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At Springfield’s Community School, Teaching’s More Than Textbooks.

Robberson Elementary is home to some of the most at-risk students in Springfield. Test scores are low. Ninety-four percent of students are on free or reduced lunches. This year, Springfield Public Schools are trying to fix the problems at Robberson. They’re starting not with classes or teachers — but with the community itself.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Dan Oshinsky and Jordan Hickey
published August 22, 2012

It’s a cloudy, rainy afternoon, something rather uncommon for this steamy summer in Springfield, Mo. Even with the gloomy weather, there’s a line of children and their families that zigzags out the door, down the steps and onto the asphalt in front of the main entrance of Robberson Elementary.

After a summer away from school, squeals of laughter erupt as friends are reunited. Children call out to one another and wave back and forth, parents introduce themselves and shake hands. It’s Tuesday, Aug. 14, the day before the official start of classes for Springfield Public Schools. Robberson, whose students range from kindergarten through fifth grade, is hosting its “Meet Your Teacher Day” so students and their families can become acquainted with the school, the staff and the teachers. It’s just a back-to-school event, but everyone seems unusually excited to be here.

Robberson staffers are on hand with rosters organized by grade and instructor, so they can help point people in the direction they need to go. The teachers are just as excited as the students are to start the year. They stand in their classrooms, welcoming students and chatting with families; they want them to feel ready for the next day.

“Hey, bud! How are you?” Cassie Downs, a kindergarten teacher, says to an incoming student. She crouches down so she is at his eye level. “You’re going to make new friends tomorrow.”

Tomorrow represents a big step forward for Robberson. The school, located on Springfield’s northeast side, serves a large population of at-risk students and families — and the community hasn’t been getting stronger in recent years. School officials point to one statistic — the percentage of students getting free or reduced price lunches — as an indicator of the economic health of the community around a school. In 2011, 94.4 percent of Robberson’s students qualified for free or reduced price lunches, up from 83.7 percent five years prior. [1]

Officials are also worried about the academics at Robberson. On tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, Robberson students have failed to meet standards three out of the previous six years.

So after a few years of planning, change is coming to Robberson. As is always the case on the first day of school, bookshelves are stocked, bulletin boards are up, and nametags are taped to the desks. But something’s different this year.

This fall, Robberson Elementary opened its doors as a community school, the first of its kind in Springfield. It’s joined other schools in a national trend toward re-imagining what education can mean to a neighborhood or a city.

The community school philosophy is all about taking a holistic approach to education. [2] The Robberson staff believes that succeeding academically takes more than lectures and textbooks; students need to be healthy and happy in order to learn, and they need stronger support systems both on and off school grounds. Robberson is now actively working with its community to ensure students have all the tools they need to succeed, whether that’s health care, proper nutrition, clean laundry, tutoring or a safe place to play until their parents get off work.

According to Marty Blank, director of Coalition for Community Schools and President of the Institute for Educational Leadership, there are more than 5,000 community schools across the United States. “We’re seeing a rise of this work because people are recognizing the importance of addressing both academic and non-academic factors influencing students’ success,” Blank says. “And as they do that, they realize that schools are simply not resourced to be able to address the challenges that influence students’ success.”

Much of Robberson’s curriculum remains the same from previous school years. The big change is that the school’s staff is focused on making local resources more accessible to Robberson’s students and families. The goal is for the school to serve as the hub for the surrounding neighborhood, offering aid and activities outside the normal hours of the school day, even extending school hours into the weekend.

It’s a new take on education, and Springfield Public Schools is giving it a shot with Robberson.

“We want the kids to grow up to be productive citizens of society,” Downs says. “I mean, what better backing to have than society itself?”

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A "Meet Your Teacher Day" event at Robberson, just before school began.
(Above) A “Meet Your Teacher Day” event at Robberson, just before school began this month. (At top) Students walk home after school ends.

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Robberson’s move toward becoming a community school has been in the works since 2006, when Springfield Public Schools were included in a five-year project called Enhancing Children’s Healthy Opportunities (ECHO).

The project established a more comprehensive set of integrated social and academic services for students and their families in Campbell and Robberson, two Springfield elementary schools that enroll a significant population of at-risk students. It expanded counseling and mental health services, parent education, after-school tutoring and family events at these schools. In addition to these services, ECHO developed a system to collect and analyze data in order to measure the impact that the changes had on the students’ personal and academic growth.

The project was funded through a $1 million Challenge for Children grant.

When ECHO ended in spring of 2011, Springfield Public Schools took the data from the project and began researching the community school strategy and how it might be implemented in Springfield.

Christine Giddings, a specialist for choice and innovation at Springfield Public Schools, was hired last November to spearhead the initiative. She says the district planning team visited and spoke with districts from across the United States that had already implemented the community school strategy. They traveled to Tulsa, Okla., where there are more than 30 schools in some stage of the process towards becoming a community school.

“We really took the opportunity to study what other people are doing, and then brought that back to how it applied to Springfield,” Giddings says.

Although Robberson is the first in Springfield to implement the community school strategy, it’s a trend that’s taking hold across the nation. In addition to Tulsa, the district planning team researched schools from Chicago, Cincinnati and Evansville, Ind. Giddings says the community school strategy has seen a lot of success on the coasts, and it’s now making inroads in the Midwest.

Once Springfield Public Schools got a strategy down on paper, they brought the elementary schools into the picture. Four schools, including Robberson, showed immediate interest in making the transition and agreed to complete a feasibility study with the planning team.

“That’s where we immediately started engaging their staff and their families and the community surrounding the schools and really got their opinion,” Giddings says. “We had a lot of engagement going on, which was great.”

After sending questionnaires home with students and conducting numerous focus groups and phone surveys, Giddings says Robberson emerged as the school most ready to implement the strategy this year.

Once Robberson was identified as the first community school, the district did a needs-and-interests assessment with both the staff and the families of the school in order to get a feel for what changes the community wanted to see. Assessments were sent home with each student’s report card, and, according to Giddings, more than 50 percent of those assessments were returned to the district.

Through those assessments, Giddings and her team identified the community’s top priorities and used those to build the new Robberson.

“No community school is exactly alike because you tailor it to fit the needs of that community,” Giddings says. “So that’s why there’s such a heavy emphasis and importance of engaging the families and the staff and the community around each individual school, because it’s really built with them.”

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Kevin Huffman, Robberson's principal, talks with a student.
Kevin Huffman, Robberson’s longtime principal, talks with a student.

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Robberson enrolls about 300 students each year, the majority of whom come from families struggling to make ends meet. Many students go without proper nutrition, clean clothes and regular dental and health care, but all of those deficiencies are things that Robberson — now in collaboration with the surrounding community — is working to alleviate.

Dr. Kevin Huffman is in his 16th year as principal of Robberson Elementary, and he describes the community school as a place where every part of a child’s life is important.

“Obviously, the education is our highest priority, but we realize that a lot of times we can’t get to a kid’s head until we have met a lot of the other basic needs of that child, and a lot of times of their parents as well,” Huffman says. “So we’re wrapping the services around the child and their families … removing some of those obstacles and barriers that sometimes get in their way of learning.”

The top three priorities that came out of the family surveys included increased after-school programs, extended tutoring opportunities and more extracurricular activities. It’s programs like these that will help keep children happy, healthy and focused, and therefore more likely to perform better in school.

In addition to expanding these programs, Robberson is looking at including adult education classes for parents and grandparents of students. These classes could help community members obtain a GED or learn computer skills. The school will also be partnering with agencies to provide mental health services, as well as dental care and overall wellness counseling for the families.

“We’ve got these structures that are here and they’re well maintained and they’re open nine months out of the year from 7 to 3,” Huffman says. “And it’s silly not to have them open ‘till late in the evening and use them for after-school activities and for parents to come in at night and do adult [education].”

