Fred Krebs

Professor makes history come alive.

In its January issue, Ingram’s Magazine named Professor Fred Krebs as one of its Icons of Education.

Fred Krebs was reminiscing about his living history portrayal of Benjamin Franklin when the phone rang.

Could the professor attend a community event in Great Bend, Kan., in July and do his shtick on the major role that town team baseball has played in building small communities, the woman on the other end of the line wanted to know.

 “Oh, it just sounds like a ball,” Krebs said, accepting the invitation. “But it’s only fair to tell you I’m a big lover of hot dogs.”

Community events and hot dogs have been a big part of the last 25 years for Krebs, a long-time history professor at JCCC. His costumed portrayals of Benjamin Franklin, Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White and a dozen or so other historical figures have taken him to 23 states and earned him notoriety in Chautauqua circles across the country. The town team gig just happened to slide into the lineup along the way.

 “I kind of thought people were losing their interest but I keep getting phone calls,” he said.

In January, Krebs performed at the opening of an American Library Association traveling exhibit on Benjamin Franklin at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. In September, he donned the Franklin wig and attire again, that time for U.S. Constitution Day at JCCC. And in June he portrayed Huey Long, Louisiana’s populist governor, at Chautauqua events sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in Colby and Belleville.

He still enjoys bringing history alive for audiences, he said, so as long as people ask for him, he plans to keep at it. He also expects to continue teaching at the college, which he has been doing for 42 years.

Krebs lives in Merriam, where he grew up. He is the son of Virginia Krebs, a former college trustee who was the college’s first employee. A trip he took to India through a Rotary International exchange program in 1976 changed his life, he said, and influenced his teaching. He has a huge collection of books that fills virtually every corner of his office, with titles that include The Travels of Marco Polo, Great Issues in American History and History of Ancient Egypt.

Krebs said his late wife Barbara encouraged him years ago to give up his regular summer job as a swimming pool manager and find something more in line with his teaching profession. During the summer of 1985, he appeared as William Allen White for the first time at Chautauqua events held under the big tent in towns on the Great Plains. Later that year, he rented a costume for his first performance as Benjamin Franklin.

From there, his characterizations of historical figures grew to include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stephen Douglas, Carl Sandburg, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Edison, Galileo and William Mulholland.

He’s gotten to know the characters pretty well but is always looking for new material to keep his performances fresh.

The first Chautauqua event took place in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua in New York as a training retreat for teachers. It soon evolved into a movement that promoted lifelong learning in the humanities, the arts and virtually every area of education.

Krebs’ ability to bring history alive was recognized in 2004 when the Johnson County Bar Association gave him the Liberty Bell award for educating people about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In 2001, the Sons of the American Revolution named him Patriot of the Year and the Kansas Humanities Council honored him in 1997 for his work connecting people and ideas.

At the college, Krebs developed some of the school’s earliest history courses and chaired a committee in the mid-1980s that led to the beginning of the honors program. Now he is working to incorporate the central ideas of the Chautauqua movement into Achieving the Dream, the college’s initiative to help all students succeed.

Krebs says he feels fortunate to have had the opportunities that have come his way.

“I’ve been very blessed and I’m grateful for that,” he said.