Column: Former Topeka first lady more than a cook *

By Mike Hall
December 22, 2009 – 5:49pm

This may be a stretch, but the recent death of Shirley McCormick reminded me of one of the most honest Christmas greetings I have ever heard.

Many people remember Shirley as the wife of Bill McCormick, who was mayor of Topeka from 1971 to 1983. People who knew her a little better remember her as a great cook, arranging meals for the ERC Designer Showhouse and for her church.

People who knew her a little better yet remember her as a fun person to be around and the perfect mate for Bill.

I once wrote a personality profile of Bill McCormick while he was mayor. It included a memorable interview with Bill and Shirley, talking about their lives together.

They first met when Bill was a trumpeter and she was in a drill team in the old Br’er Fox kiddies show at the Jayhawk Theater. He was 14. She was 11. In the interview, she claimed to be offended that he referred to her as a “chorus girl,” but her laugh betrayed her delight in the story.

The romance didn’t begin, though, until they met at a Washburn University fraternity party.

“We dated for a while and then I broke a date and we didn’t date for a year,” she told me. “Then we got back together and started dating again.”

At that point he broke in with, “It was gangbusters.”

Pretended offense again, betrayed again by the laugh.

“He didn’t used to talk like that,” Shirley said. “He was the most quiet boy I ever knew. He was really polite. He was the nicest boy I ever went with.”

To which Bill replied: “I was? Who did you go with?”

I remember times like that with Shirley. But, yes, I also remember the food. The McCormicks had a “wine and stew party” each fall and invited a variety of people from the community. There were lawyers, judges, business people, Menninger outpatients and even the reporters who regularly covered City Hall.

The stew was so good my wife got the recipe and we still make it occasionally. I say “we” make it in the sense that the little bird riding on the elephant’s back said, after crossing a bridge, “We sure made that bridge shake, didn’t we?”

And I can’t think of Shirley without bringing up memories of Bill.

One Christmas, a local television crew set up a camera in the mayor’s office and asked Bill to offer a Christmas greeting they could play on the air.

“What do you want me to say?” he asked.

“How about ‘Merry Christmas,’ ” the reporter suggested.

“Oh. I never say Merry Christmas,” McCormick said.

“OK. What do you say?”

“Same to you,” McCormick said.


*As it appeared in the Topeka Capitol-Journal

Column: Still using McCormick magic to prop up a career*

Created January 12, 2010 at 9:45pm

Updated January 12, 2010 at 11:13pm

By Mike Hall

The McCormick name still has that old magic even after all these years.

Last month, upon the death of Shirley McCormick, I wrote a few anecdotes about her and her husband, Bill, who was mayor of Topeka from 1971 to 1983. I received a lot more positive feedback from that than from any in-depth news articles I have written over the years on such weighty subjects as taxes, sewer plant odors and annexation — a few old-timers remember annexation. It’s something the city used to do to expand its boundaries to take in newly developing areas.

It’s how we got to be 57 square miles from that original 1 square mile in 1854. But I digress.

Among the comments I received on the Shirley McCormick column:

— Marsha Sheahan, whose husband, Bill, was street commissioner when McCormick was mayor, wrote: “This morning at breakfast, my Bill recalled his favorite Bill McCormick saying. Whenever he didn’t want to talk to someone (the press maybe?), he’d say he was out of town and then go have a soda out at the old Kmart on Wanamaker, which at the time was outside the city limits.”

That parenthetical comment “the press maybe?” was Marsha’s comment, not mine.

— Loyal reader Lew Mills wrote: “My favorite Bill McCormick story is when he called someone and the person on the other end asked, ‘May I ask who is calling?’ He usually responded, ‘Yes.’ ”

And then there were the three people who asked for the recipe for Shirley’s beef stew. We still have the recipe at home, part of a flier Shirley put together that was distributed during one of Bill’s re-election campaigns. It was a collection of her favorite recipes and probably won him some votes.

So, herewith is the recipe, just as given to us by Shirley. We actually use less garlic salt than called for here and make a few other modifications to suit our taste, but use your own judgment.

Shirley McCormick’s Beef Stew

Large roast, 3 or 4 pounds, good chuck or arm

2 cans tomatoes

1 can each: peas, green beans, corn

1 pkg. carrots sliced

2 large onions

4-5 potatoes cut up

½ cup burgundy wine

1 can consumme or beef broth

1 tbls. garlic salt

2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp brown sugar

1 qt. tomato juice

Put the ingredients in a roaster with lid. Bake 4-5 hours 325-350 degrees. Check at about three hours and adjust seasonings.

I have written on just about every subject in my career here, but this is the first time I ever printed a recipe. Now on-the-job training is complete. I am truly indispensable.

*As it appeared in the Topeka Capitol-Journal