Huffman and Giddings say the school already offers access to many resources outside of the classroom. The difference families will see this year and in years to come is that those resources will be targeted toward their specific needs and will be much more easily accessible as a result.

The school is still finalizing some of its partnerships with organizations and agencies in the community, but groups such as Springfield’s Care to Learn — which provides aid for “health, hunger or hygiene issues” for students in the Ozarks — have and will continue to be on board.

“I think Springfield is a very caring and compassionate city, and there are already in place a lot of people doing a lot of good things,” Huffman says. “The way I see this community school project is bringing all these good people and all these good services to one table and kind of under one umbrella, so that we’re focusing and we’re being more strategic and more streamlined.”

“The education is our highest priority, but we realize that a lot of times we can’t get to a kid’s head until we have met a lot of the other basic needs of that child, and a lot of times of their parents as well.”

Over the summer, Robberson hired a new nurse, counselor, and resource coordinator to help make all of this possible. The resource coordinator, in particular, is committed full-time to structuring and scheduling all of the services and activities that Robberson is and will be offering.

Downs, one of the kindergarten teachers, says she’s extremely happy with the addition of the resource coordinator to the staff. She thinks it’s something the school could have benefited from years ago.

“I’m really excited that we’ll have one central go-to person because we have so many different needs in the school,” Downs says. “For several years, there would be a family that needed utilities, needed help with rent, they needed medical help, they needed dental health, and instead of going to the counselor, the principal, the nurse, there will be one central location.”

She smiles, adding, “And they can just do all that for us, and we can go ahead and teach!”

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Christine Giddings, standing in the Robberson library.
Christine Giddings, standing in the Robberson’s library.

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When Giddings walked into Huffman’s office during the last week of March five months ago, he was hoping she was bringing good news. Robberson was still in the running to be Springfield’s first community school, and an answer was due to be handed down soon.

Giddings presented Huffman with a “community school” notebook, and his face lit up. The staff was ecstatic; they cheered and celebrated, and then got right to work making their vision become a reality.

“The very next morning I came over here, and there were dry erase boards out saying, ‘We’re the community school,’ and parents — I had several parents stop me on the way in and said how they were excited about it,” Giddings says. “I think that’s just continued to grow, and it’s been fun to watch the awareness and the excitement just spread.”

Giddings and Huffman put together a leadership team made up of Robberson staffers and parents and grandparents of students to help direct the vision of their community school. The team also acts as a kind of liaison between the district and the community.

Fred Romaine is a fifth grade teacher at Robberson, now in his seventh year at the school. He started out student teaching at Robberson, and he’s been there ever since. He says it has been great to be a part of such a community-oriented initiative.

“From the get-go, I think Springfield’s been doing it right because they didn’t just keep it as a district idea or a district-run program,” Romaine says. “It’s been a collaborative effort between parents, teachers and district officials, where we’re all working together for the betterment of the kids.”

Romaine echoes Huffman when he says the school has already implemented many of the social programs that characterize community schools. Now, everything will be more centralized, and there’s a strategy in place to tailor these services toward the families that need them most.

The school’s also used to making big — and sometimes unusual — changes. For more than a decade, students at the school have practiced reading to dogs. It began with a single dog, and now Robberson has five in all. Teachers have found that students gain confidence when reading to their canine buddies. When a student misses a word, the dogs are still there, wagging their tails and smiling, and the students are able to press on with the assignment.

And when a student needs a friend to talk to, it’s a dog — not a guidance counselor — that the students often turn to first.

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Fred Romaine, a fifth grade teacher at Robberson.
Fred Romaine, a fifth grade teacher at Robberson.

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Although the staff is confident Robberson will successfully make the transition to a community school, there’s also the sense that the coming year will be something of a trial run.

Giddings says a team will continue to evaluate the needs of the community throughout the school year and measure the impact the program is having. They’ll be looking at student participation, attendance, behavior and growth in achievement levels, among other things.

“We can really narrow things down and look at … how often a child attended an after-school program or a before-school program, and if their family was also engaged,” Giddings says. “Then we can look and see how that relates to their academic success.”

They want to work out the kinks and address any roadblocks they might run into this year, because it isn’t a temporary experiment. As long as there is both a need within the community and a willingness to participate, Robberson will remain a community school.

“We are finding partners who are coming on board, and as they are coming on board, they’re coming on board with the understanding that this is not just a one- or two-year commitment to kids and to neighborhoods,” Huffman says. “It’s going to be a long-term thing.”

As it finds partners for 2012, another concept is sitting on the back burner. It’s what staffers refer to as a “continuous learning environment” — bureaucratic code for year-round school. If Robberson went to the year-round model, then the rest of the support system for the community could also stay active year-round.

Other schools could also eventually transition to the community school model. Because every neighborhood has its own needs and expectations, the process would not be identical to what’s happened on the northeast side of Springfield, but the hope is that Robberson can serve as a reference for how to operate and sustain a community school in Springfield.

“As we continue to evaluate Robberson and what the impact is that it’s having there, then we’ll be able to look at the foundation we’ve built with the other schools and build upon that,” Giddings says. “It won’t be like starting from scratch again.”

School has now been in session for one week, and the Robberson staff is optimistic about the year ahead. All eyes in the education community are watching and waiting to see what will come about from this transition, and how this new take on education might change an entire community.

As Giddings says, “The hope and the goal is that this is something that’s transformational.”

The Factory Town That Lost Its Factory.

In 2007, the largest manufacturer in Lamar, Mo., shut its doors. 700 employees were laid off. Local officials worried about what the future held for this small Missouri town, which had been home to a big factory since the 1950s. But then a strange thing happened: The people of Lamar didn’t leave.

story by Greg Grisolano / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 20, 2012

For more than 40 years, the community of Lamar, Mo., was rooted in the three F’s — faith, farming and furniture-in-a-box.

It’s the kind of community where it’s not uncommon to see folks praying softly before eating a meal in a restaurant. Where cowboy hats and boots are worn for utility, rather than as an ironic sentiment. The living embodiment of a Norman Rockwell painting of Midwestern Americana.

Much like Detroit’s identity was synonymous with the American automobile industry — and the headquarters for major manufacturers like General Motors and Ford — at one time, Lamar was the headquarters for the country’s third-largest furniture manufacturer: O’Sullivan Industries.

Its product line included desks, bookcases, computer desks, entertainment centers, kitchen accessories and other home and office furnishings. The products were sold through department stores, office superstores and home centers in North America and the United Kingdom. The company operated manufacturing facilities in South Boston, Va., and Cedar City, Utah, in addition to its Lamar, Mo., corporate headquarters, 90 minutes northwest of Springfield.

In 1999, O’Sullivan reported $379.6 million in sales and employed 2,350 people between its three operations. By the year 2000, O’Sullivan Industries was the third-largest maker of ready-to-assemble furniture in the United States and the tenth-largest manufacturer of furniture overall.

In its heyday, O’Sullivan employed about 1,800 people at its corporate office and manufacturing headquarters. That’s about 40 percent of Lamar’s total population, which has been just shy of 4,500 since 2000.

Just five years later, it would be filing for bankruptcy reorganization. In 2007, the business closed its doors for good, and laid off more than 700 of its remaining workers in Lamar.

This story isn’t uncommon for the Ozarks. Springfield’s Solo Cup factory shuttered last year, putting about 340 people out of work. At one time during its nearly 60-year run, the plant employed more than 1,200 people. In addition, Bay Valley Foods closed its Springfield pickle plant last year, laying off 46 employees.

But in Lamar, something unusual happened after the plant left. The jobs were gone, but the people stayed. Although the county population declined slightly in the 2010 U.S. Census, Lamar’s population actually increased by 49 people, from 4,425 to 4,474.

