Saturday, August 28, 2004

The arson fire that tore through Strong's Corner Florist in Lamar during the wee hours this morning reminded me of just how much the square means to the fabric of Lamar life.
I spent a great deal of my younger years, probably up to my mid-20s, on the Neosho square on Friday and Saturday nights, but even that square doesn't ring with history the way the one in Lamar does.
When Lamar residents, especially long-time ones, think about the square they probably have a truckload of memories. Despite the fire, the Lamar Rotary Parade was still held today and I guarantee that you after the parade is finished and again tonight the square will be wall-to-wall humanity.
When I was with the Lamar Democrat in the mid-1980s, I decided to time how long it takes to walk completely around the square on the final Saturday night. It took 22 minutes and some seconds. There were so many people and there was almost no way you could go all the way around without having to stop and talk with someone. It is a long and hallowed tradition to be in Lamar on the Saturday of the Free Fair.
The Fair is probably the first memory of the square that comes to mind to most, but another long-time tradition has been the Football Homecoming Parade. The first one I covered was in 1978. I can't remember how the homecoming game went, but I do remember Coach Chuck Blaney's football team winning the most important game of that year, the Silver Tiger game against Nevada. My best memory of that game came the following week during a pep assembly in the high school gymnasium when Oscar (for those unfamiliar with Lamar tradition, an actual silver tiger goes to the winner of that annual contest) was officially presented to the student body and one of the senior football captains, Kim Morris, held it aloft as the gymnasium rocked with applause.
The square has always been a hotbed of activity on election nights. One tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation is the election watch in the hallways of the courthouse. Three to four generations of Lamar residents roam the halls waiting for the latest results to be posted on a chalkboard that stretches down an entire hallway. Normally, one county official or a relative of a county official climbs a ladder to write in the results on the top half of the chalkboard as someone else reads off the numbers.
One of my favorite election nights was in 1984 when the results from the Lamar R-1 bond issue showed it had been approved by a wide margin and a new high school was going to be built. I remember the loud war whoop that came from R-1 Board of Education member Ron Wegener when the final tallies were counted. Years later, I remember the more subdued reactions from long-time board member Ronnie Means when the voters decided not to reelect him after more than two decades of service. Few people would have been as gracious as he was in granting me an interview after he knew his time on the board had ended.
Just like the Neosho square and the Carthage square, the Lamar square also has been a center of activity for young people every Friday and Saturday night year after year, decade after decade.
If memory serves me correctly, the square was also a place of horror one night early in the 20th century when a man named Jay Lynch (ironically) was lynched by an out-of-control mob.
The 60th anniversary of what may have been the most important event to take place on the Lamar square will probably be overlooked later this week.
It was Aug. 31, 1944, when Lamar native Harry S Truman officially accepted his nomination as FDR's vice presidential running mate. More than 10,000 people were gathered around the square as the president delivered his speech on the west side of the courthouse. A plaque commemorates the place where he gave his speech. For a long time, the lectern he used was a cherished keepsake of the activity, but it was destroyed in a fire in the early 1960s.
The crowd included Senator Happy Chandler of Kentucky, who later became major league baseball commissioner, and J. W. Fulbright, who later became a U. S. Senator from Arkansas and a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War.
As a group of opportunistic pickpockets worked its way through the crowds, according to newspaper accounts from that time, the future president told his audience it was not a time for partisanship. He stressed that it was important to stay the course and elect Roosevelt to an unprecedented fourth term as president.
"The welfare of this nation and its future, as well as the peace of the whole world depends on your decision on November 7," Truman said. "You can't afford to take a chance. You should endorse an experienced leadership. You should re-elect Franklin Roosevelt president of the United States."
Joplin Globe accounts from that time indicate the city of Joplin did everything it could to steal Lamar's historic moment, trying to get Senator Truman to just attend a brief ceremony in Lamar then come to Joplin for the main event. The attempt failed so for one evening 60 years ago, the eyes and ears of the nation were focused on Lamar. Every radio network and even a fledgling television network or two were on hand.
In November 1944, Roosevelt, who was nearing death (something Truman didn't know) was elected to his fourth term, beating New York Governor Thomas Dewey, the same man Truman defeated four years later.
One of the reasons that the Lamar square has continued to thrive long after similar community centers have vanished is that it continues to open its arms to every segment of the community.
Can there be any doubt that that Neosho square began to vanish after city officials listened to the shortsighted continually griping businessmen who claimed all the young people were giving the square a bad reputation and scaring away their customers.
I can remember being on the square well after midnight during my late teen years and there were no drunken brawls or incidents of vandalism going on except on rare occasions. Nevertheless, city officials set an 11:30 p.m. curfew and later moved it up to 10 p.m. and effectively took away all ownership of the square from the community. They took young people (who almost always grew up to be responsible adults) out of the habit of going to the square and you can see the result by driving around there today.
When Neosho officials decided to rip away one part of the fabric of the community's heritage and sacrifice it on the altar of the Chamber of Commerce, they took away part of the small-town tradition that has helped make this country strong.
It would be extremely difficult to come up with a list of memories for the Neosho square that would even remotely resemble the one I just wrote for the Lamar square.
Ready for another waste of taxpayer money?
The Jasper County Jail is the subject of yet another lawsuit filed in U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. James Edward Phillips, Joplin, is suing Sheriff Archie Dunn and company for $50,000, claiming the jail has an inadequate law library that didn't help him prepare for a lawsuit he filed against the county in Jasper County Circuit Court.
Whenever one of these useless lawsuits winds its way through the courts it's being funded by the taxpayers. Prisoners should retain their constitutional rights but the line needs to be drawn somewhere.

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