you may have about Big Oil in Kansas: Big, it ain’t. The Kansas oil and natural gas industry, he’ll tell you, is dominated by small businesses, but they combined to generate $3.5 billion in production value in 2011 alone and support 67,000 jobs. Doing his best to help keep Kansas a Top 10 oil-producing state is Cross, president of the Topeka-based Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association. “I have a strong desire to help small businesses,” says the geologist transplanted to this region from southern Illinois. Since moving here a decade ago, Cross has found not just a hand-and-glove fit for his own life experience, educational background and lobbying skills, but people who fit his value system, too: “No matter where you go throughout the state, people are who they seem to be,” he says. “You find a lot of ‘Kansas common sense’ and a lot of great character, and I am proud to call myself a Kansan.”

A state closely linked to the birth of basketball also fits his own passion for the sport, though he concedes that time is taking the “jump” out of his jump-shot. But he’s right at home with people who continually demonstrate innovation, speculation and perseverance: “The history of Kansas is an American story,” Cross says. “It is a story of daring talent, of dedication to an idea—even if the odds against were great—and of the unshakeable belief that in America, all things are possible.” He and his wife Michelle are raising two children, Rachel and Noah, in nearby Silver Lake.







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