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Bob Wootton taught KNEA to be participants, not spectators, in political arena

KNEA’s Bob Wootton — champion and believer in the democratic process -- leaves a legacy of political activism, professional engagement.

“Bob Wootton taught us that crucial decisions about public education are made in the political arena.  He brought Kansas NEA to the realization that we must be participants, not spectators, in working to impact the work of policy-makers,” said KNEA President Blake West.  “Through Bob Wootton’s caring, commitment and positive leadership, Kansas public schools today are far better places for teaching and learning.”

In 1968, Bob became a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, until leaving to serve in the administration of Governor John Carlin. From 1992 to 1994, he represented the 57th House district of North Topeka in the Kansas Legislature. Bob Wootton, 86, passed away August 22, 2011, in Topeka.

“The language of politics was a foreign language many teachers in the 1970’s,” said KNEA Executive Director Claudette Johns.  “As KNEA’s lobbyist, Bob Wootton taught teachers, professors, educational support professionals and other school employees that without political action, we would never be able to make the changes we wanted for our students and our profession.”

A champion for and believer in the democratic process, Wootton involved KNEA members at every level in the political process. Johns said “Bob believed passionately that the voice of educators deserved to be heard from the Courthouse to the Statehouse to the U.S. Congress.” 

“Most importantly, he walked every step of the way beside us, helping us gain the skills and the confidence to take our place as a major political force for education in Kansas,” she said, who was starting her teaching career at the time.  “He encouraged us to run for precinct committee positions and then trained us to be effective representatives. 

He invited every major political office holder to KNEA events, introduced us to these men and women in high office and then explained to the elected officials why what we said mattered,” said Johns.  Wootton started KNEA’s first Congressional Contact Team and took 10 classroom teachers to Washington, D.C. so they could meet Senators and Representatives.

The KNEA Bob Wootton award recognizes outstanding service in the field of political action to those whose activities further the educational opportunities for KNEA members and the students of Kansas.

Here is an article about Bob Wootton by Craig Grant, former KNEA lobbyist.

Bob Wootton was born on January 7, 1925.  After high school, during WWII, Bob joined the United States Army. Two days before he was to be shipped overseas, Bob married Wanda Thomas.  Bob served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during WWII and was stationed in New Guinea, The Philippines, and in Japan.  The best thing about this service was that Bob returned home safe and sound to Missouri when the tour was over.

Bob applied and was hired as a teacher in a high school in Missouri. You didn’t have to have a degree to teach then, you just had to be a chapter ahead of the students.  The name of the school was Hard Scrabble High School. Needless to say, it was rather small, with about 10-12 students. Wanda, Bob’s wife,  tells a story about a time one of the students came running in to the schoolroom and yelled — “There are snakes in the bathroom (the outhouse, of course)”.  Wanda said that Bob ended up having to burn down the bathroom in order to get rid of the snakes.

After one year in Hard Scrabble, Bob had enough of suburbia and moved to teach in Milford —Missouri that is, a town of about 100 or so people. After teaching in Milford, Bob decided that if he wanted to continue teaching, he probably should get a degree.  So Bob, Wanda, and two young children (Karen and Mark) moved to Pittsburg, Kansas, and Bob became a gorilla at Pittsburg State University. Bob stayed in Pittsburg to complete both his BS and MS degrees in Education.

After finishing his master’s Degree, Bob applied and was hired as a Senior English teacher at Shawnee Mission High School in 1953.
Bob became known for playing “Woottonette” with his students. He would announce that he was playing “Woottonette,” which meant that someone had misbehaved and needed to report after school to serve a detention with Bob. He would not tell which student(s) he was talking about, but the person(s) was to report after school. If not, there would be two detentions.  It was surprising how many students came by after school when Bob played “Woottonette”.  

In 1968, Bob became the Chief Lobbyist and Political Director of the Kansas State Teacher’s Association, later the Kansas NEA.  He stayed in that position until 1980. There were a number of firsts during Bob’s tenure at KNEA. Bob started  the KNEA Political Action Committee and the organization started assisting political candidates running for office. Bob started a publication called “Check the Record” in which he reported on the voting records of Legislators. This caused some uneasiness with some legislators who didn’t really want their record known to the teachers or the public.  Bob was the “father” of the Professional Negotiations Law in Kansas.  He traveled the state and met legislators on their own turf.

Bob stayed in this position until 1980 when he left KNEA to run for Congress in the 2nd District in NE Kansas (that was when Kansas had 5 Congressional Districts).  Bob lost in the primary, but Wanda says that they raised a whopping $20,000 for the campaign —decent then, but nothing like today’s dollars.  Bob lost to Sam Keys in a three-way primary for the Democratic nomination.
Bob then joined Governor John Carlin’s staff as policy staff member and legislative liaison.  He helped the Governor serve successfully for 8 years.

After Governor Carlin left, Bob joined the Democratic State Committee and was the Coordinator of Candidate Recruitment for two election cycles.  Bob was back on the road traveling across Kansas.

From 1988-1992 Bob served as a member of the policy staff for both Speaker of the House Marvin Barkis and Minority Leader of the Senate Jerry Karr.

Bob retired in 1992 when he was selected to replace George Gomez as House Member from the 57th House District.  He won election in the fall of 1992 and served two legislative sessions in the Kansas House, 1993 and 1994.  Bob did not run for reelection in 1994.  He will be remembered fondly by teachers and legislators alike as a true advocate for the rights of education employees his entire adult life.

In 2006, that d_ _n (as Bob would say) brain tumor got to him.  After his surgery Bob was confined to his bed, but was still able to read and watch his Jayhawks on television.  On August 22, Bob passed away at his home.

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