by Valerie Verkamp
Nearly all of us share an undeniable interest in the lives of those around us.
After all, getting a clearer glimpse into someone's life can be quite interesting and even uplifting. It can spark a large spectrum of emotions, and can be a time when one truly discovers compassion or feels a strong sense of belonging to a community.
Bill Hankins, a longtime photojournalist for The Landmark, has been capturing the lives of ordinary people in Platte County for more than a decade.
In the 50 or more pieces he wrote over the years, he has shared uplifting stories of glorious triumph, unparalleled kind-heartedness, and unwavering resolve.
In his second book titled “Landmark People” Vol. II, Hankins, once again, encapsulates the lives of those who dare to share their unique experiences with the world.
The book is now available in The Landmark office at 252 Main St., Platte City.
Bill's personal interest in the lives of other people, specifically of those living in rural areas, prompted him to “search out” interesting individuals and share their stories.
“We learn a lot from other peoples' lives,” said Hankins. “For one thing, you learn about the art of getting by, and in my view, it is an art that lifts our lives out of the routine into a special place that is well worth sharing. So the people who read these stories and enjoy them, identify with the lives that are being told and learn something.”
Hankins says typically the stories he shares and preserves feature strong individuals or families living under the radar, which may have otherwise been forgotten or unnoticed.
“In a traditional sense, most of these people are not news events. It's not like something happened where they would be front page news; it's the quality of their lives and the quality of who they are as individuals that makes the story.”
Often, Hankins would simply bump into his subjects on the street and get them talking about their lives.
“Some of the older people remind me of my grandparents, while others I just knew all of us could identify with their integrity, their hard-working qualities, and the struggles they have in their life,” he said.
The inspiration to share his subjects' hardships or triumphs derived from his desire to capture the rural way of life.
“I do like telling stories of lives that have their beginning in the rural community,” he said. “I think there's a quality there that I would like to preserve. My family roots are rural and even though I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, I have always been attracted to farming life and rural life. I think the people that read these stories share the same sense of wanting to preserve the rural.”
Hankins continued: “In a nutshell, I think it is just trying to preserve these stories of people who have carved their way in life in difficult times. Many of the older ones have lived through the big events over the last century and kept their humanity. I loved trying to document their lives.”
When asked if he could identify a favorite story from his large collection of features, Hankins compared it with trying to pick out a favorite child. “You can't really do that,” he said.
“The truth is they are all special and challenging in their own ways; some more emotionally difficult to write, others hard because they adamantly hid the form that the story should follow. But all of the stories I really do love,” said Hankins.
When writing Wes and Lucy Paden's story, a northern Platte County couple married for 71 years, Hankins became overwhelmed by their gratitude.
“They were such fun to talk to and so appreciative of my telling their story. But the appreciation really goes the other way. With all of my stories, I appreciate people letting me into their lives,” he said.
An individual entering adulthood in a completely different generation significantly touched Hankins in another way. Hankins found Aaron Cooper, featured in his second volume, extremely inspirational.
“He is quite an athlete and so very talented,” he said.
“To me, these Platte County folks give off their own light, and I have been lucky to be given the opportunity to add their light to the world's collective glow,” said Hankins.
Rather than sitting behind a desk and placing a few calls like many journalists today, Hankins treads the ground to be face-to-face with his subjects. In hand, he carries his yellow legal notebook pad and blue felt-tip pens.
“I'm a little bit old fashioned,” said Hankins. “But this small allotment of writing paraphernalia was my comfort tools. When my 50 some “Landmark People” stories over the years got tough—and they all did—it was comforting to have my tools of the trade. Lots of sheets of yellow paper decorated with blue scratchings crossed through are in my files, along with all the notes from interviews taken for the past 13 years.”
Since he didn’t use an audio recorder, Hankins would often find it necessary to meet with his subjects at least more than once. For him that wasn't a struggle, but rather an advantage.
“I was able to get people to talk in a more casual way. A recording device might have stalled that,” said Hankins. “And by being a photographer and going into these stories in-depth, I could always tell my subjects 'well I need to come back and get some more photographs' and that would turn into yet another interview time where I could cover ground that I hadn't been able to before and without being as intrusive,” he said.
During the interview process, Hankins said he usually discovered something surprising about his subjects.
“That would take me in a different direction,” he said.
The stories that are now compiled in the second volume of “Landmark People,” were first featured in The Landmark.
Hankins praised Ivan Foley, editor and publisher of The Landmark, for allowing him to write and share these stores for more than a decade.
“These last 13 years have been probably my most creative in terms of putting my skills to use. When I originally retired from teaching, I wanted to see what I could do and if I could do the photography and journalism that I taught for years,” he said.
Hankins indeed mastered the art of telling stories of ordinary folks in Platte County.
“Landmark People” Vol. II can be purchased at The Landmark office on Main Street in downtown Platte City for $25. With the purchase of the second volume, the first volume can be purchased at a discounted rate of $5.
If you prefer an autographed copy of either book, Hankins will attend the annual Landmark Christmas Party to be held on Dec. 13 from 4-8 p.m. at the Comfort Inn in Platte City. Copies of the book will be available for purchase.
Hankins is the recipient of 47 awards from the Missouri Press Association and has been inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame.
For three decades, he taught journalism and photography at Oak Park High School. He also served as an adjunct professional at Maple Woods Community College where he taught freshman writing.
During his tenure as an educator, he received the Teacher of the Year Award, the Knight Award, and Taft Award from the Missouri Interscholastic Press Association. He was also a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Teacher of Merit and Pioneer Award from the National Scholastic Press Association.
Bill and his wife, Marcia, reside in rural Platte County.