I am from Parkersburg, Iowa.
I wasn’t born there, I don’t live there now, but it is, without a doubt, where I am from.
It is – and will always be – integral to who I am.
On Wednesday morning, that part of who I am was once again hit by tragedy. But this tragedy was far, far worse than the devastating tornado that wiped out half the town last year.
Last year, Mother Nature ripped away homes and trees and businesses. Safety and security were torn from the lives of the people who lived there.
But this – this was so much worse. Wednesday, the very heart of Parkersburg was ripped away in one horrible, senseless act of violence.
Husband, father and Coach Ed Thomas was murdered by former student and player, Mark Becker.
Thomas. That’s what we called him. Unless you played football for him at some point in the last 30 years – then you called him Coach. Even if you were a grown man yourself now, the respect and admiration in that title remained. But it wasn’t just the boys who played football for him that were touched.
It was all of us.
Parkersburg is one of those places you watch movies about. The community begins and ends at the football field – a field renamed “Ed Thomas Field” just a few short years ago. So it makes sense that the football coach would be a prominent figure in the town. But Thomas was much more than that. As athletic director, coach and teacher, he was committed to helping to raise the kids of Parkersburg.
All of us.
It didn’t matter if you never wore a uniform or caught a pass. We were his job.
I remember how worried he was about me when I had my first big heartbreak. My ex-boyfriend was a star player on his football team, and the love he had for him was evident. But so, too, was the concern he had for the 17 year old cheerleader who found herself feeling lost.
“Hey, Britt,” he’d catch my eye in the hall, “how you doin’?”
And he’d stop and search for the answer in me. He wasn’t the type of man to bring a girl into his classroom for a heart to heart, but he told you with a nod and a cautious smile, a pause in the hallway and a penetrating look, that he saw you. And that somehow things would get better.
A year later when I decided to set my sights on a boy in my class with a history of partying and irresponsibility, he made his concern clear again. He warned me. He cautioned me. He reminded me that I was good enough. Of course that doesn’t say much for my husband, I suppose – the irresponsible teenage boy that Thomas tried to steer me clear of.
But that’s what he did. Ed Thomas kept his standards high and insisted that you rose to them. And if you didn’t, he stood steady in his convictions and patiently waited for you to realize yours.
He was a father to my brothers when no one else was.
I got the news Wednesday from my mother. And one of our best friends. And my aunt. And my dad. And my brothers. And a former co-worker. And an old classmate I haven’t talked to in years. The facts were inconceivable to those of us who knew – who know – what Ed Thomas is to Parkersburg.
I got on Facebook and immediately received chat messages from people I hadn’t spoken to in over a decade. It was as if we were all searching for our bearings, reaching out to find something we knew now that our anchor was gone. Someone. Something. Anything that could tie us back to that place that we come from.
And then there is Mark.
I have known Mark since he was my son’s age. He was my little brother, Jay’s, best friend until just a few short years ago, when the drugs and demons that hounded Mark finally became too much for Jay to compete with.
Becker. That’s what my brothers and the rest of the guys called him.
But my mother and I called him Marky. Because he was a Marky. He was quiet and shy with a big, easy grin that spread across his face whenever you told him you were glad to see him. He sat on my front porch two summers ago and played poker with me and talked about how cool it sounded that we were moving.
He thought my daughter was adorable.
And he killed a man on Wednesday.
Brutally. Viciously. He walked into a room full of high school students and shot Ed Thomas with a gun. Over and over again.
I don’t understand.
I don’t understand the horrible betrayal that must have flashed through Thomas’s mind upon seeing Mark point a gun at him. I don’t understand what must be horribly broken in Mark’s head that he could be capable of taking a life so violently.
I don’t understand how that town will survive this.
Or why they should have to.