In Remembrance

Remembering Mel Carnahan and the day Missouri’s political landscape shook

Ten years ago yesterday I received a late night phone call from my then state representative who I had been assisting with her reelection campaign. She told me that she had bad news. Governor Mel Carnahan’s plane was missing. After that painful and somewhat lengthy conversation I called my then state senator and he also confirmed the bad news. My spouse and I turned to the television to try and find more news.

In those days I was very active in the Missouri Democratic Party, serving in various capacities as a member of legislative and senate district committees. I had been elected a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and as such had a few opportunities to briefly interact with members of the Carnahan family there. Unfailingly, each of them was always good humored, gracious, unassuming, and approachable. I have a photo that someone took of me and Governor Carnahan at a delegation reception after one of the convention days had ended.

My spouse and I are musicians. She is a harpist, and in previous years had played on numerous occasions at the Governor’s mansion in Jefferson City where there is a concert grand harp. We had always called the mansion instrument, a concert grand which had been donated, the “state harp.”

During the next days (I can’t remember exactly when, it was all a blur) my spouse received a call from the Governor’s mansion asking if she would play as the public paid their respects to the Governor as his casket lay in state in the mansion. She was scheduled to play last, for two hours.

For various practical reasons, among them the disturbance caused by tuning the state harp as other musicians played and the public was paying their respects, it was decided that my spouse would bring her own concert grand. I drove to Jefferson City that evening with my spouse to help her move her harp into the mansion.

As we arrived in Jefferson City that evening and approached the Governor’s mansion we were struck by the long line of people outside waiting to enter the mansion. The streets around the mansion already had manned barricades as security was increasing in anticipation of the service the next day on the steps of the capitol. We drove up to a barricade and announced who we were. We were let in, unloaded the harp, then parked our vehicle at a designated spot across from the mansion.

We took the small elevator, with the harp, up to the main floor of the mansion. The governor’s casket and honor guard, along with people filing past to pay their respects, were in the central room. Other musicians from Jefferson City who we knew were just finishing and we quietly moved the harp into place. As my spouse played I sat in a chair nearby in the staircase alcove.

It was deeply moving to witness the long line of everyday people, some in working clothes, others in more formal dress, young and old, wealthy, middle class, poor, filing past to pay their respects.

Several family members came down the stairs. They sat nearby for a moment to listen to the music and witness some of the public sharing their grief.

After two and half hours the last of the public had filed past. As we quietly moved the harp to the elevator we turned to look at the room, no sounds, no music, the front door to the mansion closed, and the honor guard at attention alone with the flag draped casket.