The SIM offers a range and variety of programs, none of which would be possible without our volunteers. Their spirit, skills and generosity animate every program at the Mission. In this column of the newsletter, we turn the spotlight on one outstanding member of our volunteer team.
The fall of 1986 was a season of many firsts for the Shawnee Indian Mission. The Friends of the Mission group was formed and undertook its first project: the First Fall Festival. One of the visitors that day was John Forbes, who was making his first visit to the mission as a volunteer parent, leading a troop of Boy Scouts through the festivities.
That outing was clearly a success – and a classic win-win moment. The scouts had a wonderful day exploring a local landmark; the Mission gained a remarkable volunteer, ally and friend – John Forbes.
Ever since that day, for an amazing “34 years and counting,” Forbes has been a steady fixture at the Mission, dedicating countless volunteer hours and sharing his impressive knowledge and talents with Mission staff and visitors. During that time, when Forbes wasn’t at the Mission “living history”, he was teaching history in the Shawnee Mission School District, mostly at Shawnee Mission South High School, until his retirement in 2000.
Volunteering at the Mission was a natural fit for a professional historian, particular one charged with engaging young people in the study of history. As John’s own children grew, his involvement with the Mission also grew. He helped plan and present summer youth programs based on hands-on activities to simulate life along the Oregon Trail.
By 1992, just six years into his alliance with the Mission, Forbes doubled-down and became an even more active volunteer. He led a campaign to acquire a full-scale pioneer wagon to serve as the centerpiece for the Mission’s school programs and outreach activities. Forbes not only championed the purchase of the wagon, he personally observed its construction and served as a “second-hammer” to the wagon-maker in Centerville, Missouri who built the wagon. Forbes wanted to fully understand every aspect of the wagon’s construction and each of its components. To his day, he is the recognized “wagon master” and ensures that the symbol of the Mission is well-maintained, repaired and always ready to roll.
Within a year of his retirement from full-time teaching in 2000, he undertook another ambitious and vitally important project at the Mission: the organization of the SIM Research Library. At that time, the library consisted of a small, dusty and disordered collection of papers, books, photos and maps housed in a single room on the top floor of the West building.
By 2005, Forbes had catalogued and organized the original collection, expanded the resources of the library with new books and source material related to Mission history and moved the library to its current location in the North building. Now the ever expanding Library is a valuable and recognized resource for scholars, students and local researchers.
In 2020, visitors can find Forbes at the Mission every Wednesday, working in the Library, helping researchers use its many resources and fielding inquiries from the Mission staff and the public. He also hosts a monthly “Brown Bag Lunch” that gathers local historians and interested amateurs for informal talks on all-things-past. For those who want to delve deeper, Forbes teaches a KU Continuing Education course on the history of the Mission and the nearby community.
SIM Site Director Jennifer Laughlin asked Forbes if, after all these years, he had a personal favorite memory of the Mission. He quickly replied that for him, the stand-out experience was “working with the School for the Blind, giving those students hands-on living history activities such a rope-making, touching a real covered wagon and even blacksmithing. We even created an ‘audio-orienteering’ course that used sound compasses to guide the explorers.”
There isn’t much Forbes hasn’t done to support the Mission. He’s been its heart, mind and memory for over 30 years. And just for the record, when asked, he still guides Boy Scout troops through the site.