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History

The Washington Program in National Issues (WPNI) of Kent State University: A History Through Alumni Reminiscences

Founded in 1973, WPNI has had a long and eventful history as an academic/internship program of Kent State University in the Washington, D.C. area.  Let’s hear what alums have to say about some of that history:

Frances Richardson (class of 1939)

July 5, 2003

Living in Washington where so much of the “action takes place,” I recall my days in Ohio and at Kent State (’35-’39 and a summer in ’46). Washington and what was happening there was years away from what we were aware of, or maybe I might even say, learning about, on campus. Kent was a small town and we were part of the Middle West.

Then, living in Washington in the ‘70’s but sometimes visiting back in Ohio, I came to think that time here in Washington would be a broadening experience for Kent students. One evening at my house Bill Oliver (KSU ’64) and I talked about getting students to come down here -- we felt they didn’t know much about what was going on in the nation’s capital and ought to come and learn about it first hand. Bill, at that time, was working on the Hill. I then made several trips to Kent, driving up in my old VW to promote the idea. Don Shook of the Alumni Office did and said his office would sponsor it, if I could get an OK from the Political Science Department. I talked to Dr. Richard Taylor and he agreed, having had some experience with a Quaker Washington program.

A political science professor (George Betts) was named, who was recovering from an illness and it was thought that he could come to DC once or twice a week to look over what the students were seeing and doing. A graduate student was assigned to be with the students fulltime.

So the program got started with some announcements. A few students were rounded up, so to speak, and we found a cheap boarding house for them to stay in. We didn’t realize, then, that it was in a not-so-good part of town. The students had to get past drunks on the steps to get inside. No Metro then -- it was being built and streets were all torn up. One student fell into a ditch and was injured. It was a long walk for them to the Hill. But all survived and learned a bit about how the government works.

Julie Montgomery Walsh, an Alumna, had had some Alumni to a luncheon meeting and they began to arrange various interviews and a program of weekend suppers for the students since they didn’t have a lot of money and we felt they weren’t eating properly. In that first year, because the Kent professor came down to Washington only on a part-time basis, I found myself working full-time arranging interviews, going to the interviews, photocopying schedules, providing some suppers and taking in sick ones. But they got through the quarter and went back to the University agitating for a regular yearly program.

At the same time, on our part in DC to boost the program, Julia funded a reception at the end of the quarter at the Women’s Press Club. It was a fancy place and invitations were sent to whoever in Washington was on Kent’s mailing list. There was a big turnout because of the impressive location and those who came were leaned on to help and join a newly- formed Alumni Association. Both WPNI and the DC Chapter of the Alumni Association were on their way!

They succeeded.

Among the professors who served so well: Doctor Taylor. Dr. Ken Colton, who, we said, had more parking tickets than anyone else in Washington. He served for two years. Byron Lander came for a year and Murray Powers, of the Journalism School, boosted the enrollment of journalism students. Recently there was a wonderfully dedicated retired Political Science Professor, Dr. Barbara Harkness. Since the University was not always lavish with funds for this program, some of the first professors who came down ahead of time to check out the situation, stayed at my house.

I must say that in my view the assignment of Dr. Ken Colton was key. Since Kent did not provide funding for living quarters for the Directors assigned to DC, perhaps Colton was selected because his wife lived in Washington and he could stay with her. Whatever--his appointment made all the difference--it was a crucial choice. He coined the name - WPNI - he had an attractive brochure published to explain and advertise it. Cathy McMillan (Teti) who had been in the first year’s program as a junior and returned to the University to badger it to continue the program was named Colton’s student assistant. Dr. Olds was supportive and had connections in the White House, which resulted in a special briefing. After her graduation, Cathy obtained a job in Washington and is now at the top of an important government agency.

Now, my tale is down to the present…and I have found Rick Robyn to be absolutely tops.

