Why, for so many years, have flights to Wichita carried so many worried women and frightened girls? Why are certain cemeteries dotted with cryptic messages on tiny headstones? Why have so many fervent souls, fiery with outrage, made the long trip across dry prairies or through flint hills to weep and pray in a parking lot along a busy highway? Why here?
It was never about Wichita. There is no cultural or sociological or historical artifact to explain why this place became a magnet for abortion seekers and protesters alike. The reason was George Tiller. He could have happened anywhere, but he happened here, like a meteor strike.
Tiller was the rare physician willing to follow America's ambivalence about abortion to its ragged edge. In his drab clinic here with hospital beds in the basement, Tiller performed not only comparatively abstract early procedures but also grimly literal late-term abortions. Most people don't want to think about the work Tiller did, but some had no choice either they needed to see him or they felt duty-bound to try to stop him. (Read "The Grass-Roots Abortion War.")
So they came to Wichita, whether folks here wanted them or not thousands of protesters, most notably during the so-called Summer of Mercy in 1991, and thousands of patients, month in and month out, for heartache knows no season. One of those drawn to him, a Kansas City-area man named Scott Roeder, allegedly shot Tiller dead on May 31 which in turn attracted reporters from across the country.
Kansas has a knowing relationship with radicals. A portrait of abolitionist John Brown gun in one hand, Bible in the other occupies a place of honor at the state capitol in Topeka. Bar-bashing Carry Nation took her hatchet to some of the best saloons in the state. Wichitans long ago processed the fact that a doctor with a mansion in the suburbs wore not just a gown to work but also a bulletproof vest. They kept it at arm's length, though. Some places, like some people, seem to relish any sort of attention. Not this place. No one even slowed while passing the TV trucks at the courthouse, and Mayor Carl Brewer looked queasy when I stopped him outside a city-council meeting. Not a word about Tiller, the mayor insisted. He warmed up only when asked about job losses in the city's storied but stricken aircraft industry.
Eric Cale runs the city's historical museum appropriately, given that his family has been here almost from the founding of Wichita in 1863. Searching for the right word to explain his town, Cale settles on "remote" both in geography and in mood then adds "circumspect." Pam Siddall understands. When she arrived last year to take charge of the local newspaper, the Alabama native asked around for a good church. She was amazed to find that Wichitans prefer not to talk about such personal matters.
For years at Reformation Lutheran, where the doctor was slain in the foyer as Sunday services were starting, antiabortion protesters held Sunday vigils. Men stretched their sport coats to cover their children's eyes as they passed gruesome posters of dismembered fetuses on their way into Sunday school. And yet, according to one parishioner, the congregation never discussed Tiller's membership, one way or the other.
If Chicago is the city of broad shoulders, Wichita is a city of low profiles, of taciturn factory workers and reticent billionaires. Did you know that a Wichita musician named Gage Brewer was the first to whang an electric guitar in concert? Of course you didn't. Or that the first organized sit-in to desegregate a lunch counter took place in a Wichita Rexall? Many of the kids who participated never even told their parents.
"A wonderfully quiet town," says local anchorman Larry Hatteberg, "that is sometimes shocked into the limelight." Donna Tucker, a local jazz singer, hears that and goes wide-eyed. "Oh, that's perfect!" she says. "Shocked into the limelight."