Small Town Showdown
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2009 Ferguson Kansas History Book Award
2008 Kansas Professional Communicators contest
2008 Axiom Business Book Award


Newspaper article Topeka Capital-Journal

News Clip - WIBW - Keen's graduation from Washburn University School of Law

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Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. 

Small Town Showdown is the true story of Keen A. Umbehr, a trashman who dared to challenge the powers that be in his hometown of Alma, Kansas, population 850.  While hauling trash for the towns within Wabaunsee County, Keen also wrote a weekly newspaper column called "My Perspective" wherein he often criticized the decisions of the local county commissioners.  The Board of commissioners were not accustomed to being challenged, and after an investigation by the State Attorney General's Office and the KBI, the commissioners voted to terminate the newspaper's designation as the official county paper.  Shortly thereafter, they voted to terminate Keen's trash collection contract, despite the fact that he had provided his customers with ten years of perfect service - by the grace of God.   

After the commissioners terminated the umbrella contract, five of the six towns decided to sign  individual contracts with Keen. His attorneys, Dick Seaton and Brenda Bell, advised him to file a civil rights lawsuit over the loss of the sixth town, alleging that the commissioners had violated his First Amendment right of free speech by terminating his contract in retaliation for his public criticisms.

The Umbehrs lost round one when Federal District Judge Richard Rogers dismissed their action, ruling that private contractors, doing business with the government, did not enjoy the same First Amendment protections as government employees. Judge Rogers noted that there was a split of authority on this issue.

At that point, Eileen Umbehr's brother, Robert A. Van Kirk, a graduate of Notre Dame and Duke University School of Law, entered his appearance in the case, working pro bono. Robert appealed Judge Rogers' decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, where a panel of three judges unanimously overturned the lower Court's ruling, and sent the case back to District Court for a jury trial.

Before that could happen, however, the attorney respresenting the insurance company for Wabaunsee County, Donald Patterson, filed for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. Out of nearly 8,000 requests submitted to the Supreme Court that session, less than 80 requests were granted, and the Umbehr case was one of them.

Robert Van Kirk presented oral arguments before the Supreme Court on November 28, 1995. Seven months later to the day, (and five years after the Umbehrs had initially filed their First Amendment challenge), on June 28, 1996, the United States Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 ruling in Umbeher's favor (Justices Scalia and Thomas dissenting).

Keen was named one of eight Distinguished Kansans by the Topeka Capital-Journal for 1996.

On June 18, 1998, Keen was one of twelve individuals receiving the Free Spirit Award and $10,000 from the Freedom Forum

Small Town Showdown chronicles the conflict between Keen and the commissioners from 1981 through the final showdown at the Supreme Court.  Here are some highlights:

  • April 1981: Keen Umbehr entered into trash removal contract with the Wabaunsee County Commissioners
  • February 1989: Umbehr began writing letters to the editor which often criticized the official actions taken by the Board of County Commissioners; the letters later became a weekly column titled My Perspective.
  • May 1989: Commissioners warned local newspaper editor, Bob Stuewe, about publishing Umbehr's column; Stuewe responded in an editorial stating he would not censor anyone's articles, "regardless of high-pressure tactics."
  • February 1990: Commissioners terminated the editor's long-standing designation as official county newspaper; Stuewe later sold the newspaper and retired
  • February 1990: Commissioners attempted to cancel trash collection contract with Umbehr
  • January 1991: Commissioners successfully terminated trash collection contract with Umbehr
  • May 1991: Umbehr filed a federal lawsuit against the Wabaunsee County Commissioners alleging that his contract was terminated in retaliation for the critical newspaper articles he wrote
  • December 1993: Federal District Judge Richard Rogers dismissed Umbehr's case, ruling that private contractors do not enjoy the same First Amendment rights as government employees; Umbehr appealed.
  • January 1995: The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Rogers' decision stating in part: "We realize that this decision places us squarely in conflict with several other circuits, a posture we do not adopt lightly. We also agree with the Seventh and Eighth Circuits that this is an area in which Supreme Court guidance is particularly needed." The County Commissioners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which granted their request for a writ of certiorari. (Out of nearly 8,000 cases seeking review during that term, the Supreme Court granted approximately 80.)
  • June 28, 1996: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Umbehr's favor, setting a national precedent that private contractors have the same First Amendment rights as government employees (Justices Scalia and Thomas dissenting). Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the decision: "Either type of relationship provides a valuable financial benefit, the threat of the loss of which in retaliation for speech may chill speech on matters of public concern by those who, because of their dealings with the government, ‘are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work,’ Waters v. Churchill. . . . "

In 1999, Keen sold his trash business to return to college, graduating from Kansas State University in 2001 with honors before enrolling at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas.  Keen graduated from law school in 2005, passed the bar exam that summer, and has been in private practice since that time. (

Keen A. Umbehr in 1st law office on the day he was sworn in, September 30, 2005

Keen and Eileen Umbehr (photo by Eileen's sister, Patricia Van Kirk)

Keen and Eileen met at the age of 15 when they were both attending Singapore American School. They were married in North Oaks, Minnesota, on June 10, 1978, and have have four sons: Jared, Josh, Keen II and Kirk Van and three daughters-in-law: Lisa, Tiffany and Amanda. They also have 8 gradchildren including three granddaughters: Emma, Katelyn, and Paige and 5 grandsons: Asher, Gabe, Cole, Weston and, the newest member of the Umbehr family, Keen A. Umbehr III, born on February 28, 2014.
          "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your Name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness." ~ Psalm 115:1

Available at:

Keen and Eileen Umbehr |  PO Box 482 | Alma, Kansas 66401 | Phone: 785.765.3436 |  

Special thanks to my manuscript editor, Barbara Lerma, for the countless hours she spent 
proofreading and editing my manuscript. I will be forever grateful for her faith in my project and continual encouragement.