I trust the Washington Program in National Issues will carry on and on. I’m well into my 80’s now and am going to be phasing out, after all these years! In closing, I might report something that isn’t generally known—when Dr. Cartright took office, she looked over the University’s “books” and noted that the Washington Program did not pay for itself and suggested it should be ended. This information was passed to the Alumni here who arranged for a big reception for her on the Hill with various important people attending who told her how impressed they were with Kent State students, etc. That did the trick. The fact is—and obviously, she has come to realize it – that the students and their interest in learning, and their intelligent questioning at interviews and their working conscientiously at internships has been good PR for the University and helped enhance its standing. It has also been an object of scholarship funds and gifts as well as a uniting theme for all the Alumni who are now living in this area.

Betty Harrington (class of 1964)

Memories glide by – and resonate for me – when I think of the fellowship of KSU alums and WPNI gathering together and celebrating common bonds to a great school, my alma mater. Among those memories ---

Cheering at an Orioles baseball game when – to our amazement - it starts to snow. Spring snows are regular occurrences for native Ohioans – but for those of us who have lived in the DC area for many years... It did come as a jolt. Being good sports, the KSU fans weathered the storm and huddled together and continued enjoying the ball game – a good lesson for life – particularly in the challenging times we all face!

Lauren B. Worley (class of 2001)

Communications Director, Ohio Democratic Party and Young Democrats of America Executive Committee

From meeting Justice Ginsburg and other prominent figures in Washington, to making the connections to land a job in DC, my WPNI experience was my gateway to success. The friendships I made during my time there have influenced my career and have given me a new sense of what can be accomplished out of humble beginnings as an intern. I credit the WPNI program with launching me into my career in state and national politics.

Living in Washington where so much of the “action takes place,” I recall my days in Ohio and at Kent State (’35-’39 and a summer in ’46). Washington and what was happening there was years away from what we were aware of, or maybe I might even say, learning about, on campus. Kent was a small town and we were part of the Middle West.

The Beginning of the WPNI Program

The story of WPNI begins with Fran Richardson, the first woman to graduate from Kent State with a degree in Journalism in 1939. When Fran visited Kent State in 1967, her former journalism mentor Bill Taylor encouraged her to get more involved with the university. He suggested to Alumni Office Director Don Shook that he ask Fran to organize a meeting in Washington of the few alumni whose names the office had on hand. Fran did. That evening, she said that rather than give money, it would be better if the alumni in Washington did something "in kind" instead. She and Bill Oliver, a local alumnus, agreed that many Kent students did not have a good understanding of how Washington worked and that they needed to come to Washington to learn about it first-hand. Fran then made several trips to Kent in her old VW to promote the idea. Shook committed the Alumni Office to sponsor a Washington program if Fran could get the Political Science Department to agree. Fran met with its chairman, Dr. Richard Taylor. He was sympathetic since he had once been in D.C. on a Quaker seminar program. University President Glenn Olds also supported the idea. In 1973, the Washington program was born. [1]

Fran located an inexpensive boarding house, Hartnett Hall, where the students could reside. Though only a few blocks from Dupont Circle, it was not in the best neighborhood; the students often had to step over drunks on the steps to get inside. Kent Political Science Professor George Betts, the first director of the program, was to drive to Washington once a week to oversee the program. A graduate student living with the students was to manage the program on a daily basis. After a couple of weeks, however, the graduate student disappeared with her boyfriend, and did not reappear. And after a month, Dr. Betts stopped driving down. Fran was left running the program. It became a full time project. She called friends and colleagues to set up briefings, to which she accompanied the 20 students. She used her husband's copy machine to provide the students with handouts, boarded those who were sick, and often fed the entire group at her house. Meanwhile, Julia Montgomery Walsh, a Washington stockbroker and fellow Kent alumna, helped arrange briefings and established a program of weekend suppers for the students to ensure that they got some decent meals. At the end of the program's first year, Julia Walsh funded a reception at the Women's Press Club. Because of the impressive location, a large number of D.C. alumni attended. They were urged to establish a local alumni chapter. They did, and the D.C. chapter of the Kent State Alumni Club was established. It has continued to be one of the university's strongest alumni chapters, in part because of its long-standing support of the Washington student program. It has received several awards from the university. [2]

