Kansas Citian David Von Drehle reconstructs the life of his centenarian neighbor in The Book of Charlie

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

David Von Drehle wrote a book about Kansas City. Sort of.

Von Drehle, an enormously accomplished journalist and author who’s currently a columnist and deputy opinion editor at the Washington Post, wrote The Book of Charlie.

Photography Provided.

A slim biography that reads more like a parable, The Book of Charlie tells the story of Von Drehle’s remarkable neighbor, Charlie White. For one hundred and nine extraordinary years spent as a doctor, musician, vagabond and bon vivant, Charlie grew up in—and along with—our city. It was a life of stunning sweep. This is a man born before the invention of penicillin, for goodness sake, who lived long enough to see heart transplants and laser surgery.

More than a biography, though, The Book of Charlie is a volume of inspirational wisdom. A beautifully crafted meditation on perseverance and fortitude, Von Drehle explores how Charlie’s resilient heart, agile mind and, most of all, his amazing ability to embrace change helped him thrive through an astonishing century of upheaval.

Von Drehle meets me at Front Range Coffee in Fairway, Kansas. Tall, with a clean-shaven head, Von Drehle wears a loose, striped polo shirt and khaki trousers. We sit outside under a temperate sun. A young couple planning a trip somewhere sits at the table beside us, with glossy brochures and a travel guide spread before them.

David Von Drehle moved to Kansas City from Washington D.C. in 2007, he tells me, after his wife, journalist Karen Ball, started having health problems. With four kids and one income, they needed somewhere more affordable than D.C. Ball, a Kansas City native, brought her family home.

“But I’ve fallen in love with Kansas City,” Von Drehle says. “It’s a terrific place.”

That love is evident in The Book of Charlie. It brims with firsthand bits of civic history, from young Charlie watching the construction of Union Station to his adventures in the jazzy, boozy, wide-open town that flourished under the Pendergast machine.

I can’t help but wonder, though, how all that local history translates to a national audience. Why would the rest of the country care about Charlie’s brushes with, say, Ewing Kauffman, J.C. Nichols and Joyce Hall?

Von Drehle smiles, amused but not surprised by the question. He mentions our city’s “charming modesty.” Kansas City, as he puts it in the book, “is a place where the skies are bigger than the egos.” That modesty, however, also has a downside—what Drehle calls “an unbecoming inferiority complex.”

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My question about the national audience, he says, “sort of reflects the idea that, well, maybe Kansas City isn’t important and there’s no reason why other Americans would want or need to know the history of the middle of the country.”

He believes they do. When Charlie was born, he reminded me, Kansas City was bigger than Los Angeles, Seattle or Atlanta. Our city was “a bit like the San Jose of the late 19th, early 20th century. It was a place where people came to seek their fortune.” Or, at the very least, where they would pass through on their way to find it. He calls our town “the exciting, dynamic way station between the farm and the future.”

“That moment needs to be described now,” he says, “one hundred years later, because Kansas City is potentially coming into another version of that moment.”

As more people are able to work from anywhere, Von Drehle believes they’ll take a closer look at the pros and cons of different spots around the country. Many, he says, will choose our city as home.

He notes how visitors are always surprised by Kansas City, particularly by how pretty it is.

Photograph Provided.

“And I tell them, look, there’s always been money in Kansas City, tons of money,” Von Drehle says. “But pretty early on, people realized they were very far away from other places. You know, far away from the ocean, far away from the mountains, far away from all these different places of recreation. And they made a conscious decision. ‘We’re going to make this a nice place to live as well as a lucrative place to live.’”

So they did. The abundance of parks, boulevards and fountains here speaks to their success.

As the conversation winds down, my coffee gone, Von Drehle and I share a charming little moment. The couple next to us rises to leave but stops by our table. They had been eavesdropping, it turns out, and ask if Von Drehle wrote The Book of Charlie. They proceed to rave about it, saying “everybody’s reading it.” The young woman then shares some distant connection she has to Charlie’s family.

Von Drehle is visibly flattered by the praise. It’s a charming exchange, lovely and true—the sort of thing you can only get in a city that’s big enough to have strangers, yet small enough for them to discover mutual friends. Meaningful and life-affirming, it was a quick, pure moment of human kindness and connection. Charlie would have loved it.

Photograph Provided.

David Von Drehle initially set out to write an amusing and captivating fictional book for his children, but try as he might, it wasn’t meant to be. Rather he wrote about the extraordinary life-story of his neighbor and friend.

“A father hopes to be as extraordinary as his youngsters, in their innocence, imagine him to be, so that they need never become disillusioned with him. Perhaps some fathers accomplish that. As for me, my children matured, took notice of their father’s shortcomings, and gave up asking for a book written just for them.

But now, here it is.

Admittedly, this is not the book they wanted. While there are plenty of exploits and perils and tragedies and amusements in the pages to come, none of them involve castles or pirate ships or even much tender romance. The main character has undeniable charms, but he’s no hero, certainly no superhero. This book is bereft of wizards, crime-solving orphans, time travel, or empathetic talking spiders. It’s not the book they asked for, but I believe it is a book they will need.

For this is a book about surviving, even thriving, through adversity and revolutionary change.”

“‘I don’t remember being awfully happy,’ he once said of his boyhood, but he chose not to dwell on unhappiness. As he put it, ‘We didn’t have time to be sad.’ In this attitude, Charlie manifested a precocious Stoicism. He would not be a slave to the actions, decisions, fates, or offenses of others.”

“The gangster’s girlfriend offered to pay handsomely for last ditch heroics. So, digging into the ambulance supplies, Charlie produced a length of rubber tubing and two IV needles. Plunging one needle into his own arm and the other into the arm of the dying man, Charlie and the moll watched as the rubber tube filled with Charlie’s blood. Whether the patient and his would-be healer had compatible blood types would never be known, because the rash experiment failed to save the wounded man.

But the bereaved girlfriend was moved by the attempt and, true to her word, she produced a wad of cash from which she peeled a generous sum and pressed the bills into Charlie’s hand.” 

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