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Barton County Women Making a Difference
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Local musician makes impact

By Karen P. Neuforth

Research Coordinator, Barton County Historical Society


A young musician from Great Bend, with a knack for languages, Joan Valerie Bondurant so thoroughly mastered Japanese that she was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency) to translate and analyze military intelligence during World War II.

She had just graduated from the University of Michigan when war was declared and, believing that those with an ear for music also have an ear for language, she tried to enroll in a Japanese language course, but was rejected because the program did not accept women. Her determination was indefatigable, however, for she sat outside the classroom every day until she was admitted.

Ironically, it was her time in India with the OSS that led her to meet Mohandas Gandhi and become an authority on his philosophy of nonviolence - satyagraha. Returning to America in 1948, she earned a doctorate in political science and would spend the rest of her career teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of the Pacific. Her most famous book, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict is still the seminal text on this topic.


March in Women’s History Month, and the Barton County Historical Village and Museum has chosen this time to present a new exhibit: Women Making a Difference. All of the women in this exhibit lived in Barton County, with one notable exception, Museum Director Beverly Komarek said.

"Clara Barton did not live in Barton County," Komarek said. Although the county was supposedly named after the famous Civil War nurse, "she never came out here that we know of."

Two famous nurses of the same era who did live Barton County after the war, Elmina Spencer and Mary Ann Bickerdyke, are also included in the exhibit. "Mother" Bickerdyke lived here after the war, and when a grasshopper plague hit Kansas in the 1880s, she went back to New York and got trainloads of supplies delivered here. During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman remarked, "She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world."

The exhibit also pays tribute to the women in uniform during World War II. Esther Rusco, whose uniform is displayed, was a nurse and a captain in the U.S. Army. She served in the Philippines and was awarded three battle stars, Komarek said.

Beloved, but tough a nails, "these women did incredible things," Komarek said. Many more are included, from the Dominican Sisters who founded St. Rose Hospital and the Dominican School of Nursing to Beatrice Hagen, a teacher. Also included is Barbara McPherson, (1931-2012), a health-care professional whose hobbies included driving race cars.

The museum is located at 85 South U.S. 281, just south of the Arkansas River in Great Bend on Main Street, and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Even though this exhibit makes its debut during Women’s History Month, it will be up after the end of March, Komarek said. Other temporary exhibits include a display about country schools, the Exodusters exhibit, and three displays by Great Bend woodcarver Robert Button: "First People" native American collection, bird carvings, and beaded "whimseys" made by American Indians for the tourist trade.