Dr. Kenneth Colton was selected to run the program for its second year, perhaps in part because he had a home in the area and could keep expenses down. It was Colton who coined the name Washington Program in National Issues (WPNI). He selected Cathy McMillan (now Teti) to be his student assistant. She had been a student in the program its first year so could help Colton avoid some of the earlier pitfalls. This time, the students had one "house" of Hartnett Hall to themselves, next to a delicatessen and across from the dining hall. There was a spare room on the first floor for studying. Cathy McMillan and Karen Gibson, Colton's other assistant, shared a large room on the top floor, nicknamed the "Command Post," which also served as a meeting place for students in the evenings. Alumni and others, including Dr. Olds, gave briefings there amidst, as Fran said, the "crunching of potato chips, popcorn, apples, and swilling of beer or Coke." Hartnett's dining room went out of business halfway through the program that year so the students became even more reliant on alumni home hospitality. By the end of the ten weeks, the students staged a mini-revolt over the number of briefings, after which the final sessions were made optional. Over the course of the ten weeks, the students attended 106 briefings, had a picture-taking session with Senator John Glenn, made a visit to the White House, and got a conducted tour of the Capitol. They saw different ends of the political spectrum--from the paneled conference room of the American Medical Association offices to the cramped, shabby office of Ralph Nader's health group. After the program's second year, Fran received a Distinguished Alumnus Service Award from the University for her role in initiating the program. [3]

Colton also managed the program its third year, after which followed a string of professors, most of whom only managed the program a year or two. When these professors came to Washington ahead of time to check out the situation, Fran often housed them. Depending on their level of commitment, knowledge of Washington, and work ethic, Fran spent more or less time arranging briefings. From the beginning, and for more than 20 years thereafter, she provided the students with a meal their first night in Washington. Until 2004 Fran gave the students an initial briefing on local history and geography, and led an orientation walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. Over time, there grew to be less emphasis on briefings and more on unpaid internships on Capitol Hill, the Executive Branch, newspapers, lobbying groups, and an array of Washington institutions. After the first couple of years of the program, Fran and other alumni felt the students were not taking advantage of the cultural opportunities in Washington, so she encouraged the university to add such a component. Professor Bill Kenney, charged with setting it up, visited Washington monthly to oversee this cultural component, but Fran was in charge of arranging speakers, giving the students information on the timing and location of the lectures, attending the lectures, and writing thank-you notes to the speakers. At first Kenney graded the papers for the course, but eventually Fran did that as well. Each student wrote five papers for the course. The students were a little "put out," she said, when she marked their papers for spelling and grammar as well as content. After a time, the Cultural Heritage program became another responsibility of the WPNI professor. [4]

When Carol Cartwright became President of Kent State in 1991, she noted that the WPNI program did not pay for itself and suggested that it be canceled. When Fran and other Washington alumni learned of her suggestion, they arranged a big reception for her on Capitol Hill. There many Washington VIPs told the new president how impressed they were with the Kent State students in briefings and on their internships. Dr. Cartwright quickly understood the importance of the program in enhancing Kent's image--and supported it. [5]

In January 2010 Rick Robyn, Director of the WPNI program, reminisced about Fran's involvement:

"August, 2001. I had just returned to Kent State University from an extended trip to Europe and was getting ready for a big job: my first semester as director of the Washington Program in National Issues. While I had been selected for the position earlier in the summer, the European trip had interfered with my preparations for becoming WPNI director. Of course I had known about the program in general terms, enough to know what I was getting myself into when I applied for the position, but I didn't know the details. Thus, I was in the office, going through files and trying to get a handle on a complex program that had been a part of the Political Science Department for nearly 30 years. It was intimidating, to say the least.

"I was walking down the hallway toward my office one afternoon when a small, slim elderly woman approached me and called out abruptly, 'Are you Robyn?'

"Startled, I think I just had enough presence of mind to answer in the affirmative. She nodded and waved me into my own office. 'Then have a seat and let's talk about the Washington program.'

