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History lived is history remembered most

In ranking events according to their importance, the judgment is largely subjective. Generally speaking, the history that affects us most, and that we remember most vividly, is the history we have lived.

For example, I see from the list that a tornado hit Kansas City in May 1886, killing 28 persons and doing tremendous physical damage. Another twister 71 years later, the one that struck Ruskin Heights and three neighboring communities in May 1957, took an even greater toll: 44 dead, more than 531 injured and hundreds left homeless.

But that first one was nearly a half-century before I was born, and when the second hit I was 1,000 miles from here, away in the Army.

The tornado I remember didn’t make the list.

On the sultry early evening of June 8, 1966, I stood with my bride of two months in the yard of our rented three-room cottage outside Lenexa, our first home together.

We watched a massive storm front mount up from the horizon directly to the west. It was like a thing alive, painted in shades of slate gray and sickly green, shot through with lightning and churning in violent turbulence.

The rising cloud blocked the last of the sun, turning the day preternaturally dark. Not a leaf moved on any tree. The air was heavy, ominously still.

With awe and some alarm, we waited until the threat lessened. Finally it was clear that what remained of the storm would pass on to the north of us.

Waking the next morning to the radio news, we learned that, while we’d watched, that awful cloud had dropped a funnel that cut a half-mile-wide path of destruction through the heart of the Kansas capital, Topeka, leaving 16 persons dead and more than 400 hurt.

Three thousand homes were damaged, 800 others destroyed completely — at that time the greatest property loss caused by any tornado in U.S. history.

I also know from the list of nature’s assaults that our river, the Missouri, which was the reason for our city’s founding, has been at times an ungovernable enemy, rising up to carry lives and dreams away.

Twice just after the turn of the last century, in 1903 and 1908, floods swept through the West Bottoms. The first killed 20 persons and wrecked the stockyards. The second would lead six years later to the construction on higher ground of a new train depot, our magnificent Union Station.

Again, though, both those were long before my time.

The flood of July 1951 is the one I witnessed. In the summer between high school and college I was employed as a pool guard at a little city pool on the bluff overlooking those same West Bottoms.

I watched as the joined waters of the Missouri and the Kaw raged past below, bearing railroad boxcars, automobiles, parts of houses and cattle from the stockyard pens on a mighty current that was colored coffee-brown with suspended soil.

And I remember seeing a man with a willow switch triumphantly herding a little bunch of salvaged hogs from the edge of the water up the 12th Street hill.

According to a report in the next day’s paper, before the flood some of the hogs were being kept in quarantine, used to incubate cholera vaccine. And I hoped that man noticed the story.

That was my flood.

The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed some 20 million to 40 million people worldwide — more than who died in World War I, and even more than who perished from the Black Death in Europe in the mid-1300s.

Scientists today warn that the bird flu virus, which governments in Asia are trying half-heartedly to contain, may hold the potential for a global catastrophe surpassing anything in human history.

But the epidemic of my own experience was polio, a disease that had occurred early in the last century but first resurfaced in Kansas City in 1949.

I have not managed to lay hands on the numbers of people, mostly young people, who contracted what was then commonly called “infantile paralysis.” The images of the afflicted being kept alive in iron lungs struck terror. Those whom polio did not kill often were left handicapped for life.

Swimming pools were closed, and people were warned to avoid large crowds in movie theaters and other public places because of the great danger of infection.

It was not until well into the 1950s, when the virus researchers Jonas Salk and, later, Albert Sabin were able to develop preventive vaccines, that this haunting shadow of childhood fear was lifted.

Nature may smite us with storms and disease. But more unfair, somehow, are those occasions when great numbers of lives are snuffed out as a result of human failure.

For Kansas Citians, one such memory stands out above all others.

Early in the evening of July 17, 1981, some 2,000 people were gathered for a tea dance at the Hyatt Regency hotel, open just a year. Many of the guests were watching the merriment from the dramatic skywalks suspended above the hotel atrium.

