By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
I spent a cozy afternoon at Jack Overman’s home recently and came away with two stories for the price of one.
My intent was to record his recollections of more than 80 years of history at Roaring River State Park, a place we both hold near and dear.
My bonus was a post-interview tour of Overman’s own historic place, a two-story Craftsman bungalow at 116 E. Lindburg St., across from Pittsburg State University. It earned a spot on the Register of Historic Kansas Places in 2001 and the National Register in 2002.
It was full of hidden surprises, each a clever device designed for efficiency. Some were especially impressive, given that the home was built in 1916. But not surprising when I learned that the inventions were the brainchild of the home’s former owner, J.A. Shirk, a professor of physics and mathematics at PSU.
“He was a real Rube Goldberg kind of guy,” Overman said. “You want to see his contraptions?”
How could I say no?
We began on the front sidewalk, where Overman pointed out a device that Shirk rigged up to ensure his safety when he arrived home after dark.
“Down here near the ground, he could step on a metal lever that was connected to electrical wires that ran under the porch to the light, and it would turn on,” Overman demonstrated.
Shirk created doorbells for the front and back doors, each with a different ring so he could distinguish which door he needed to answer.
He installed special electrical outlets in several places that were connected to a powerful outdoor antenna, allowing him to plug in his radio in any room and have instant reception.
In the kitchen, Shirk invented a sort of primitive central vac system. He could sweep the crumbs on the floor into a pile, open a sliding wooden door near the baseboard, and push the crumbs into a chute connected to a receptacle in the basement. Another chute connected to a basement receptacle helped Shirk recycle tin cans.
And there were more — many, many more.
Shirk retired as department chairman in 1946, but he remained a full-time instructor until his death in 1950. Overman, now 93, once had a statistics class from Shirk. Overman purchased the home from Shirk’s widow in 1954, and Overman and his wife, Doris, raised their two children, Sandy and Steve, there.
Shirk and Overman also share the distinction of having buildings on campus named after them. Shirk Hall, a men’s residence hall, was built in 1958. Overman served for many years as the director of the student center, which was named after him in 1984 when he retired.
If you see him around town, ask him to tell you about his historic home. He’ll gladly oblige, and if you’re lucky, he might just invite you for a tour.
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