Some former O’Sullivan employees have found jobs elsewhere in southwest Missouri but continue to reside in Lamar. Some have created their own employment right here in town. And five years after the plant’s departure, the people of this primarily agrarian community aren’t going anywhere.

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Pauletta and Mike Orahood, who first met at the plant.
(Above) Pauletta and Mike Orahood, who first met at the plant. (At top) The blue dust-collectors, abandoned at the O’Sullivan plant since 2007.

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A real sense of community

Mike Orahood, 56, is a lifelong resident of Lamar. He worked at O’Sullivan for more than 22 years before leaving in August of 2005.

“When you think of places you work, you think of the people you work with,” he says. “The work is the work. It was a good place to work. I loved it.”

Orahood says O’Sullivan was “really good about giving stuff back to the community.” Volunteers from the company helped build the local football stadium [1], and there was always a collection going around to help someone who was sick or who needed help with home repairs.

Orahood says he misses his co-workers most. After second shift ended, they’d often head across the street to the city park for a midnight softball game.

It was at O’Sullivan that Mike met Pauletta, his wife. She, too, grew up in Lamar, and she spent five years working on the O’Sullivan pack line, putting parts on the assembly line for book shelves and entertainment centers. “When I first started in 1983, the department I was in was like a small family,” she says. “You knew everybody, people were close. It was fun. It was a good place to work. The benefits were great.”

Still, Mike says of most of his years at the plant, “we worked all the time” — even Saturdays. His wife would be there too, and the Orahoods say that it was not uncommon for married couples to work at the plant. Some would work the same shift, in order to spend time together, while others would work alternate shifts, in order to stay home with the children.

“We used to live four blocks from work, and he’d drive home for supper, even though it was only a 30-minute break,” Pauletta says. “We were really spoiled and we just didn’t know it.”

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The square in downtown Lamar, Mo. The plant has closed, but the square is still mostly occupied with businesses.
The square in downtown Lamar, Mo. The plant has closed, but the square is still mostly occupied with businesses.

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“It went from feast to famine around here”

Lamar is about 35 miles north of Joplin, the nearest “major city” of any size. It is, quite literally, a one stoplight town. The single traffic signal marks the intersection of 12th Street, the road that funnels traffic from Highway 160 into town, and Gulf Street. Like many small towns in southwest Missouri, the original community was built around a town square. At the heart of the square is the Barton County Courthouse. Beneath the courthouse is the Barton County Historical Society. On the west side of the courthouse is a plaque with a bust of President Harry S. Truman, whose birthplace in Lamar is on the National Historic Register.

Walking the square in Lamar, a newcomer may be surprised to see such a high occupancy rate. Banks, a movie theater, a restaurant and other service businesses dominate the area. Folks around town say the retailers, one by one, abandoned the square save for a few. In their places sprang up attorneys’ offices, insurance agencies, and a Tae Kwan Do dojo.

One block to the northeast, the husk of a building looms vacant, with five iron beams bracing the exterior of the south wall from falling. A string of Christmas lights hangs underneath boarded-up windows on the west and south sides of the building.

The old O’Sullivan Industries headquarters and manufacturing plant is a mile south of the intersection of Gulf and 12th Streets. [2] It is a one-million-square-foot facility at the junction of two railroad tracks situated on 10 acres of land, across the street from the city park. The western side of the plant seems to be nothing but loading bays, where convoys of 18-wheelers used to line up to receive payloads of furniture that would then be shipped out across the country.

Lynn Calton, who has been the city manager for 21 years, can recall a time when car after car would travel to and from the plant, at all hours of the day.

“For years and years, they were running three shifts, 24/7 down there,” he says. “Every morning when they would start the day shift, it was an unbelievable stream of cars coming into Lamar. Both rural, and from places like El Dorado Springs, Lockwood, and even Kansas and Oklahoma.”

When Calton first heard news of the plant’s closing, he was devastated.

“What are we gonna do?” he remembers asking. “We got all these people who are not [going to] have jobs. Over time, people had to make decisions they thought they were never [going to] have to make about being out of a job.”

It wasn’t just the O’Sullivan employees who were worried. Mike Orahood says several spin-off businesses, including one that processed scrap lumber and sawdust for pallets and other contracting work, were started in the wake of O’Sullivan’s success. All around Lamar, businesses enjoyed the spoils of the plant. When it closed, the ripple effect went out across the area.

“Some of those businesses got soaked pretty bad when the plant finally went out of business,” he says. “When they shut it down, there were some pretty hard feelings.”

Around Lamar, plenty of people started to worry about the future — and how they’d pay the bills until then.

“It went from feast to famine around here,” he notes.

But the bad times only lasted so long. Losing the plant caused a breakdown in the local economy, but the city has started to recover. Data from the Missouri Department of Labor shows that unemployment in the county has fallen from a peak of 13 percent in November of 2010, nearly three and a half years after the plant shut down, to 8.8 percent in June of this year. The average unemployment rate statewide is 7.1 percent. The unemployment rate in Barton County remains in the top 25 counties with the highest unemployment rate in the state.

“Obviously, it really shot up our unemployment, but people since then have moved on,” Calton says. “Some people left town, and went to work in places like Pittsburg (Kan.), Joplin and even farther west into Kansas.”

Many stayed, though. Even members of the O’Sullivan family kept their homes in town.

“For a lot of people in Lamar, this is home and they don’t want to leave here,” he says. “Even though they had to go to Joplin to get a job, they don’t want to leave. This is still a little, small town, quiet community, you know?”

But for as many people who felt tied to the community, there were still others whose only reason for staying in town was financial. And it was for precisely that reason that many people found they were unable to leave — even if they wanted to.

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The loading docks at the O'Sullivan plant, now empty.
The loading docks at the O’Sullivan plant, now empty.

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“They’re going to go where the money is”

Deloris Ruth is one of the folks who didn’t leave. She worked for 21 years on the banding line at O’Sullivan. For most of that time, she commuted from Stockton to Lamar each day, an hour drive each way. After O’Sullivan closed, Ruth says she took a job in Nevada [3], 30 miles north of Lamar, working for a company that assists individuals in the community.

“I drove back and forth from Stockton every day until 2003, when they had the tornado,” she says. “Then I moved to Lamar, and I only had to drive a couple of miles to and from work every day. I was just ecstatic about that.”

When O’Sullivan closed, she found herself out of a job. She was laid off on in June 2007, a few weeks before the plant shut down completely.

“We didn’t even know this was going to happen,” she says. “They took us to this room and told us we was laid off. It was about an hour before we had to go home … I was too old and too young. I was too young to retire, but had I been a few years older, I could have drawn unemployment until my retirement kicked in.”

Like a lot of O’Sullivan employees, she had a few things to worry about. The first was insurance. Getting it individually wasn’t easy. And suddenly, with hundreds of factory workers looking for jobs, it wasn’t easy finding a new career that could cover her health care.

Many of the jobs were elsewhere, but Ruth couldn’t leave. Thanks to the local housing market, she’s tied to the city indefinitely.

“If I were to try and sell my home, the housing market has gone down so much that I wouldn’t get very much for my house,” she says. “So I’ve got an investment there … I’m just going to stay here. I’ve got my house paid for, so what kind of a win-win situation would that be?”

That being said, she says she likes living in Lamar.

“This is a friendly place,” she says. “It’s a small hometown where they treat you nice.”

She has found a new job, though. She works now in Nevada, and makes the 30-minute commute to her job. She likes the job, but it doesn’t pay as well as her job at O’Sullivan. She’s had to change the way she uses her checkbook. She’s had to “downsize” her buying power.

