Topeka doesn’t usually have much to shout about.
It’s got Washburn University, a highly regarded public institution; it’s got at least one big car dealership, Laird Noller Ford; and it’s got the best country western radio station in our region — KTPK, Country Legends 106.9, which you can pick up here in Kansas City under certain atmospheric conditions.
But this is a time of celebration in Topeka: The scourge of Topeka, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., died Wednesday.
And Topekans didn’t waste any time demonstrating how happy they were that the town’s personal demon was gone for good.
Here’s how Dugan Arnett and Donald Bradley, Kansas City Star reporters, described the reaction to Phelps’ death in Topeka, home of Phelps’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church, (which really was not Baptist but unaffiliated).
“The Topeka neighborhood occupied by the church was a scene of jubilation Thursday afternoon, complete with honking horns and smiling faces. Neighbors said the procession began shortly after the family announced Fred Phelps’ death.
“Some people weren’t satisfied with just driving by Westboro Baptist and tooting a horn. Some got out of their cars and posed for pictures with a streaming sign in a church window about whoremongers and sodomites going to hell.
“People happily milled about the street. Perfect strangers shook hands. A Topeka woman handed out buttons that said, simply “FRED” with a diagonal red line through the name.”
Indeed, Phelps came to stand (to his pleasure, I’m sure) for such perverted hatred of gays that he and his followers would picket the funerals of American soldiers killed in action — the rationale being that their deaths were God’s way of punishing the United State for increasing acceptance of gay rights.
The first time I read about an instance like that it took me a while to comprehend the reasoning, it was so upside down. But, then, there’s a lot of upside down thinking — and some of it even more dangerous than the Fred Phelps brand…Think Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Oklahoma City, for example, or Nidal Malik Hasan, the former U.S. Army psychiatrist who fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting on Nov. 5, 2009.
But for the way he consistently and continuously agitated, irritated and angered, Fred Phelps earned a legitimate shot at Public Enemy No. 1, certainly in our region and maybe even nationwide.
Another interesting thing in the Kansas City Star article was what Megan Phelps-Roper had to say about Grandpa Fred.
“I’m so sorry for the harm he caused. That we all caused. (Megan left the church a year ago.) But he could be so kind and wonderful. I wish you all could have seen that, too.”
“So kind and wonderful….”
You know, even the turd who raped and killed 10-year-old Hailey Owens in Springfield, Missouri, last month was probably “kind and wonderful” to somebody at some point. But a moment of kindness here and there doesn’t define a person, and it doesn’t define a guy like Fred Phelps, who, at some point, made a conscious decision to elevate his profile by dedicating himself to outrageous and despicable activities.
It was pretty clear that thirst for fame — not any principle — motivated him.
Los Angles time reporter Steve Chawkins said this about Phelps in an obituary posted on Thursday.
“Fred Phelps, a publicity-hungry Kansas pastor who picketed hundreds of military funerals because he believed America was too sympathetic to gays, died early Thursday in Topeka, Kan. He was 84…With his small Topeka congregation, Phelps also demonstrated at funerals and memorials for Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, former Mormon leader Gordon B. Hinckley and heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio — any observance, regardless of any connection to gay issues, where cameras might be rolling.”
Also, it is noteworthy that Phelps ran for Kansas governor, U.S. Senate and Topeka mayor. Just about everyone who runs for public office has thoughts of notoriety or even grandeur: “I should be elected because I’ve got something unique to offer.”
In saying that, I’m not criticizing people who run for office, because a lot of candidates do have something to offer, and many end up making laudable, lasting contributions to their towns, cities, counties, states or nations.
But in the end, it was ego alone that drove Fred Phelps to pervert himself and his followers.
It was a sorry saga, for sure. But today is a day to celebrate — not a life but a death.
Fred is dead. Party on, Topeka!