(From Stephanie Becker, TODAY Producer)
There are few stories that I can look back and say, I am so grateful I could tell this one. Today's American Story about the connection between a 97-year old woman from Warsaw, Poland and a group of kids from tiny Uniontown, Kansas is one of them. Irena Sendler is credited with helping to save 2500 Jewish children from the Nazi death camps. She kept track of the children on scraps of paper she buried in jars under her neighbor's apple tree. And now this former Catholic nurse has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. But the twist to our story is that a group of high schoolers from Kansas found her story, turned it into a history project, then a play called Life in a Jar and have performed the play in some 200 schools, not just in the U.S. but overseas as well.
By now you've seen the story. So, let me tell you a little back-story. As with every spot that involves traveling, there are the all-important questions of logistics. Where will we sleep? And the more critical corollary, where's the best place to eat? For a city kid like me born in the Bronx, and bred in the shadow of Shea Stadium every trip to America's heartland is a fabulous adventure. This one took place in Uniontown, Kansas . You won't find a Starbucks here.
It's the reporter's job to spin you a good yarn, the cameraman's job to get the best pictures (our intrepid cameraman, Jim Mulligan defied the laws of logic, insisting on a death defying drive/skate down a farm road where he once again proved his skills of navigation and artistry) and the producer's job to get the best accommodations and good food. Tops on my list is staying in a place where you want to steal the soap without the bean counters getting nervous about cost. By the way, I have seventeen years of Today Show stories and a mile high pile of pilfered soap to prove it.
Because the population Uniontown is roughly equivalent to one NYC subway car at rush hour there were no local hotels. But 20 minutes away in Fort Scott an old Victorian mansion has been turned into a Victorian style bed and breakfast. Although, my room on the third floor (no elevator) was a hodgepodge of old Victorian style knickknacks and Asian motif lamps a bed that was a sea of burgundy silk sheets and the centerpiece was a hot tub with disco lights in the glass block base. If only I'd brought my boyfriend. If only I had a boyfriend.
Then the problem of food. Factoring in the temperature -- a balmy 12 degrees, I made an executive decision, we dine in. With Valentines Day still fresh, the dinning room was overflowing with bowls and plates and pots and vases of chocolate kisses. The temptation was overpowering. Why not take a handful? Especially since I was so sorely disappointed to discover my bathroom had -- perish the thought -- liquid soap -- now impossible to steal with the new FAA security restrictions. But, none of the boys were indulging. So, here's my quandary. Pocket a handful of kisses and ignore the ensuing cellulite? Or prove my will to just say no to those tasty little morsels.
Just then a new struggle. Apparently, in keeping with Victorian tradition, the cook/waitress/local middle school teacher handed me a little bell to ring when we were finished each of three courses. It fell on my shoulders to be the bell ringer. While it wasn't a Quasimodo moment, the bell was teeny tiny, this is a little too much standing on ceremony. I'm more of a take-out Chinese eaten over the sink type. Most visitors are in for that whole Victorian experience. But, this was work and after a 3 hour plane delay, two hours of driving and those enormous three flights of steps without a sherpa to carry my tape laden bag, I just wanted to hunker down in front of an episode of Deal or No Deal and fall asleep. That's right, for everyone who thinks what a glamorous nightlife we must have working on the Today Show, there's actually a lot more watching TV in a hotel room than you would think. And now, all this bell pressure and chocolate temptation.
But it gets you thinking, how really cool this job is. I can go to the middle of Kansas, stay in a place where you ring a bell for service, surrounded by Victorian antiques and good food and a stockpile of chocolates, telling the story of such a self-effacing group of teenagers, who resurrected the story of a humble woman, who is nothing less than a true heroine. Not a bad gig. And I only took 2 chocolates.