“I was used to making more money,” she says. “I’m past retirement stage, but I check on this stuff and they want ‘x’ amount of dollars and this, that, and the other. You’re talking about $300 to $400 more in insurance off the top before you start paying for your everyday things like gas, phone, groceries, your water … How much does that leave you to live on?”

Not much. But the people of Lamar have gotten through it on faith. Through it all, Pauletta Orahood says she always believed that her family would find employment after O’Sullivan. Pauletta became president of the Barton County Historical Society. Mike finally found stable work south of Lamar, in Webb City, but went through three or four jobs before he got to his current employer. He even commuted to Springfield for a stint.

“I think he was probably worried about it more than I was,” Pauletta says. “I work part-time, so I have some income, but that’s the bind you get into. You depend on those two incomes and then when you don’t have it, it’s hard to do.”

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Brian Brewer, who co-founded Fast Eddie's in downtown Lamar.
Brian Brewer, who co-founded Fast Eddie’s in downtown Lamar.

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“We decided to start planning our way out”

While some former O’Sullivan employees have turned to out-of-town options for employment, Brian Brewer took another route. He worked at O’Sullivan for 21 years, from 1984 to 2005, first as a maintenance electrician, and later as a senior manufacturing engineer. He too, was raised in Lamar.

“When I started, it was growing like crazy and we were adding buildings,” he says. “[Wages] at [O’Sullivan] started out higher than just about anybody’s in the area. They had a lot of benefits that it’s hard for any business to maintain that. I had a great job. I loved my job there. I planned on retiring there.”

He’d gone elsewhere for work, once — in 2005, Brewer moved to Cedar City, Utah, to work as the plant engineer at O’Sullivan’s newest plant.

But then he came to a realization.

“We knew the place was going to fold, so we decided to start planning our way out,” he says.

He started talking to Tim Riegel, a co-worker at O’Sullivan. Riegel’s roots at O’Sullivan ran deep. His grandfather was Tom O’Sullivan, the founder of the company.

Together, they opened up Fast Eddie’s Hot Rods and Garage in 2005. The business is located just north of the town square, in what used to be the Gilkey Chevrolet dealership. After General Motors shut down Gilkey’s dealership as part of its nationwide reorganization, Fast Eddie’s was the only repair shop in town. They started with just a single part-time employee.

Fast Eddie’s didn’t stay a small for long. They started taking new cars — especially new Ford Mustangs — and rebuilding them as ‘69 Mustangs. These days, car owners from all across the country have been sending their cars to Lamar to get the Fast Eddie’s makeover.

Other O’Sullivan employees have also paired up to open a series of small businesses in town. There’s Redneck Manufacturing, a fiberglass deer-stand manufacturer; and VersaCourt, which manufactures a composite playground surface for basketball and tennis courts.

Not everyone in these businesses is a former O’Sullivan employee. Redneck and VersaCourt are co-owned by Danny Little, a former banker. His focus is on creating jobs for locals, and he says his companies are responsible for about 60 jobs in Lamar. There aren’t too many companies trying to create jobs in Lamar, and the town needs it, he says.

“People are much more tied to town,” he says. “You can’t move away easily without taking a hard hit on what you might have had with any kind of housing market. People are still on the long-term unemployment list. For me, the hardest part is seeing a community that was once so vibrant have to adjust.”

Little acknowledges that Lamar isn’t the only place facing hard times and an uncertain economic future.

“It’s nothing the rest of the country isn’t going through,” he says. “[The jobs at O’Sullivan] were high-paying jobs. I know people who were making $75,000 to $100,000 now working for $25,000 to $30,000.”

Little says he would like to see the city focus more on small businesses as a means of driving the economy rather than “trying to hit that home run with a large corporation.”

At Fast Eddie’s, Brewer echoes those sentiments.

“What you notice now — and Lamar has done an exceptional job of this — if you go to other small towns around here, the square is dying, Main Street is dying,” he says. “We have empty buildings around town … but at the same time, there’s been new restaurants that have opened and are thriving. We’re still a farming community. The basis of our entire economy is agriculture, basically.

“What we need is five more Fast Eddie’s, and three or four more Redneck Manufacturing[s]. We don’t need another 1,500 person company, as great as that would sound. I believe to get this community more stable, we need a lot more smaller companies and smaller businesses that are stable, and pumping money in.”

As far as a saving grace, Calton, the city manager, points to agriculture — specifically, winter wheat, soybeans and corn — for helping keep the farmers afloat.

“You can drive around Barton County, and we’re flat enough and have a different kind of soil,” Calton says.

“If you go south to Jasper County, you’re going to run into rocks [in the soil]. But Barton County is good for growing row crops, and some cattle farmers, too. So with the price of those grains over the same period of time, that helped the local farmers survive.”

Calton says the city of Lamar also entered into a partnership with Republic Services — formerly Allied Waste — to build a generator powered by landfill gasses collected at the nearby Prairie View Regional Waste Facility. The city also laid five miles of transmission line to its own electric company.

Lamar’s also part of the Joplin Regional Partnership, a coalition of local towns working to spur economic development in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas.

“We all banded together, and this has been 10 years ago,” Calton says. “We all felt like individually, we couldn’t hire an economic development director. So we all kicked into the pot, so to speak.”

¶ ¶ ¶

The train tracks that go directly behind the O'Sullivan plant.
The train tracks that go directly behind the O’Sullivan plant.

¶ ¶ ¶

“They’ve got to get past that”

For Pauletta Orahood, it feels like the community is still playing a waiting game to see what will happen next. The plant still lies empty. Its parking lots are vacant. The freight doors are closed.

“I think people are just kind of holding their breath,” Pauletta says. “[O’Sullivan] not only was good for Lamar, but it drew people from so far away in. They shopped here, and ate, and bought things just like anybody else.”

Mike Orahood says he thinks the city is setting itself up for failure if it continues to wait for another major employer on the scale of O’Sullivan.

“I work in Webb City, and there’s a lot of little businesses down there,” he says. “The company I work for has probably 70 people. And Lamar doesn’t seem to want to do that. They want [O’Sullivan] again. They want 1,500 people again. And they’ve got to get past that …

“You go through little towns with little businesses of 20 people, but there will be 20 of those businesses. And Lamar doesn’t seem to care anything about that. The chance of getting another business in here that employs 1,500 people is gone. It’s just not gonna happen.”

The Life, Death and Mourning of Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant.

They call it the Hill. It’s the place that took Tom. It’s the place where, on April 22, 2012, Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant, 28, was killed — allegedly by an uncle. It’s this little property outside of Walnut Grove, Mo., this little rise off of Highway W that haunts a family — and yet remains central to their lives.

story by Jordan Hickey / photos by Jordan Hickey and Dan Oshinsky
published August 18, 2012

I.

There’s a glow where there ought to be dark. Two sisters are staring up through the trees where there are red lights gleaming. Neither has any desire to be here at the bottom of this place, pulled off to the side of the road and looking up a broken path — they ought to be praying with their kids, putting them down for the night because there’s school tomorrow. But instead, they have been summoned out here by one of those dreadful late-night phone calls that come too late in the night and bring shock and tears. There’s no light. No moon. And past the mailboxes — leaning and battered like a grey bouquet of flowers, each showing the numbers of an address: 397 Hwy W — past the path that winds up into the dark, they can see red lights filtered through the trees.

Then Lee and Angie start up the Hill.

Turning up around the bend, there are bits of white rock crackling when their feet hurry up in the dark. Lee’s legs are bound by her long blue jean skirt, and she looks up where Angie is already ahead and moving faster. Angie’s yelling that they’ve got to go faster, and Lee yells back that she’s trying, but it comes out hoarse. She’s out of breath. The incline is rough on tires and rougher on feet. The trees bend and curl over, so that the women are running through a tunnel when a human-shaped cut of the darkness emerges from the rest, and there’s the sound of other feet up ahead. And a voice.