In a horrific moment, the anchoring of the 120-foot-long concrete bridges failed, plunging walkways and spectators onto the dancers below. The toll was numbing: 114 dead, more than 200 injured, many grievously.

Almost everyone in town, it seemed, knew someone who’d been at the dance. Two dear friends of ours were there, and escaped injury. They had invited my wife to join them, but she had another commitment.

Late that night she passed the awful news to me by phone. I’d been away most of month, writing a set of pieces evoking the cadences of life in a sweet little hamlet on the shore of a Minnesota lake.

The Star’s editor, Mike Waller, called the next morning to ask if I might write a piece for a special section the paper was preparing on the tragedy. But I try to write about things I know, and saw no sensible contribution I could make from so far away.

I was in the newsroom, though, when word was received that two passenger airliners had collided in midair over the Grand Canyon the morning of June 30, 1956.

A TWA Super Constellation had left Los Angeles International Airport just after 9:00 that morning bound for Kansas City. United’s DC-7 to Chicago departed the same field three minutes later.

Both flying by visual rules at 21,000 feet in uncontrolled airspace, their trajectories converged. They plunged into the canyon, and all 128 passengers and crew aboard the two planes perished. Many of those on the TWA flight were Kansas Citians.

The toll was the greatest to that time in U.S. civil aviation, and the disaster was a factor in the creation two years later of the Federal Aviation Agency.

Of outrageous crimes our city has had its share: spectacular gangland slayings, the abductions of notable citizens, mysterious deaths in socially prominent families, and the commoner, sordid run of poisonings, arsons and serial killings.

The case that most riveted our town and much of the country was the abduction and brutal murder in late September 1953 of little Bobby Greenlease, 6-year-old child of a wealthy Cadillac dealer.

The killers, Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady, two drunks and losers, were quickly caught, pleaded guilty and just 81 days after their crime were executed side by side in the Missouri gas chamber. Half the $600,000 ransom paid by the Greenlease family disappeared.

But I was away in college during all of that.

It was on August 4, 1955, two months after I’d joined the Star staff, that tragedy overtook another car dealer’s family.

Shortly after noon, on a street in the tranquil Brookside neighborhood not far from where I now live, 34-year-old Wilma Allen, wife of the president of Allen Chevrolet, left a small beauty shop, Shears ’n Tears, and hurried through misting rain a short distance to her car.

Lurking nearby was a 29-year-old former convict, Arthur Ross Brown, wanted on charges ranging from burglary and car theft to domestic assault. He drew a gun and forced his way into the vehicle.

Mrs. Allen would not be seen alive again.

The blood-splattered car was found after just hours, abandoned near the Union Station. Three days later, a farmer and his son looking for stray livestock discovered her body in a Johnson County pasture. She had been shot twice in the head.

In mid-November, in San Francisco, while being questioned about another offense, Brown announced to an FBI agent that he was really wanted in Kansas City, and confessed to the Allen murder.

Shortly after being returned to Kansas City for trial, he asked a deputy marshal: “Is this going to be about the same kind of a deal as Hall and Heady?” — referring to the Greenlease kidnapers.

It was.

The following Feb. 24, Brown was gassed in the penitentiary at Jefferson City.

The events to which we’ve been witness, in which we have some investment of feeling — anger, revulsion, fear or despair — are the ones that leave a lasting print.

This has been my personal list.

I’m struck by the way such a catalog of griefs and calamities and outrages speaks of the fragility of us all. And of how suddenly, through error or malice, by nature’s hand or man’s, all can be lost.

C.W. Gusewelle's career at The Star goes back a half -century. After he graduated from Westminster College in 1955, he joined the newspaper as a general assignment reporter. In the next 20 years he would serve as editorial writer, foreign editor and, after 1977, associate editor and columnist. He has written books, essays and magazine articles and produced TV documentaries. Gusewelle received the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction in 1977 and the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Achievement in 1990. Three times he was named daily columnist of the year by the Missouri Press Association.