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Lake loses dedicated community volunteers

Staff writer

It is amazing how much can be accomplished in a short period of time when those doing the work are dedicated and focused.

Dwight and Helen Beckham retired from their teaching jobs in Newton in April 2000 to become full-time residents of Marion County Park and Lake.

Since then, they have led efforts to place the lake on the National Register of Historic Places, erect a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) statue, and establish a lake museum.

They are planning to move in mid-December to Hesston, where they will be closer to their family and to Dwight’s work in Newton as a professional trumpet player.

“It was our pleasure to give back to our community,” Helen said about the projects they undertook at Marion Lake.

Instead of settling down to a relaxed, comfortable life, as they had intended, they quickly became engrossed in the history of the lake and set out to preserve that history.

After learning that a Civilian Conservation Corps camp of African Americans had built the lake during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Beckhams immediately saw the lake as a candidate for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. They wanted not only to preserve its history, but also to encourage preservation of the original structures around the lake.

Helen Beckham joined the national CCC alumni association and visited its research center in St. Louis, Mo., to learn more about the CCC.

She also compiled a large collection of newspaper articles published from May 1934 to May 1940, detailing the process involved in bringing the camp to Marion County and constructing the lake.

The Beckhams submitted a registry application in 2001, and in March 2002 Marion County Park and Lake was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

During her research, Helen Beckham learned that a statue honoring men employed in the CCC was available. Other identical statues had been placed in various states, but Kansas had none.

Beginning in December 2007, the Beckhams led various fund-raising efforts to raise the $20,000 needed to order and place the statue. These efforts included collecting and selling aluminum cans, holding a garage sale, and getting the word out to CCC alumni and their families and other possible contributors.

In eight short months, the money was raised. The statue was dedicated in October 2004.

In 2006, the Beckhams were successful in persuading the Kansas Department of Transportation to provide directional signs to the lake on U.S. 56 and U.S. 77.

Dwight Beckham designed brochures for self-guided tours around the lake and built a wooden box to contain them. The box is attached to the lake sign.

CCC museum

The Beckhams then had the idea of remodeling the storage shed west of the lake office into a lake museum. It had been a washhouse for the CCC camp.

The Marion County Commission gave them the green light. Together with many volunteers, they transformed the building into an attractive structure filled with interesting artifacts and articles about the lake. People from near and far donated items relating to the lake and the CCC.

The museum opened in September 2006 and will continue to be available to visitors through Steve Hudson at the lake office.

The Beckhams’ crowning achievement was the establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps Recognition Day in Kansas by the Kansas Legislature.

The resolution, signed by Governor Kathleen Sebelius on March 31, 2008, designates every March 31 as CCC Recognition Day. The CCC was established by an act of Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on that day in 1933.

Dwight Beckham has been responsible for publishing the directory of lake residents since 2001. It is updated every two years.

The Beckhams’ interest in preserving history was not limited to Marion County Park and Lake. They also were instrumental in placing the Bichet country school at Florence on the National Register.

The Beckhams say their efforts would not have been successful without many others who donated their labor, materials, time, and money.

As the Beckhams depart, they leave behind a legacy of leadership that will not be forgotten.

They were saddened four weeks ago by the death of their beloved dog, Whitey. The 13-year-old Pyrenees was struck by a car in front of their home at 48 Lakeshore Drive. Whitey’s daughter, Zoë, will accompany them to Hesston and will keep Whitey’s memory alive.

“We are really tired,” Helen said. “We are looking forward to relaxing and doing some things for ourselves.”

Now in their mid-70s, they plan to take up biking again and do some traveling.

Friends and neighbors are hosting a farewell reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the home of Bob and Judy Priest, 26 Lakeshore Drive.

Last modified Dec. 3, 2009

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