“Who’s there?!”

Lee can hear Angie shouting through the dark.

“Who’s there?!”

The voice comes out of the dark, saying, “Tommy’s gone. Tommy’s gone.”

The man’s almost sick, and even close up his face gets shaded. They don’t try to stop him as he stumbles his own way and cuts a path through the rock down to the base of the Hill. Angie is hollering at him. What do you mean, gone? He’s not gone, don’t lie, he’s not gone. Lee’s not sure what to do. They start again and move faster and the pitch dark gets cut away by the red lights and they can hear people. And then they can see them.

Circling the perimeter determined by the police tape, stretched down the gravel road, there are people they can trust. A work boot scuffed and chalked up and white protrudes from behind one of the cop cars. There’s no blood.

Paramedics are trying to get a woman to talk. She has sharp features and huge eyes that sink down in her face, set all the deeper this evening, and when the paramedics ask if she wants to take her boy — Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant — off life support, she tells them she can’t answer the question. Not now. She won’t even look that way. Her husband, Benny, tells them she’s not fit to answer the question, that she’s the mother of the man there lying on the ground, and she’s in hysterics, so maybe he should answer, and they tell him that they need the answer from her. They need the answer from Dee.

It takes some time to answer, but eventually Dee does, and she dissolves back into the line of the family, and the hours slip by. It’s 9 and then 10 and then 11 and then later. They’re still up there, Dee and Benny, two of her nieces, Angie and Lee, a few others from the family, a small fraction of the family that spans four generations here in Walnut Grove, Mo. Nearby state troopers take photographs and consult with the coroner. He offers his condolences to the family. He explains that, considering the nature of the death, they ought to have an autopsy performed.

There’s nothing else that they can do, and so, looking on, the conversation dwindling, rumors still ebbing wildly, they stay there for hours even though no one feels safe. Every possible refuge of peace of mind is denied — the time and the place won’t allow for a calm. There can’t be calm because this is a place that’s never known it.

When they talk about this place, they just call it the Hill. And technically, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a rise in the ground that swells away from the road, from State Highway W; a path lined with broken white rocks and pocked with divots, wide enough for one car but certainly not for more than one. And for most anyone who stops and looks up the path, it might seem a bit ominous, but for the family, it’s a place that’s gotten downright vilified — and rightly so.

The Hill, if you were to ask them right now, is the reason why a few years ago, they lost one of the most beloved members of the family. The reason they lost Bo this evening. The reason they’ll all appear in court a few months later and will continue to appear in the hall each time the man who’s been accused of Bo’s murder appears in public.

However, for as much pain as the place has caused, any discussion of this family can’t be conducted without the Hill. Because for as much as the place has been vilified, it’s a central point around which this family, for the past several years, has revolved. Because of what it means to them. Because of what it meant to Bo. Because of how it’s brought them back together.

¶ ¶ ¶

The family gathers near Walnut Grove for a monthly barbecue.
(Above) The family gathers at James’s house near Walnut Grove for a monthly barbecue. (At top) The memorial to Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant located at the top of the Hill.

¶ ¶ ¶

There’s barbecue a few plates deep on an oblong folding table propped in front of a trailer, and there’s one last morsel of fried venison, and there’s pasta salad made with ramen noodles, soaking in sweet vinaigrette. Dessert’s been served. And there’s so much else that fades away in increments as people get up from the semicircle of folding chairs stuck in the lawn, break the games of washers and football, and come up for seconds and thirds. Off to the side, lounging on the back of a pickup that’s seen better days, there are adults chatting and keeping one eye on the children plunging down the Slip ‘N Slide off behind the trailer, who slosh back from the end and realize that there’s not enough towels to go around.

A few of the kids come sprinting from around the back, mount the sagging steps of the wooden porch leading to the trailer’s door and burst inside. Inside, Lee and her Aunt Doris field the interruptions, explain where towels can be found and continue talking about the past.

“…Every once in a while, I get to be reminded of things that he would do. Goofy things,” Lee is saying. “He loved his animals. He loved to scare me with green tree snakes.”

“He liked to carry them with him to school with him, too,” Doris adds.

“Yes, oh my goodness,” says Lee. “He played trumpet, he played the trumpet, and his green tree snake was in there, was in the case.”

“It was in the case with him at school.”

“Just that one time.”

“Just that one time,” says Doris. “Yes, because I’m pretty sure that Miss Kelly found out and he got sent home.”

“Oh, yeah,” Lee interjects. “Oh, yeah.”

“But that’s Bo,” says Doris, picking up the thread. “You know, you hear the things about how you reach into your kids’ pockets and you find a frog, that was Bo.”

For much of the afternoon, this is the conversation and one memory leads into another. Because when Lee’s asked to talk about her cousin Bo, the stories that she has about those better days, that other family members have about those days, always gravitate toward what Bo was like when he was younger and they’re all seamless.

Blue skies and wriggling pockets prompt stories of blackberries and wildflowers, decapitated Barbie dolls, the nutritional merits of Chap Stick, roly-polies, bales of hay, games of “Tornado” and how there’s no better pretend horse than one of those propane tanks with the handles. Splinters off the rounded fence posts that made pincushions of their hands lapse into memories about a hu-mong-gous black snake and how Lee and Bo had picked the chocolates off the tree when the family celebrated Christmas for the first time at their grandparents’ house there on the ranch.

She talks about the place that her grandparents had back in the late ’80s and ’90s. They owned a ranch in Walnut Grove, where Lee has spent virtually her entire life, where the family’s been for years and years. It’s a small town just north of Springfield, with a population of 656. And as is the case with so many of the small towns orbiting Springfield, it’s a place you don’t stumble upon by accident. It’s a place where people live the majority of their lives. It’s a place that to someone passing through might seem to have seen better days, but there’s a community there, and people are proud of the town. There is a downtown, but most people seem to live on the roads that unspool on the hills and bend around the center.

The ranch where the Mullins family lived for years and years was set back deep on one of those. It was a place with two houses and room for a trailer. Where at one point or another, just about all of the seven kids, Bo’s parents and Lee’s parents included, had lived for some extended period of time. Those were the good years, Lee remembers. Those are the years she talks about when she talks about Bo.

When she talks about those years, nearly two decades later, Lee has her hair pulled back tight into a bun. Her eyes are small behind her glasses and mostly serious and reserved. It’s the face that you have to examine for a few moments before recognizing it as the same face from those early family photos. The one that for so many years was so similar to Bo’s that they were often mistaken for siblings or twins. But when she keeps talking, and future starts intruding on the past, the smile drops, the illusion that the past projects starts to fall apart. It’s only possible to restrict conversation to the past for so long without allowing it to move forward. It’s only possible to keep the Hill out of the picture for so long.

At this point in the afternoon, about an hour into the conversation, there aren’t as many kids passing through the house. Lee is still in the recliner. Her sister, Angie, is off behind the counter, washing dishes and pans and silverware that are cycled through as the dinner finishes. There was a point when dinners like this were fairly common, not strictly reserved for the major holidays. It was probably around the time that the family moved off the ranch, when all the family members started to get married and have their own kids, that they didn’t meet quite as often. It was around the time that Dee and her husband, Tom, and Bo moved their little trailer to the Hill.

It was the beginning of the end.

“Angie, when Dee and them moved from the trailer, where grandma and them lived, where did they move to?” Lee asks.

“That’s when they moved the trailer to the Hill,” Angie says from the kitchen.

“Oh, well, that’s when our relationship left after that. Because that hill …” Lee pauses for a moment. “That hill is dope hill. My parents … I mean, you weren’t allowed up there, period. I mean …”

“I went up there some,” Angie says, looking over the counter. “Mom would never let us stay the night up there. We could go up and see Dee Dee, but …”

“And see, that’s the thing. It wasn’t Uncle Tom and Aunt Dee.”

