March 26, 2010: The strongest people I’ve ever known, by Brenton Phillips

I had just handed the cashier a 20-dollar bill for gasoline and a bag of ranch-flavored CornNuts at the Coastal Mart at Ninth and Crawford in Salina.  As I waited for change, I noticed a jar next to the register.  Taped to it was a photocopied picture of a pretty blond lady and words asking for donations for the children of Coastal Mart employee Mary Rains, who had been abducted from a store in Garden City a few nights earlier.  I had read of the murder in the Salina Journal.  Her kidnapper drove her to a county road and shot her in the head.  After killing Mary, he abducted and killed another convenience store employee.

I dropped my change into the jar, sad for Mary Rains and her family.  Then I went about my life.

That was more than 20 years ago, July 1989.  A few days later I phoned Mom and Dad — my weekly check-in with the folks back in Dodge City.  One regular part of our conversation was Mom’s “obituary report,” which she always began with, “Do you remember. . .?” or “Did you know. . .?”  Usually the dead were ushers I knew from church, grandparents of a long lost friend in grade school, one of Dad’s physical therapy patients, etc.  Often, I didn’t really remember them; they had become hazy memories lost in the mist of years gone by.

“Did you know Mary Rains?” asked Mom.

“Mary Rains?  Yeah, she was that clerk who was killed in Garden City the other day.  Awful thing.”

“Yes.  Do you remember Mary Hessman?”

“Sure.  She was in Brad’s class.  I didn’t really know her that well but — wait a minute.  Are you telling me Mary Hessman is Mary Rains?”

Rains is Mary’s married name.

I wasn’t unfamiliar with the deaths of young people — two cousins, my own sister Michelle — but this was something new.  I had never known a murder victim.

Bob and Ruth Hessman, Mary’s parents, are farmers who go to our church.  Their children were in my siblings’ classes at Sacred Heart Grade School and Dodge City High School.  My sisters were in the same 4-H club.  Growing up, we saw the Hessmans nearly every Sunday at Mass.  But I hadn’t seen any of them for years.

Now the change I had dropped into that jar seemed paltry, inadequate.

Mary’s killer, Gregg Braun, was eventually caught, but not before he inflicted a tremendous amount of suffering on others.  After Garden City, he went on a killing spree in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico before he was finally stopped.

In July 2000, the state of Oklahoma executed Braun by lethal injection.  He was the quintessential If-Anyone-Deserves-To-Die poster child.  Before he died, he spoke the names of his victims and asked for forgiveness.

Bob and Ruth Hessman didn’t see Braun die, although as family of a victim they were entitled to.  On the night of his execution, they were in Great Bend at a prayer vigil for the soul of their daughter’s killer.  At one point between the murders and his execution, Braun had asked for forgiveness, and Bob and Ruth — after much anger, grief and pain — gave it to him.  They did what many of us find to be nearly impossible for even the slightest wrongs done to us: Forgive? A killer? That’s asking too much.

Some thought the Hessmans were fools. Others were awed by their strength. How does one even begin to forgive such a heinous act?  How can one possibly find peace after such impossible horror? Didn’t they want revenge?

Revenge — endlessly promoted in countless books and movies and TV shows — should bring lasting peace to the aggrieved, but countless examples show it rarely does.

In the short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus (made into the film “In the Bedroom”), a father kidnaps his son’s killer, shoots him and buries him in the woods. The father does not find the peace he desires; instead, at the end, he has isolated himself from his other children, who can never know what he has done lest they become accomplices. You get the sense that his act of vengeance will always hover over him; the peace he sought through vengeance will elude him.

I can’t speak for the families of Braun’s other victims. I dare not be so presumptuous. But Bob and Ruth Hessman found a way to peace through forgiveness. It wasn’t an easy road, no sentimental “ABC Sunday Night Movie” in which problems are solved easily and dissolved neatly. But they found peace.

As I was writing the rough draft of this piece last November, Mom called. During our talk, she asked, “Do you remember Ruth Hessman?”

I sure do.  I always will.

Ruth and her husband Bob discovered that peace can come before we die, no matter what tragedies befall us. And that forgiveness is a requirement for peace. Ruth and Bob are the strongest people I’ve ever known.  May we all find such strength.

— Brenton Phillips chairs the English-Communications Department at Cloud County Community College.

3 thoughts on “March 26, 2010: The strongest people I’ve ever known, by Brenton Phillips

  • May 21, 2022 at 10:05 pm

    This was my mother. Mary Mel Eesa Hessman Rains. May her memory never die.

  • July 20, 2021 at 10:32 am

    This is many years after this article was written. I just ran across it and was honored to know the Hessman’s as well. I called them Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bob even though they were friends of our family. Mel Essa was my age and were were buddies (early years) that lived miles apart. We can learn from these special people. May they all RIP. Love them all.

  • April 29, 2019 at 6:49 pm

    Hello. My name is Allen Rains . Mary is mother and ruth and bob are my grand parents this is 9 years after this was posted so idk of youll read it . i would to thank you for writing this, your sentiments mean alot. Its nice to see the affect my grandparents had on the people around them . thank you

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