The Beginning of the WPNI Program | Washington Program in National Issues | Kent State University

The Beginning of the WPNI Program

The story of WPNI begins with Fran Richardson, the first woman to graduate from Kent State with a degree in Journalism in 1939.

When Fran visited Kent State in 1967, her former journalism mentor Bill Taylor encouraged her to get more involved with the university. He suggested to Alumni Office Director Don Shook that he ask Fran to organize a meeting in Washington of the few alumni whose names the office had on hand. Fran did. That evening, she said that rather than give money, it would be better if the alumni in Washington did something "in kind" instead. She and Bill Oliver, a local alumnus, agreed that many Kent students did not have a good understanding of how Washington worked and that they needed to come to Washington to learn about it first-hand. Fran then made several trips to Kent in her old VW to promote the idea. Shook committed the Alumni Office to sponsor a Washington program if Fran could get the Political Science Department to agree. Fran met with its chairman, Dr. Richard Taylor. He was sympathetic since he had once been in D.C. on a Quaker seminar program. University President Glenn Olds also supported the idea. In 1973, the Washington program was born.

Fran located an inexpensive boarding house, Hartnett Hall, where the students could reside. Though only a few blocks from Dupont Circle, it was not in the best neighborhood; the students often had to step over drunks on the steps to get inside. Kent Political Science Professor George Betts, the first director of the program, was to drive to Washington once a week to oversee the program. A graduate student living with the students was to manage the program on a daily basis. After a couple of weeks, however, the graduate student disappeared with her boyfriend, and did not reappear. And after a month, Dr. Betts stopped driving down. Fran was left running the program. It became a full time project. She called friends and colleagues to set up briefings, to which she accompanied the 20 students. She used her husband's copy machine to provide the students with handouts, boarded those who were sick, and often fed the entire group at her house. Meanwhile, Julia Montgomery Walsh, a Washington stockbroker and fellow Kent alumna, helped arrange briefings and established a program of weekend suppers for the students to ensure that they got some decent meals. At the end of the program's first year, Julia Walsh funded a reception at the Women's Press Club. Because of the impressive location, a large number of D.C. alumni attended. They were urged to establish a local alumni chapter. They did, and the D.C. chapter of the Kent State Alumni Club was established. It has continued to be one of the university's strongest alumni chapters, in part because of its long-standing support of the Washington student program. It has received several awards from the university.

Dr. Kenneth Colton was selected to run the program for its second year, perhaps in part because he had a home in the area and could keep expenses down. It was Colton who coined the name Washington Program in National Issues (WPNI). He selected Cathy McMillan (now Teti) to be his student assistant. She had been a student in the program its first year so could help Colton avoid some of the earlier pitfalls. This time, the students had one "house" of Hartnett Hall to themselves, next to a delicatessen and across from the dining hall. There was a spare room on the first floor for studying. Cathy McMillan and Karen Gibson, Colton's other assistant, shared a large room on the top floor, nicknamed the "Command Post," which also served as a meeting place for students in the evenings. Alumni and others, including Dr. Olds, gave briefings there amidst, as Fran said, the "crunching of potato chips, popcorn, apples, and swilling of beer or Coke." Hartnett's dining room went out of business halfway through the program that year so the students became even more reliant on alumni home hospitality. By the end of the ten weeks, the students staged a mini-revolt over the number of briefings, after which the final sessions were made optional. Over the course of the ten weeks, the students attended 106 briefings, had a picture-taking session with Senator John Glenn, made a visit to the White House, and got a conducted tour of the Capitol. They saw different ends of the political spectrum--from the paneled conference room of the American Medical Association offices to the cramped, shabby office of Ralph Nader's health group. After the program's second year, Fran received a Distinguished Alumnus Service Award from the University for her role in initiating the program.

Colton also managed the program its third year, after which followed a string of professors, most of whom only managed the program a year or two. When these professors came to Washington ahead of time to check out the situation, Fran often housed them. Depending on their level of commitment, knowledge of Washington, and work ethic, Fran spent more or less time arranging briefings. From the beginning, and for more than 20 years thereafter, she provided the students with a meal their first night in Washington. Until 2004 Fran gave the students an initial briefing on local history and geography, and led an orientation walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. Over time, there grew to be less emphasis on briefings and more on unpaid internships on Capitol Hill, the Executive Branch, newspapers, lobbying groups, and an array of Washington institutions. After the first couple of years of the program, Fran and other alumni felt the students were not taking advantage of the cultural opportunities in Washington, so she encouraged the university to add such a component. Professor Bill Kenney, charged with setting it up, visited Washington monthly to oversee this cultural component, but Fran was in charge of arranging speakers, giving the students information on the timing and location of the lectures, attending the lectures, and writing thank-you notes to the speakers. At first Kenney graded the papers for the course, but eventually Fran did that as well. Each student wrote five papers for the course. The students were a little "put out," she said, when she marked their papers for spelling and grammar as well as content. After a time, the Cultural Heritage program became another responsibility of the WPNI professor.