“It was where they were at.”

“It was where they were at,” Lee echoes.

“And they had to move the trailer there, there was nowhere else for them to move it,” Angie says.

There were holes that broke through the floor and there was no running water and the tub became unusable. Alcoholism latched onto Tom and refused to let him go. They’d moved up there because it was convenient. Bo’s great uncle Bunky had offered Tom the chance to work nearby, to live on the land right there. They’d be able to move the trailer up there. Up there on the Hill. And when they moved up there, things were fine for a while. Tom was working. Dee was working. Most everyone was healthy. But then they weren’t. Tom started to drink. And he drank a lot. He still loved his nieces and nephews and his wife and his son. But eventually the drink started to get to him.

The years swept by and then it was the day after Christmas in 2005. Tom was getting ready for work and tried to blank out a hangover with painkillers. His body couldn’t handle it. He died that morning. For about a week after, Dee and Bo had the outside world to keep them going. Bonfires every night. Celebrating and mourning and remembering Tom. But then the world kept going, and they couldn’t. Dee and Bo retreated into the trailer. Bo laid down on a couch. Dee was on a loveseat off to the side, still in view of the entertainment center. They turned on the television. They turned on the VCR. And for two solid weeks, they only watched movies. And for a few months after, Dee slept there on the loveseat. Her ankles started to ache because, even for as small as she is, she didn’t fit. But she slept out there because going back into the bedroom she’d shared with Tom just seemed wrong.

But she was all right because she had Bo. He was her cocoon. He kept her safe from the world after the Hill took Tom away.

¶ ¶ ¶

Dee, who's lost both Tom and Bo on the Hill.
Dee, who’s lost both Tom and Bo on the Hill.

¶ ¶ ¶

The weather this afternoon is pleasant. A few hours have gone by and Lee is on the porch. She’s monitoring the kids inside, listening to the sounds they make, determining if there’s any reason for concern. She’s talking about Bo. Talking about Little Debbie brownies. About how when they were younger, Bo would pick the nuts off his half and give them to her.

But really, when Lee talks about brownies, she’s not talking about the distant past. She’s talking about a few weeks ago. She’s talking about the funeral a few weeks ago. How she’d brought along a package of brownies, intending to put them beside him, put them somewhere near the casket, where he was lying there, so handsome, such a good looking young man, didn’t deserve to go so young. But she couldn’t. One of her uncles had pushed her to say goodbye. Because, as she remembers him saying, she needed to be able to say goodbye. She needed to be able to say goodbye in her own way to the Bo whom she had known before — the Bo who had made her childhood what it was.

The ranch and the way she spent her childhood — those are memories crystallized in the past and untouchable. Memories that are special to Lee and the family alone and only exist in photos and old family movies. Memories cut short. Bo died just two days shy of his 29th birthday. But the Bo whom Lee knew stopped aging after 17 — she didn’t know the man who lived the next 11 years. It’s something that she’s had to come to terms with, something she realized in the chapel. Because the people there at the funeral, some of them were mourning a person she didn’t recognize.

“You know, half of them, I didn’t know them. They knew Bo, but I didn’t know ‘em,” Lee says. “That was weird. And then with them having … they had the thing that showed different pictures during the funeral, and they were all of him as an adult, and I didn’t really know that Bo. You know what I mean? So that was kind of hard. So in my own little way, I’ve had to mourn kind of feeling lonely, just ‘cause I’m mourning over the Bo that I knew.”

As she sits on the porch and rocks back and forth on the swing, people start leaving or at least preparing to leave. As they walk by, Lee stands and tells them how nice it was to see them. The conversation moves forward to the nature of mourning and how — or if — the family has changed. There’s a little girl playing on the porch, putting her hands through the wooden rails, playing with a plastic duck that’s there beside the potted flowers Angie’s arranged on the ledge.

Whatchu looking at Makaylee?”

“Duck.”

“What does the duck say?”

“Quack.”

“That’s right, that’s what the duck says, Makaylee.”

Dee comes over and is getting everyone ready to go, including Makaylee, Bo’s four-year-old daughter, her granddaughter. Dee asks if she’s in a better mood, because these past few weeks, even if she doesn’t entirely understand what’s happened, have been tough. Dee asks if she doesn’t need to use the potty before they go. It takes some time to leave. There’s some talk about the next time they’ll barbecue, but it’s mostly talk about where they’ll all be meeting in a few weeks. In a few weeks, most everyone will meet together at the courthouse in Bolivar, Mo. They’ll come for the preliminary hearing for the man who’s been accused of killing Bo. They’ll come because it’ll be the first time they’ll have seen the man since his face graced television screens and newspapers nearly a month earlier. The man who by marriage was at one point Bo’s uncle — Tom’s sister had been married to him for a time.

But he’s not the reason they’ve gathered here tonight. The reason they’ve gotten together is the same reason there’s a white-lettered decal on the back of Dee’s car that reads, “IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY SON TOMMY (BO) RAY BRYANT JR. 4-24-83 — 4-22-2012.” They’re not going to stop talking about him. They won’t let him fade.

¶ ¶ ¶

Bo's trailer on the Hill.
Bo’s trailer on the Hill that he shared with his fiancée and daughter.

¶ ¶ ¶

ii.

Oh My God there he is. There’s a flash of orange from beyond the glass, and the light outside glints off the chains. And when the doors swing open, there’s silence. Not like a tomb, but a silence that begets tension and tension that begets silence. Accompanied by the delicate jangle of cuffs and chains, it’s a wicked cycle. The group wearing orange jumpsuits emblazoned with the letters PCSO files into the courthouse and they take their places behind the Mullins family. They’re standing behind the family. For a moment, everyone’s waiting for the elevator that will take them to the courtroom on the third floor.

Dee’s head is lost. Sans thoughts, sans everything, words — the Oh My God, the words spoken aloud to no one — swept away all the formed and defined coherence that had been there, making thoughts chores, and so everything is lost in the emotion boiling up toward the man she knows is there, waiting for the same elevator, 15 feet behind her. The elevator through this all — through these few moments, just a few — ticks down the numbers. The fluorescent lights are buzzing. She doesn’t turn, but she knows he’s there. The doors of the elevator slide open and the family moves across the threshold and turns. Dee looks out into the small group of people chained together and she sees the man who’s been accused of murdering her son. Then the doors close.

¶ ¶ ¶

It’s June 20, nearly two months to the day after Bo’s death, and the family has come up to the Polk County Courthouse in Bolivar, Mo., to hear the first on-the-record accounts of what happened up on the Hill that night in April. The elevator doors open, and they just go through the motions, a series of moments that get lost in memory because these moments are inconsequential compared to the ones that follow. They set off a metal detector, dig through a purse in search of a pink fishing knife, get odd looks from the guard and eventually get waved through to the courtroom. They give up their phones, which are placed in a drawer that also has pieces of hard candy stored in the back, and go through the glass doors into the courtroom. They have to wait. There are other matters to be settled. Other disputes and bent and broken laws. Eventually, it comes. The judge, Judge Sims, says what he needs to say and calls Shannon Jack Shaffer, Sr., the accused, down to the floor.

Then it starts.

A state trooper is called to the stand and he recalls how he found the scene. He talks about the acceleration marks on the ground, the lack of blood on the grass, the aftermath of the pursuit and where they found the alleged murder weapon — in this case, not a gun, not a knife, but a Jeep Cherokee — at a gas station in Springfield. How it seems the way he found Bo was “consistent with being hit, knocked down and drugged.” He gives a clinical version of what he saw, but his face softens at times when choked sobs from the gallery break the restrained silence of the room.

