There probably is no more somber spot on earth than a prison’s death row, but Megan Cramer could make a condemned man smile or bust out laughing.
“I learned a lot about my clients watching Megan,” Sean O’Brien, a capital-punishment defense lawyer, said at Cramer’s memorial service Monday. “Megan’s empathy knew no bounds.”
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Whether it was as a young University of Missouri-Kansas City law student helping O’Brien work with condemned inmates at Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center, or as a server many years later waiting tables at JJ’s restaurant, Cramer’s warmth toward others always shone, friends, colleagues and family members said.
About 200 people attended the memorial at Community Christian Church for the 46-year-old woman who was the only fatality in the Feb. 19 natural-gas explosion and fire that leveled JJ’s.
Cramer was a server for five months at the popular nightspot just west of the Country Club Plaza. She died after a wall collapsed on her. Authorities think a contractor struck a gas line outside JJ’s more than an hour before the explosion. Local, state and federal officials are investigating.
Billed as a “celebration of life,” Monday’s service touched on several aspects of Cramer’s life, from her love of literature to her embrace of people from all walks of life.
Friends and family gave readings of the verse she wrote and recited the words of one of her favorite writers, poet Maya Angelou. They also shared memories of Cramer.
Martin Diggs, a server at JJ’s, said Cramer was always there to give hugs when hugs were needed. He said customers asked for Cramer by name because they knew she cared about them.
The world would be a better place if others emulated her, he said.
“Everyone here could care a little more, like Megan,” Diggs said. “Hug a little more, like Megan. And give a little more, like Megan.”
Before turning to a long career working at restaurants, Cramer earned a law degree. For a time in the 1990s, she worked for O’Brien at Missouri Capital Punishment Resource Center.
She was good, even creative, at getting inmates to open up., She once posed an off-the-wall question to Bobby Shaw, who had been condemned to death for killing a prison guard.
“If you could have anything you ever wanted in the world, what would it be?” she asked.
“A Volkswagen,” Shaw said just days before his scheduled execution in 1993.
The answer, O’Brien said, was crucial in convincing then-Gov. Mel Carnahan to spare Shaw’s life. The jurors who convicted Shaw had never been told of his mental limitations.
“Megan played a role in that,” O’Brien said.
Besides the Kansas City memorial, Cramer’s family plans a service Thursday in Springfield.
Fifteen people were injured in the explosion, including workers for Missouri Gas Energy; the contractor, Heartland Midwest LLC; and several of Cramer’s co-workers at JJ’s. A benefit for JJ’s employees, all of whom lost their jobs when the building was leveled, will be tonight at the Uptown Theater. Doors open at 7 p.m.