By Mary Pierpoint -- Today correspondent
LAWRENCE, Kan. - When Linda Sue Warner said she was passionate about making Haskell Indian Nations University one of the healthiest colleges in the country, she wasn't kidding. Warner's challenge to students and staff to ''walk around the world'' at the beginning of the school year didn't prepare her for just how contagious the idea would become as it traveled across Indian country. Photos of people from across the country wearing ''Healthier Haskell'' shirts are now showing up with the miles they have logged walking to be a part of the Haskell movement.
''We have one major event a month, but in the interim people can walk and log their miles,'' Warner said. ''Our goal was 27,000 miles, but we are at 25,000 right now; we may have 29,000 miles before Christmas, so we may actually walk around the world twice before the school year is over. We may just keep on walking!''
The idea was originally to have a goal for people to reach, but Warner said so many people from across Indian country liked the idea and partnered with Haskell that the whole thing has taken on a life of its own.
The veterans walk honored veterans from all wars. As two veterans led the way holding staffs, honor songs were sung for those who served in each war. At the end of each song, the group walking around the track at Haskell Stadium would stop for a moment of silence before walking to the next song. After all warriors from all wars had been honored, the group left the stadium, walking and jogging the two-mile perimeter of the campus.
Seven-year-old Christopher Ludemann, Peoria/Lakota, walked alone, but managed to keep up with the elders on the two-mile walk/jog after leaving the stadium. ''I'm walking for my grandpa,'' he said simply. ''But I met a really nice man who was a soldier too; he talked to me a lot. Wait till Grandpa finds out that I walked for him!'' He proudly showed off his own Healthier Haskell T-shirt.
''It is kind of like the gnome that they show in different places around the world; what we need now are pictures of people in their Healthier Haskell T-shirts from around the country,'' Warner said during the November walk, referring to the prank in which a garden gnome is stolen and then photographed at famous landmarks before eventually being returned to the owner. ''People from tribal colleges and other groups are e-mailing us and telling us how far they have walked, and we have added it to our totals. I would love to have pictures from everyone who walked in other places wearing their Healthier Haskell shirts. Because of them, it looks now as though we will have logged enough miles to have walked all around the world before Christmas!''
Within a week, Warner's prediction came true when the miles walked were tallied by Coach Al Gipp. A staff member walked by smiling at Gipp and simply said, ''We did it.''
Warner beamed when she found out. ''It is still a Haskell event because all of Indian country is part of Haskell,'' she said. ''But it shows how we can all work together.''
Walking around the world isn't the only goal for Warner's dream of a healthier campus. An old power plant building has been refinished and now bears the name of Jim Thorpe Hall. Inside, a gym has been set up for students and faculty alike to go and work out.
Gipp is especially proud of the results the new mindset at Haskell has had. ''It's really turned out to be a great program and given me a chance to really get to know a lot of students,'' Gipp said. He, like Warner, sees the opportunity for the program to trickle down to tribal colleges and then into communities, making all of Indian country a healthier place. ''Letting the students and community be a part of this could mean that Indian people aren't labeled as having diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. We just want them to come and work out and have a good time. We want to have them enjoy the fellowship of coming together and visiting and run and share and laugh. Our hours at the Jim Thorpe Hall give the people a chance to come in whenever they have time to work out.''
Gipp has become known on campus as ''Coach Healthier Haskell'' by students that have become serious about the new knowledge they are gaining about themselves. ''I might walk by someone and they are eating a hot dog and they will say, 'Coach, don't look'; or if they see me eating biscuits and gravy, they will tell me what I should eat! It is pretty exciting when they come up and tell me how they are working out and what they are eating and the pride they have when they tell me about how they have lost weight and feeling more energy. I am proud to be a part of this, but I am especially proud of the students and their hard work.''