After he’s said all of this, he leaves the stand and a man named Geno Eagleburger takes his place. Geno is the man the family needs to be calm, collected and in the right mind. A man who at this point has been so rattled that there’s even been some talk of giving him something to calm his nerves before he gets up there.

Seeing him, there’s not a chance he’s slept. His eyes are slung down in his sockets, set there like afterthoughts, drooping down to connect with the rest of his face which is haggard and covered in a layer of prickly, straw-colored hairs jutting out at every angle. He was the last one to see Bo alive, among the last to see him catch a breath, and when he’s asked to give his address, his own home address, Geno can’t for the life of him remember. He kneads his eyes as if to coax out the answer to a question he knows but seemingly can’t answer this afternoon. Then he does, and it’s as though a switch has been flipped — a light goes on and illuminates that night, takes out the darkness, reveals the process, the conflict and outcome. He says that he lives up there on the Hill. He says that Bo was his nephew.

Earlier that day, there had been some trouble. There had been some fighting. There had been some alcohol. He says that Bo had been trying to apologize for what had happened. That was the sort of guy Bo was, quick to anger but quick to forgive. When he’s asked to identify the man who killed his nephew, he points to the man wearing the orange jumpsuit.

“Shannon Shaffer, him right there.” Geno pauses. “The one over smiling. … I guess it’s a big funny game or something.”

He’s immediately reprimanded for saying that, and then says, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, I am sorry,” before continuing with his testimony.

That evening, Geno says, there were still about 45 minutes of daylight left. He was walking Bo back up the road from his mother’s house, Bo’s paternal grandmother’s, toward his sister’s house. He had been walking him home. When they heard the motor revving, they got off the driveway. They must have been about seven to 10 feet from the driveway.

But between them and the Jeep behind them? It was about 10 to 15 feet. That’s all, Geno says. Something like two body lengths between where he and Bo were walking and where the Jeep was behind. The motor roared. The vehicle leapt forward. Geno jumped back closer to the drive. Bo put his hands up, and it was over in a moment. Under the wheel, dragged under, head and arms thrust from the side, the tire on his chest. For 50 yards, he was beneath the car, and it wasn’t until the Jeep hit a divot in front of his aunt’s place that he came out from underneath the tire. The Jeep went on without stopping. It went on down the road and swung left for the turn. It passed by the place belonging to Bo’s Aunt Teresa, where his uncle had come out with a gun. It passed along the road, passing the metal scrap heap, the pens of rabbits and pigs, the tree missing whole chunks of its side where Bo had once practiced throwing swords and axes. It continued by a wilting white trailer with its lights on. That night the lights went out and didn’t go back on.

¶ ¶ ¶

During the preliminary hearing, the moments when Bo died get examined and prodded, extended, measured out and quantified. When the state trooper says that the man who was killed on the Hill that night was identified as Tommy “Bo” Bryant, Dee, biting her lip, nods her head as if in response. When the officer says that once they recovered and examined the Jeep, it was determined that “something uncommon had been run over.” Bo’s grandmother’s neck turns a bright red, and you can’t see Dee because she’s bent down and brought her hands to her face.

And it’s about this point that it becomes impossible to watch their reactions. There’s audible sniffling that persists, and slight gasping when details are leaked that they hadn’t known before, like when the coroner describes the state of the body when he arrived on scene. He recalls seeing Bo’s jacket crumpled, ripped apart and rolled up on his back, the abrasions on his bare legs, how the work boots he’d been wearing got scuffed up as he was being dragged across the road.

If you can stand to look over, you’ll see Bo’s fiancée is at the end of the row. Her name is Alicia, and she’s dressed in dark red. Her eyes are puffy. In her hand, there’s a balled up tissue, and on her shoulder, there’s the enormous hand of a younger man who’s sitting beside her, a man who, even though he is technically family, has not been to the family gatherings organized in the wake of Bo’s death. He’s from the Hill. Or about as close to being from the Hill as it’s possible to be. He’s the grandson of Drew, a woman who’s also here this afternoon.

Drew’s been here in the courtroom longer than anyone else. She is diabetic, her ankles fitted into special white compression socks and ringed with a purplish hue. She’s wearing a white cotton shirt crowded with sprays of purple embroidered flowers. She’s Bo’s great aunt. Bo had been taking care of her just before he died. And to some extent, she had been taking care of him as well.

¶ ¶ ¶

Outside the courthouse, the grass is green and the sky is very blue; there are clouds that suggest rain, but with the heat, there’s not a chance. Alicia is on the sidewalk, speaking with a friend who’s pregnant. She’s wearing sunglasses that totally obscure her eyes and all the emotion that’s penned up behind, but considering how everything went during the hearing, you can’t blame her.

Geno sits in the front seat of Drew’s van, saying mostly to himself a half-hearted mantra of “I’m strong” — everyone there immediately agrees. Up close, he seems even worse than he did on the stand. His eyes aren’t sunken but are so faded and drained that he almost seems as if he were dead himself — you can tell here that he’s a shell of himself, and it’s not impossible to surmise what has caused it. He’s slumped over in the front seat of the cluttered white van.

And as with everything, when they get ready to leave — the people from the Hill — it takes some time before they’re able to go, because everyone is saying their goodbyes and moving through the gossip. But then the door of the big white van slams shut, and it leaves. It takes the road through town out to Rt. 13 and drives south toward Springfield for about eight miles before turning onto 215. The van skirts the upper boundary of Walnut Grove and winds along turn after turn, hill after hill, along 215, which becomes State Highway W, until it drops along a bend and turns off the road where mailboxes are clustered like gray flowers. It goes down a road, up an incline, and it comes in sight of a wilting white trailer. It stops on the Hill.

¶ ¶ ¶

Drew, seated, and Teresa, who still live on the Hill.
Bo’s great aunt Drew, seated, and his Aunt Teresa, both of whom still live on the Hill.

¶ ¶ ¶

iii.

There are car tires, tractor tires, a kiddie pool, rabbit hutch, folding chairs, plastic buckets, wooden beams, blue cooler, trash bin, plastic cups, detached sink with a silver faucet and hot and cold water handles, plastic pitcher, Tupperware, blankets, blue tarp, yellow foam, couch, scrap metal, television, tricycle, construction helmet and a million other things on the ground around the trailer. The steps that lead up to the door are made of wood, and the door’s held shut with a rock. The floors inside are covered with red carpet, and not much else. A mattress fills a back room, and it’s important to tread lightly over the tattered fabric and detritus that line the hall because apparently there are snakes.

This afternoon, there’s light filtered through the windows in the front room. But as unnatural as it seems to have such a broken place illuminated this way, lit up by the light filtered through the mostly covered bay-style window, what’s all the more unnatural is to hear Kevin, Bo’s cousin, reminisce about everything that once made the place a home. Because there’s nothing left to suggest that it ever was. There’s really not much else besides the carpet and the light. At this point, looters have been in and out, and the family’s been by to pick up things they couldn’t stand to part with. When he walks through the place, Kevin doesn’t talk about what’s there now.

Well, with a few exceptions. The empty bottle of Chili pepper-flavored vodka can’t really go unremarked upon. Nor the fact that they’d tried to make some themselves. Nor how Bo could eat anything spicy — even the hottest stuff they could find — and it would hardly faze him.

There’s a place on the carpet that Kevin points out. A few years back, he says, they’d been drinking champagne, because that’s what Bo said people drank on New Year’s, and Bo had made a bet with Kevin. He bet him that he could kick all the way over his head. Bo was about as flexible a man as Kevin has ever known. He was the sort of guy who could practically put his foot on the ceiling and was in such a fine physical state that he could wrestle 30- and 40-pound catfish out of the water on his arms. [1] Who could climb the tallest tree, go to the top of the tallest bridge and dive into the water, who was so fearless that he’d do just about anything. But when Bo said he could kick over Kevin’s head, Kevin bet him that he couldn’t.

