By Dennis Minich
A mass killer is defined as one person who kills three or more individuals arbitrarily in a contained population at a simple point in time. In today’s world, it is seemingly as likely or not we will hear about a mass shooting somewhere in the country. But that was not always the case.
In 1972, such events were rare and in a city like Harrisonville, they were virtually non-existent. All of which makes the story of the shooting on the square all that more horrific.
For a city with a violent history dating back to before the Civil War, it is shocking to think that April 21, 1972 is still the most gruesome and possibly most history changing event in the city’s history. People who were here still don’t like to talk about it. Others looking back on it have a lot of questions. I know I do. But reading the papers of the era, researching accounts and even reading the somewhat apocryphal book about the events, I still don’t know what followed because it was like everyone was ready to forget that day as soon as possible.
While I did not live in Harrisonville, I do remember 1972 quite well. I was a sophomore in high school in Overland Park, Kansas. While the main political discourse was likely not as petulant as it is today, there was a great unease. Starting in the mid-60s, the tone of the country changed. The civil rights movement, the controversial war in Vietnam and the assassinations of legendary leaders like John and Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seemingly broke the mold on how people were allowed to think and act. Everything from civil language and common courtesy to patriotism and civic-mindedness was going through a metamorphosis.
There were a lot of people who wanted to see drastic changes in the world. Others liked things just as they were. While there were many clashes among the various factions, it was much rarer than today for things to turn deadly. Maybe someone knows what inspired Charles Simpson to open fire on the Harrisonville square that day. Did it really have to do with how the city was policing the local “hippie” population or was he simply a deranged individual with a gun?
What has become clear in my conversations is the atmosphere in Harrisonville was forever changed. The once vibrant square was soon to become a virtual ghost town. Most everyone agreed there were several factors leading to the square’s decline, including a new Walmart store on the north side of town, parking hassles on the square and the aging infrastructure in the area. But shooting was much of a death knell for the area. Some have told me a few people were scared to go shopping downtown, others didn’t want a reminder, some just stayed away. Regardless, the once thriving square no longer thrived. The decline carried on for decades until Del Dunmire decided to attempt to remake the city. Following his death, the buildings have gone to new owners and great strides are being made by new business owners and groups like Love the Harrisonville Square and the Harrisonville Area Chamber of Commerce.
A cornerstone to the rebirth of the area can be the newly renovated Marler-Wirt-Allen Park, named in honor of the three victims of a madman’s rampage 50 years ago. Extensive work has gone into the area, much of it by volunteers, with a new fountain and stonework as well as new landscaping. While it is a memorial, it is also a park, a place for people to enjoy and be happy. Serving as a front door to the city’s downtown area, it can be a pleasant and joyful first impression for visitors.
We should never forget the events of 50 years ago today. But we should not let the echoes of the past dampen our future. I hope everyone enjoys and embraces the new Marler-Wirt-Allen Park.