They wrote the book on the early history of MCC-Maple Woods

Update, June 2017: John Leheney and Christine Yannitelli’s book will be sold by the Maple Woods Staff Association at various MCC events. Or to buy a copy now, send a check for $20 (payable to the MW Staff Association) to Lee Ann Zech in the Maple Woods president’s office.

You have to really like the place you work to write a book about it, especially if you’ve already retired from that place.

John Leheney and Chris Yannitelli, longtime counselors at the MCC-Maple Woods campus, came up with the idea over lunch several years ago.

Retired MCC-Maple Woods counselors John Leheney and Chris Yannitelli with the letter that adorned the campus' old "A" building
John Leheney and Chris Yannitelli with the letter that adorned the campus’ old “A” building

“He said, ‘I think we should write about Maple Woods, the early days,’ ” Yannitelli recalls.

Yes, he suggested it, Leheney says. “But Chris was all for it, and she has a way of following through on things. I have a lot of ideas, but then other things interfere.”

That lunch was eight years or so ago, and the two started mapping out their book five years ago, Leheney says. They found a great place to work and spread stuff out: the North Kansas City Public Library. But “we would have these gaps where we didn’t do anything at all,” Leheney says, adding that Yannitelli is a world traveler. (She spends part of the year living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which is where she is now.)

They finished the book, “Maple Woods Community College … The Early Years,” late last year, just in time to share it with a group of retirees (many from Maple Woods) that gets together every couple of years.

Leheney, Yannitelli and Lou Gillham, who contributed a piece on MCC’s history, worked together “for years and years” in the counseling department. Leheney started at MCC-Maple Woods in 1970, retired in 1991, then worked half-time for another 10 years. Yannitelli joined the College in 1972 and retired in 2004.

MW book coverThe finished product — subtitled “From a Walk in the Woods to a Northland Treasure” — covers Maple Woods’ humble beginnings in 1969, when classes first met in churches and a junior high school, and goes on to chronicle campus happenings through the 1970s and into the ’80s. The site, which had been the Gavin Farm on Barry Road, contained two buildings when the college district bought it: a log cabin and a house. Gillham writes that a high school student dismantled and removed the cabin, but in the summer of ’69 the campus’ first students were directed into the house’s kitchen to enroll.

Maple Woods students and employees had to make do with temporary buildings alongside permanent structures. The “barracks” buildings stuck around for some 20 years — much longer than planned, but a couple of failed bond issues got in the way.

The 175-page, spiral-bound book is a collection of personal memories, photos and what any researcher loves most: primary sources. Those include a few “Maple Woods This Week” bulletins, a greeting from Yannitelli that appeared in the 1973-74 student handbook (she’s wearing a short-short dress and looks like a college student herself), pages from the 1969-70 schedule of classes, maps, flyers, newspaper articles and even a couple of recipes from a Maple Woods cookbook.

From the book: Maple Woods’ old Barry Road entrance sign and a car pool bulletin board used during a 1979 gas shortage.
From the book: Maple Woods’ old Barry Road entrance sign and a car pool bulletin board used during a 1979 gas shortage.

There’s also a section devoted to a Maple Woods time capsule from 1985, which was opened for the book. One item was a cassette tape (remember those?) of employees sharing stories, which Yannitelli transcribed. Also in the capsule: two dead bugs in a plastic bag, labeled “Library Crickets.”

MCC archivist Janice Lee helped with the book project by locating and scanning a variety of documents, course schedules and photos. She also contributed a Maple Woods timeline, which points out that in 1969, the plan was for the campus to specialize in aviation, aerodynamics and related fields.

Leheney and Yannitelli “were enthusiastic and tireless researchers,” Lee says, “and I’m thrilled that their years of hard work have paid off with the publication of this book.”

The Maple Woods campus was assigned the specialties of aviation and aerodynamics because of its proximity to Kansas City International Airport. The program moved to Downtown Airport in 1990 and ended in 1999. (MCC Archives photo)
The Maple Woods campus was assigned the specialties of aviation and aerodynamics because of its proximity to Kansas City International Airport. The program moved to Downtown Airport in 1990 and ended in 1999. (MCC Archives photo)

The authors acknowledge at the front of the book that other people would tell different stories. Leheney and Yannitelli’s Maple Woods memories include the common themes of “our acceptance of substandard facilities, the years of our ‘temporary’ buildings, the student activities and the curriculum of the day.”

They and their former colleagues and students may not have thought about it back then, but they were pioneers, opening a suburban college campus in what was then almost out in the country. At the recent retirees’ get-together, Yannitelli looked around the room and realized that some of those pioneers are already gone.

“As they leave this planet, part of the Maple Woods history leaves the planet,” she says. “It was just so important to capture it — how much fun it was and how challenging it was, every single day.”

Back in the early ’70s, “a whole lot of students were very active,” some right out of the Vietnam War, Yannitelli remembers. “They believed in causes. They believed in trying to make things equal for people,” like women’s rights.

What was happening nationally was reflected on the campus. “In the first faculty, there were just a handful of women,” Leheney says.

In a chapter on starting a student activities program, Yannitelli writes:

And, women were beginning to leave the home … to discover/rediscover who they were and return to school to seek that new identity that had passed them by earlier. These women in their 30’s and 40’s almost always were the best students in the class, although when they came into our offices they were unsure, scared, feeling old and out-of-place. …

We called them “re-entry” students, like they were returning from outer space. Better than calling them “non-trads,” as they are known today. Sounds like a tire.

Over time, MCC-Maple Woods became a fixture of the Northland. The first graduates were followed by siblings, neighbors, friends, sometimes parents — and, undoubtedly in many cases, children and grandchildren.

“Looking back from the start in 1969 to the present time, we can picture a population of thousands of Maple Woods students, most from the Northland, most who continue to live in the developing Northland,” the authors write.

Leheney’s wife, Barbara, helped with the book, and though she never worked at Maple Woods she, too, calls it “a magical place.”

“Maple Woods for most of us,” the authors write, “was not just a workplace — it was a place of purpose, of resolve, of forging ahead in rough conditions and creating a college.”

The book

John Leheney and Christine Yannitelli wrote, edited and self-published their book “Maple Woods Community College … The Early Years.” See top of this post for info on how to buy a copy. For more information, email John at nervefood@att.net.