May 22, 2023

The term “butterfly effect” wasn’t coined until 1960 by MIT Meteorology Prof. Edward Lorenz, but by then, Fern Van Gieson had already established herself as a model for the now widely-accepted theory that small, seemingly uneventful actions can result in powerful and wide-ranging consequences.

At the time, Fern, who was white, had lived in Washington D.C. and in Santa Barbara, graduated from Oklahoma A & T (Oklahoma State University), worked as a copywriter at Boeing, and co-founded the Wichita Branch of the Urban League with a Black man.

And in her embodiment of the butterfly effect, this petite person who died last month at 95, exerted outsized influence on the pre- and post-civil rights social climate in Wichita and in Kansas. We owe her a debt of gratitude.

If you knew her at all, you knew she was a woman before her time. Her brand of cross-racial, cross-gender, and cross-continent activism feels common now, but Fern engaged in this work during the era of segregated swimming pools, restaurants, and schools.

A friend said, for example, that her job at the YWCA cafeteria offered one of the few places integrated settings where Black diners could eat.

In essence, Fern was attuned to the plights of her community, while most others remained blissfully unconscious about such issues.

She actively advocated for civil rights, for women’s rights, and for international peace. She was one of the organizers of a local chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Kansas Women's Political Caucus, where she pushed for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

She’d later fight for LGBTQ equality and environmentalism.

Fern lived in accordance with her ideals. She was an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church. She was the Woman of the Year at the 1985 Wichita Women's Fair, and she received the 2014 Civil Rights Trailblazer Award from The Kansas African American Museum.

I selected her for that Trailblazer Award because she helped change this world for the better. And we can all aspire to follow her example and create our own butterfly effects for a better world.

Fern, rest in power, and in protest.

A memorial for Fern has been established with the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 7202 E. 21st, Wichita, KS 67206. Services in care of Downing & Lahey East Chapel. Share tributes online at: