Every year, the Wichita Riverfest brings together people from all over the city to celebrate the heritage, culture, and community of Wichita, Kansas. At the heart of this 9-day festival, June 2-10 outside Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center, is Admiral Windwagon Smith, the festival's official ambassador and symbol of the city's pioneering spirit. In this blog, we explore the history, role, and significance of Admiral Windwagon Smith and hear from Dr. Kaye Monk-Morgan, the first African American woman to serve in this role.
Can you tell us a bit about the history and tradition of Admiral Windwagon Smith at the Wichita Riverfest?
In 1974, Admiral Windwagon Smith was chosen as the ambassador of the Riverfest after two volunteers watched the 1961 Disney short “The Saga of Windwagon Smith." Windwagon Smith’s chivalry, sense of humor, adventurous spirit and ability to tame the wind made him the perfect representative for the then new nine-day festival that celebrated Wichita, the river and our pioneering roots. John Bell was the first Admiral Windwagon Smith. I am the 49th Admiral.
What does it mean to you be the first African American woman to serve in this role?
I’ve been the first African American woman to do several things. I am, of course, honored to have been selected and to have my body of work acknowledged by the past admirals. It means something that the group made note of my contributions to my community and to Wichita Festivals. That said, it is important to me that the broader audience see that lots of women, especially women of color, are working to make our community great. My place in history is cool, but I am most interested in the second, third and fourth generation of woman of color to don the signature outfit and hat.
When you received the news, what was your first thought?
You’ve gotta be kidding. I just giggled for a good 10 minutes. I didn’t see it coming. To have been invited to such a special “brotherhood” is a gift, one I will treasure for a long time.
What does this mean for other young women who will see you in this role?
I would like to think that young women who observe the things I do and the opportunities that I engage in can see themselves in my shoes. I want them to see their work recognized and know that it matters, they matter. “Black Girl Magic” is a real thing, but this isn’t magic. This is work, a lot of work, a little luck and some good friends and that’s a winning combination.
What does the role of Admiral Windwagon Smith entail, and how do you serve as an ambassador for Riverfest?
As the official ambassador of Riverfest 2023, I will visit children in local hospitals, speak to Wichita civic organizations and help host dozens of events during the nine days of Riverfest, June 2-10. I will be assisted by the 2023 Prairie Schooner Mates, high school juniors selected by their schools to be youth representatives for Riverfest.
How do you prepare for your role as Admiral Windwagon Smith and what are some of the challenges you face in bringing this character to life?
I think my biggest challenge may be in allocating the time to do the role justice. I just stepped into a new role at the Kansas Leadership Center and there is a good deal of work for me to do there. I am fortunate to have colleagues who believe in civic engagement and their support makes my involvement possible. Aside from time, just maintaining the stamina needed to be my best self every day, so that I reflect the unifying spirit of the festival will be important.
How has the tradition of Admiral Windwagon Smith evolved since it was first established in 1974, and what do you see as the future of this iconic figure in the context of the Wichita Riverfest?
As the ambassador for Riverfest, the Admiral represents everyone in the Wichita community. The admiral has evolved from simply imitating the character to being the person that best embodies those characteristics that make Wichita unique. The Admiral will continue to be the figurehead of the Riverfest and uphold the honor and tradition of showcasing the best of Wichita.
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