When Carol Cartwright became President of Kent State in 1991, she noted that the WPNI program did not pay for itself and suggested that it be canceled. When Fran and other Washington alumni learned of her suggestion, they arranged a big reception for her on Capitol Hill. There many Washington VIPs told the new president how impressed they were with the Kent State students in briefings and on their internships. Dr. Cartwright quickly understood the importance of the program in enhancing Kent's image--and supported it.

In January 2010 Rick Robyn, Director of the WPNI program, reminisced about Fran's involvement:

"August, 2001. I had just returned to Kent State University from an extended trip to Europe and was getting ready for a big job: my first semester as director of the Washington Program in National Issues. While I had been selected for the position earlier in the summer, the European trip had interfered with my preparations for becoming WPNI director. Of course I had known about the program in general terms, enough to know what I was getting myself into when I applied for the position, but I didn't know the details. Thus, I was in the office, going through files and trying to get a handle on a complex program that had been a part of the Political Science Department for nearly 30 years. It was intimidating, to say the least.

"I was walking down the hallway toward my office one afternoon when a small, slim elderly woman approached me and called out abruptly, 'Are you Robyn?'

"Startled, I think I just had enough presence of mind to answer in the affirmative. She nodded and waved me into my own office. 'Then have a seat and let's talk about the Washington program.'

"She looked up at me impatiently when I hesitated. 'Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to bite you. I just need to get to know you. I'm the one who started this program and I like to know who is going to lead it.'

"That was my introduction to Fran Richardson. As I discovered later during many years of working with her on the program, it was fairly typical of Fran. While abrupt, to the point and businesslike, it was evident that she was that way out of a desire to cut to the essentials and that she cared a great deal about certain important things in life. And for her, WPNI was an important thing in life. She was the one who saw the need for Kent State students to learn about the inner workings of Washington, DC, and to get hands-on, practical work experience before they graduated. She saw a need and so she started the program. That was that.

"While she had help in doing this from many alums who lived in the DC area, I think they all would agree that Fran was the moving force behind it and kept it together through lean years -- especially in the beginning -- to make sure it stuck to its mission and served the students as it was supposed to do. And that it came back the next year, very important in those early years when it was not at all certain that KSU was committed to it.

"It was her love of learning and of young people that motivated her to take so much time out of her busy life to devote to the program. As she ruefully told the KSU alumni magazine that interviewed her once about her work with the program, it was 'no glory, but a hell of a lot of work.' How could she do it, she was asked. 'Fortunately I have a very understanding husband who doesn't mind fixing and eating his own peanut butter sandwiches some nights.'

"During that first conversation in my office Fran made it clear that even in her seventh decade she wanted to help out with the program but that she couldn't carry on as she had for so many years: ferrying the students to grocery stores, having them to her house for dinners and conversation, even arranging for briefings with VIPs in Washington, and much more. But she told me what she would do: meet the group at the first opportunity to help orient them to the cultural scene in DC and then take them the first week in town on her patented Pennsylvania Avenue tour. She wanted to show them more than the White House and usual tourist sites.

"I remember thinking that I would be interested in that myself, so I penciled her into the schedule. She was as good as her word. The first meeting we had in our headquarters Fran informed the students about some key cultural events coming up in DC (including the free concerts at the Kennedy Center, always a good idea for impecunious students). The students were at first stunned by the 70-something grandmother who passed out homemade chocolate chip cookies as she dispensed advice. Then they loved her even as they marveled at her energy and obvious dedication to WPNI.

"It was the same several days later when, on a freezing cold January day, she gave us her own inimitable tour of the sights along Pennsylvania Avenue. It did include the White House, but much more: the Renwick Gallery, Lafayette Park, the Old Post Office, several of the kinds of places that the students might have missed had they only hit the high spots. It was all done with her decisive opinion offered at the appropriate spots. As she said, for example, waving towards the hulking FBI Building: 'ugliest building in Washington.'

"She did this tour every year faithfully for several years, until she really couldn't do the walk and I insisted she not tempt fate in those freezing January conditions. I eventually wrote it up as a self-directed tour for the students and put it on the WPNI website for the students to download. I dedicated it to Fran so that students would know that it was inspired by her and her love of Washington.

"With that, and with my annual remarks to the students about her and her life and the impact she had on our program, I hope to pass on to them a little of the life of this remarkable woman who inspired so many."