"She looked up at me impatiently when I hesitated. 'Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to bite you. I just need to get to know you. I'm the one who started this program and I like to know who is going to lead it.'

"That was my introduction to Fran Richardson. As I discovered later during many years of working with her on the program, it was fairly typical of Fran. While abrupt, to the point and businesslike, it was evident that she was that way out of a desire to cut to the essentials and that she cared a great deal about certain important things in life. And for her, WPNI was an important thing in life. She was the one who saw the need for Kent State students to learn about the inner workings of Washington, DC, and to get hands-on, practical work experience before they graduated. She saw a need and so she started the program. That was that.

"While she had help in doing this from many alums who lived in the DC area, I think they all would agree that Fran was the moving force behind it and kept it together through lean years -- especially in the beginning -- to make sure it stuck to its mission and served the students as it was supposed to do. And that it came back the next year, very important in those early years when it was not at all certain that KSU was committed to it.

"It was her love of learning and of young people that motivated her to take so much time out of her busy life to devote to the program. As she ruefully told the KSU alumni magazine that interviewed her once about her work with the program, it was 'no glory, but a hell of a lot of work.' How could she do it, she was asked. 'Fortunately I have a very understanding husband who doesn't mind fixing and eating his own peanut butter sandwiches some nights.'

"During that first conversation in my office Fran made it clear that even in her seventh decade she wanted to help out with the program but that she couldn't carry on as she had for so many years: ferrying the students to grocery stores, having them to her house for dinners and conversation, even arranging for briefings with VIPs in Washington, and much more. But she told me what she would do: meet the group at the first opportunity to help orient them to the cultural scene in DC and then take them the first week in town on her patented Pennsylvania Avenue tour. She wanted to show them more than the White House and usual tourist sites.

"I remember thinking that I would be interested in that myself, so I penciled her into the schedule. She was as good as her word. The first meeting we had in our headquarters Fran informed the students about some key cultural events coming up in DC (including the free concerts at the Kennedy Center, always a good idea for impecunious students). The students were at first stunned by the 70-something grandmother who passed out homemade chocolate chip cookies as she dispensed advice. Then they loved her even as they marveled at her energy and obvious dedication to WPNI.

"It was the same several days later when, on a freezing cold January day, she gave us her own inimitable tour of the sights along Pennsylvania Avenue. It did include the White House, but much more: the Renwick Gallery, Lafayette Park, the Old Post Office, several of the kinds of places that the students might have missed had they only hit the high spots. It was all done with her decisive opinion offered at the appropriate spots. As she said, for example, waving towards the hulking FBI Building: 'ugliest building in Washington.'

"She did this tour every year faithfully for several years, until she really couldn't do the walk and I insisted she not tempt fate in those freezing January conditions. I eventually wrote it up as a self-directed tour for the students and put it on the WPNI website for the students to download. I dedicated it to Fran so that students would know that it was inspired by her and her love of Washington.

"With that, and with my annual remarks to the students about her and her life and the impact she had on our program, I hope to pass on to them a little of the life of this remarkable woman who inspired so many. [6]


[1] Letter to Dr. Hensley, July 5, 2003; letter to Dr. Joe Danks, May 3, 2004; "Indefatigable" by Bill Miller, Kent State University Alumni Magazine, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 1998, p. 20.

[2] Letter to Dr. Joe Danks, May 3, 2004; note to Jeff, July 3, 2003; "Indefatigable" by Bill Miller, Kent State University Alumni Magazine, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 1998, p. 20.

[3] Letter to "Dear Pioneers of the Washington Seminar in National Issues," April 23, 1975; Commencement Program, Kent State University, June 15, 1974.

[4] Letter to Dr. Joe Danks, May 3, 2004; letter to Dennis, October 16, 2000; letter to Dr. Hensley, July 5, 2003; letter to Alice and Jim Williamson, January 1, 1993.

[5] Letter to Dr. Hensley, July 5, 2003.

[6] Email communication from Rick Robyn, January 4, 2010.

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