Even those of you who aren’t from the St. Louis area have probably read about the Kirkwood resident who killed five people last Thursday at a Kirkwood City Council meeting and was then gunned down by police. One of the best known residents of Kirkwood is Franklin McCallie, a former principal of Kirkwood High School. He released a statement that the Kirkwood-Webster Times printed. It sheds light on what led up to that nightmare.
February 09, 2008
As the former 22 year principal of Kirkwood High School and a Kirkwood citizen for the past 29 years, I knew, respected, and had affection for every single person involved in the terrible tragedy which took place in our community Thursday night, Feb. 7th.
Five years ago in 2003, I communicated with my friend Cookie Thornton in one-on-one meetings and through phone calls for almost five months – from late January to early May – in trying to reach a solution to his stalemate with the Kirkwood City Council and the Kirkwood Department of Public Works.
Cookie was a vivacious, enthusiastic member of the Kirkwood Community and had been an extremely popular student at Kirkwood High School. Since he graduated five years before I became principal, I did not meet him until he returned to Kirkwood to form his own construction company. In most cases, Cookie had no trouble getting along with anyone. He was a full-time booster for young people’s activities within the Meacham Park neighborhood and the wider Kirkwood community. He was one of the most out-going persons I ever met. He proposed to his wife at a Club 44 young people’s banquet in front of over 100 kids and adults. My wife and I attended his wedding to his wonderful wife and educator, Maureen, and I saw him often in the community. We hugged each time we met.
However, Cookie encountered a major problem concerning his construction company. He and I discussed this situation at length and studied several hundred pages of legal documents together. Most of those documents ticketed Cookie for parking his construction equipment in places not designated for such machinery. I talked with both black and white citizens who were annoyed over his habit of parking machinery where he thought it was acceptable, but was not legal under Kirkwood ordinance. In the largely African American neighborhood in which he lived, St. Louis County had not enforced these rules very closely. But when citizens in Meacham Park and Kirkwood voted for Kirkwood to annex the Meacham Park neighborhood, the Kirkwood administration began to enforce these ordinances, and Cookie perceived he was being mistreated and made to conform to an overly strict interpretation of the laws. Both white and African American friends told Cookie he must adjust to the law, but Cookie decided that he was being targeted and discriminated against by city officials.
When his fines for tickets grew to thousands of dollars, Cookie told me that Kirkwood officials said they would drop all fines if he would adjust to the law. In our long talks, I begged him to do this, but Cookie said it was a matter of principle that he should sue the city for discriminating against him for “PWB: parking while black.”
I, among others, then suggested that he drop his opposition and stop harassing the council members in open meeting or get a lawyer and sue the city to see what the legal system would rule. I also wrote letters to the city council to say that Cookie and I were working on this problem, and I had positive communication with the mayor and other council members and the head of the Department of Public Works, all of whom expressed the desire to settle this matter between Cookie and themselves.
However, at the end of five months of studying documents, talking, and visiting construction sites with Cookie, he was no closer to believing that he was not being targeted unfairly, even though I was not the only close friend-white or black-telling him that he was mistaken in his perception, at least as pertains to his construction equipment. He loved his home city of Kirkwood, but he became obsessed with his perceived mistreatment, and he acted out in council meetings in a way that no one would have expected. At some meetings, he held a sign labeling the mayor a “jackass” and then spoke gibberish for three minutes, implying that this was the only way to communicate with a “jackass.”
In one open meeting, I rose to say to the council that Cookie Thornton was a close friend of mine but that I disagreed with the treatment that he was giving to these public servants who were attempting to run a good city government. Cookie continued to embrace me after that public statement, but still did not agree with me.
The above description is accurate as pertains to construction equipment. As is often the case, however, with relationships between blacks and whites in the American society, general community issues were a poignant background to Cookie’s specific issues of racism. After the annexation of Meacham Park to Kirkwood, the city council approved the creation of a shopping mall which required the destruction of a large number of homes in Meacham Park. Some residents, including Cookie, welcomed the buy-out and redevelopment of Meacham Park; others protested vehemently. Some black and white citizens still cite certain details in the buy-out as “racist insensitivity” by the white power structure. Cookie believed his company had been promised significant demolition work. When he did not get it, he told me it was one more act of discrimination against a black businessman, with all money going to white companies for destroying black houses.
Thus, the specific issue of parking construction equipment and the fines for those acts under Kirkwood ordinance were bundled together in Cookie’s mind with an overall perception of racism over issues which many other citizens in Meacham Park also perceived. Many Meacham Park citizens protested the destruction of their homes for a mall. They perceived one more racist slight by the powerful white community over the smaller and powerless black community. Meacham Park residents who protested this issue, however, did so in orderly and constructive meetings under leadership from the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association.
Why, then, did the events of Thursday night, Feb. 7, take place? The horror of the act and the pain of Kirkwoodians with whom I have spoken are crushing. Based on my interaction with Cookie, I believe the obsession of discrimination – whether real or perceived – overwhelmed Cookie’s judgment, causing him to do something completely against his normal nature. Cookie Thornton wounded the mayor and a newspaper journalist. Worst yet, he killed two outstanding professionals on the Kirkwood police force and three equally wonderful public servants within our city government in a brutal, inexcusable act, the act of a person in vengeful, mental chaos.
These exceptional persons are an unimaginable loss to our community. Kirkwoodians will sorely miss their daily contributions to our civic and personal lives. Our grief will be long and painful throughout Kirkwood, including the Meacham Park neighborhood.
As wrong as Cookie Thornton was in his judgment about the specifics of his parking fines and his terrible acts on that Thursday night, I am convinced Kirkwood will only move forward again as we acknowledge our need to come together as one people.