From time to time, I open a scrapbook and look over a short poem, written in faded blue ink on a sheet of notebook paper that has seen better days.
The words don’t rhyme and they will never rank with those of Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but they mean the world to me:
Remember the Days
when we were young and free
to roam and play like goofy kids
Those words, which began the poem, weren’t the words of a seasoned poet, but the thoughts of a 16-year-old girl.
Only four years later, that worn piece of paper was all I had left of the girl who wrote the poem.
The darkest day in my life, and in the lives of all who knew her, was September 6, 1977, the day a young man brutally stabbed Barbara McNeely to death in the parking lot at Northpark Mall.
Though we didn’t get along at first, Barbara and I became good friends in high school and when we attended Missouri Southern State College. When I made my first fledgling efforts to write a novel while I was at East Newton High School, it was Barbara who did my typing for me and offered me a steady stream of encouragement.
And suddenly all of that was gone. My friend and support system was gone forever and she was only 20 years old.
The man who killed her, William R. McMurray, said he stabbed Barbara multiple times because he thought she was his mother. When his trial was held, the Joplin Globe contained one account after another of how the deeply religious folks at Cecil Todd’s Revival Fire ministry thought that McMurray had undergone a conversion, had been saved, and was deserving of forgiveness. Not once did any of these people, so quick to proclaim how the Lord could make a difference even in the life of someone who had done something so horrible, offer one word of sympathy or support to Barbara’s family.
Finally, a jury found William R. McMurray not guilty by means of insanity. He was committed to a state mental hospital and a few years later, after the fact, the McNeely family and the man others who loved Barbara, learned that McMurray had been freed and was walking the streets.
Our attorney general at the time, the later imprisoned Bill Webster, not only backed the Missouri Department of Health on its actions, but just like those decent folks at Revival Fires, never offered a word of apology to Barbara’s loved ones.
And since that time, William R. McMurray has been with his wife and kids, living the kind of life that he made sure Barbara McNeely would never have.
That’s bad enough, but I received a disturbing e-mail a few days ago from a reporter in Crawfordsville, Ind., McMurray’s hometown.
Apparently, 33 years after the murder, William McMurray is ready to cash in on his notoriety, offering another of the endless stream of books authored by those who have done terrible things, gone through a redemption process, and have emerged to lead successful lives.
In this book, the reporter told me, McMurray plans to write about the horrible abuse he suffered as a child, what it lead him to do, and how he “turned his life around.”
For this man, who deprived the world forever of the sunshine that was Barbara McNeely, to make money off the tragedy, is a desecration to her memory.
So many times I have been amazed at those who manage to gloss over the most horrific acts with homilies about the healing power of forgiveness.
Well forgive me, but I am not buying it. Don’t tell me about the redemptive powers and inspiration that McMurray’s books may offer to those who have been abused as children.
I will continue to find my inspiration in that short poem and in the memory of the wonderful young woman who wrote it.