Wherever he goes on the campaign trail, Sam Brownback conjures visions of an idealized Kansas, a place of hard work, church picnics and family reunions. It's his idea of home, he says.
"I breathe easier getting off the plane in Kansas City," Brownback says. "I love the Midwest work ethic, the Midwest lifestyle. On the East Coast people ask you 'what do you do?' Here it's 'tell me about your family.' To me that's revealing."
Brownback, who has spent 16 years in Congress, says he never expected to leave the farm.
"I wanted to farm," he says. "I didn't even think I was going to college my senior year in high school."
While at Prairie View, Brownback was student council president, captain of the football team, quarterback and state president of the FFA.
"There's always a kid that's a natural leader, and people say 'he's going to be governor someday,'" says classmate Joe Atwood, who now teaches agricultural education at the high school. "That was Sam."
He won a scholarship to Kansas State University and "it seemed like a waste not to go," Brownback recalls. He flourished and was elected student body president.
Even in law school at the University of Kansas — where he was class president — Brownback expected to return to the farm. "I thought I could maybe subsidize my farming habit with a law practice," he says.
Plans change, though, and Brownback's world soon grew larger than the farm. While working his way through law school, he met his future wife, Mary Stauffer. Stauffer came from a wealthy and influential family that owned a chain of newspapers and radio stations.
After graduation, Brownback moved to Manhattan to practice law. Mary Brownback says life as a farmer would not have satisfied her husband.
"I can imagine him wanting to go back to the farm," she says. "We have a sizeable garden at our place and he gets frustrated when the kids don't want to go 'farm' the garden. But I can't see him being happy in the long run doing that for the rest of his life."
In 1987, he was named the state's youngest secretary of agriculture. A prestigious White House fellowship followed, and in 1994 Brownback won election to the U.S. House from the state's 2nd Congressional District.
The next year Brownback had a health scare — melanoma. The cancer was removed, but it left him a changed man. He calls the cancer "a gift" that renewed his faith.
"I was really putting my family behind my career at that point in time," he says.
Read more of this story at KansasCity.com