Best Places to Retire: Lawrence, Kansas

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The city of Lawrence does not lie in the flat, dry plains that most often come to mind for Kansas. The college town sits in the eastern slice of the state that is more lush and green, giving Lawrence a canopy of trees on rolling hills. The city also stands apart from the rest of Kansas politically. It's a Democratic stalwart in a state otherwise solidly Republican, the seat of the only county to vote against the state's ban on same-sex marriages.

Also unusual for the Sunflower State, Lawrence is a draw for retirees. "Lawrence has everything we wanted," says Larry Gadt, 65. While still living in Washington, D.C., he and his wife, Jacqueline, listed what they wanted in a retirement spot: a college town with a population less than 100,000, a good hospital, and convenient transportation. And if it isn't in Lawrence, it's in Kansas City, about a half-hour drive away.

But Lawrence remains a largely undiscovered gem; it's still rare for retirees to pick Lawrence from afar, Gadt says. Most of the older neighbors in his new subdivision have earlier links to Lawrence, usually to the University of Kansas. "A lot of people had great times here as students," says Harry Gibson, who returned to Lawrence after the oil business had taken him around the country. "And a whole lot of them beat us back here."

The campus offers performances at the Lied Center, art at the Spencer Museum of Art, and speakers at the Robert J. Dole Institute. The institute opened in 2003 as a sort of nonpresidential library to honor the former U.S. senator. There is also an active community arts center and theater, a vibrant downtown, and a farmers' market three days a week. KU hosts major college sports, including a perennial powerhouse in men's basketball.

The Kansas Jayhawks' chief rivalry is with the University of Missouri in a hostility that dates to the Civil War. In one bloody incident, pro-slavery raiders from Missouri killed nearly 200 men and burned much of the wealthier part of Lawrence, which was founded by antislavery activists. Residents rebuilt that section of town in what survives as a charming collection of historic homes.

One element might discourage retirees: This is the Midwest of four distinct seasons. "The winters can be kind of rough," Gibson says. Summers can compel a dip in an area reservoir, including nearby Lake Clinton.

The city has also grown enough that longtime residents complain about traffic. That's a matter of perspective, says Lewis Phillips, who returned to the city in 1996 after four decades away. He says he can get to Kansas City in 35 minutes. "It took me that long to drive to downtown Atlanta, and I lived in the city."

To outsiders, Lawrence's midwesterners can seem easy to adjust to, with no overt accents or dominant cultural background, such as a religion or foreign ethnicity. While lifelong residents can seem parochial, sticking close to family and established friends, clubs and associations can open a path to Lawrence life.

"It helps to be a joiner here," says Roy Creek, who moved to Lawrence with his wife from a Kansas City suburb. One of his favorites is the New Generation Society, which was formed to welcome newcomers. It seems especially popular with retirees, Creek says. "So much so that it ought to be called the 'Past Generation Society,' " he jokes. "There's a lot of them here."

ABOUT LAWRENCE, KAN.

Population: 81,816

Median home price: $142,928

January average temperatures (high/low): 39/21

July temperatures: 91/70

Source: OnBoard LLC

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