It must have been a bittersweet bet to win. He remembers looking up from the ground at Bo, who was a bit stunned but immediately burst out laughing, the sort of laugh that Kevin says could really just make you feel like dirt.

As he walks through, these are things that Kevin remembers. He’s a big guy, doughy-faced, cheeks that hide his eyes when he smiles, which is most of the time. He is wearing a shirt, technically, though it’s only a few buttons that find the corresponding holes. He has a black hat, which stretches well above his unkempt hair.

He talks about the way that Bo would sit up at rapt attention, tears almost in his eyes, a ball of emotion over the myriad television heroes, both real and imaginary, that he admired. Optimus Prime. Conan the Barbarian. John Wayne. Bruce Campbell. When Kevin talks about Bo, the subject of heroes and the impending zombie apocalypse — the idea of which, Kevin notes, never seemed to stray far from Bo’s thoughts — are never far behind. But there’s a reason for all that. He talks about how important it was to Bo to be there for others — and Kevin, like just about everyone up here for that matter, has stories about the ways that Bo played that role.

¶ ¶ ¶

A little bit later that afternoon, Kevin is sitting on his Aunt Teresa’s porch. You can see where a small memorial’s been erected just across the road. There’s a cross with Bo’s name running across the beams. Just above it, there’s the green sheet that was put beneath his head. Kevin and Teresa are talking about a sign that, when they find it in the field, will go just beneath the memorial. It was a sign that Bo put up at the base of the Hill. The sign read:

“If you come up here with your lights off, then you ain’t coming back down.”

It was from the one time that Bo failed in his role as a protector — and maybe he wrote it to remind himself of that just as much as he wrote it to warn anyone who’d come up the Hill and threaten the people who live there. He couldn’t forget because people up here wouldn’t allow him to forget.

In the story, there’s a car moving over the gravel, slow and with its lights extinguished, swimming in the night. It’s dark, so perhaps they’re burned out. From the trailer, you can see it wind its way up the hill, navigating the turns and avoiding the divots that plague an unpaved, infrequently traveled road. The people in the car are lost in the dark. The car almost idles as it slips past Bo’s trailer and pulls into the house next door. There’s a man who comes out of the trailer, but when he sees the people walk onto porch, he goes back inside.

The door starts banging, and Teresa’s eyes open with a start. The clock reads something like 2:30 a.m., and she doesn’t think much of the sound because it’s not so unheard of for Geno or Bo to make their way into the trailer at this hour, grab something from the kitchen, maybe some milk or maybe something else. She’s up already, so she starts reading her book when there’s a scream that starts her running. She makes it out of the room, and there’s someone with a mask brandishing an ax. Teresa turns behind her to see her husband, dressed in his “unders,” moving back into the room for his britches. She can hear her daughter Sassy screaming. Sassy’s pregnant and the guy who’s got her by her hair is beating her face and her slightly protruding stomach. She’s getting dragged out of the house, toward the car. Teresa has her phone out, is calling the cops, and one guys starts hollering, “She’s dialing her phone, she’s dialing the cops, she’s dialing the cops, she done got them on the phone. Gotta go, gotta go.”

Teresa runs next door and starts banging on the door. Bo’s body fills the frame and she tells him what just happened, how they’d — that’s all they are right now, they — come in with weapons and everything else. And she tells him how they were punching Sass, how now she’s screaming bloody murder, and all he says is, “I’m coming.” She tells him that they’re gone, and he says that he’s still coming. The way Teresa tells it, Bo wouldn’t stop until he’d found the people who’d done this. Because if there was one person on the Hill who would make sure that the people up there could sleep easy at night, it was Bo. There’s a reason Teresa went to him first.

It’s the sort of story that you get used to hearing about Bo. He was a protector. He was the sort of guy who’d hunt down someone who’d done wrong to his kin and wouldn’t stop until he’d found the guy or had at least achieved some degree of vengeance. He was, to hear Kevin say it, “like a big terrifying angel.” If he were on your side, you didn’t have much to worry about. But if you got on his bad side, there was really no help for you.

But Bo was more than that — and for a very good reason. There was a reason that he had a garden. There was a reason that he’d calmed down a bit in recent years. There was a reason he made sure that he’d have work the next day from one of the three places where he could get hired. There was a reason why he’d made the trailer livable, the reason that his place was the warmest on the Hill, so warm that even in the winter you could have the door open and keep it heated. There was a reason that even in April, he was stocking food for the following winter.

The reason was his daughter.

¶ ¶ ¶

Drew’s mind isn’t quite as sharp as it once was. The past is a bit of a blur. When she thinks about those old days now, there’s very little to set one apart from another.

But there was always the constant. Bo was always the constant. Every morning he’d make his way from the trailer to the cabin, drink coffee with Drew, and every afternoon he’d stop by the cabin to tell her about his day.

He’d bring baby rabbits, push the sliding glass door to the side, and show Drew just how big they were getting, though in truth they were still growing and the difference was hardly noticeable. He’d say things like he really did wish that he could just stay at home. He would have preferred to raise animals, the rabbits, the pigs he’d purchased and retrieved in Drew’s slowly disintegrating white conversion van, and grow vegetables. That’s the way he would have liked it.

He was, in Drew’s words, something of a modern-day Huck Finn. He was perfectly happy to live off what he could make himself, raise himself, pick from the ground himself. He said that he’d much rather have just spent the morning rocking Makaylee and looking off into the woods at the land. But he went to work, worked for typically about $100 a day, because of her. He had to protect his baby.

She’s the reason that Drew claims it was like Bo “had two hearts. One of his hearts was like rock, and the other was soft just like modeling clay.”

She’s the reason that Kevin can say, “Just any time she done any little thing, smallest thing, the littlest bitty thing that that baby’d do, he just light up like a Christmas tree.” And the same reason that he goes on to say that Bo would have been content to live under a rock, but because he had Alicia and Makaylee to worry about, “he done everything he could to make them a little bit better off.”

She trailed him up and down the road the mornings he went to pull water in the five-gallon buckets that he held in his hands, which seemed almost effortlessly lifted as he went up and down the Hill to get water. Although the trailer was outfitted with plumbing, there were more than a few days when the water just wouldn’t work. Bo wouldn’t let them go without water. Makaylee was daddy’s girl. She was BoKay. And she’s the reason that, had he been given the opportunity and the resources, he might have moved off the Hill.

There’s not a person who knew him who’d say he wasn’t compassionate. It was a trait he’d inherited from his father. Tom was a logger who’d bring animals home — animals that had been injured by falling trees. There was the fawn whose mother had been crushed, for example, that took up a temporary residence with the family, the raccoon he’d brought home and attempted to save. [2] When a particularly vicious pig was terrorizing the place, Bo had gone outside to contemplate the animal’s fate three times before he was finally able to do the job.

It’s almost as if there was some conflict that was raging within him. Kevin says that it was like Bo was a demon, he could be equally merciful or wicked depending on where you were standing. He had those two hearts pulling inside him, always trying to gain an advantage. It’s a conflict that’s not difficult to imagine raging within him — whether it was better to fight or take flight. And when that night came with Shannon and the Jeep, it seems clear what side won out. The Bo who wouldn’t back down from a fight, the one who could get back up after a boat fell on him, the one who’d whoop and holler with the best of them, the one who seems to have bore that same mindset as the heroes he watched on television.

Or perhaps it was just involuntary. No one’s really sure why he did what he did.

What’s certain is that Bo put out his arms in front of him. He tried to stop the car.

¶ ¶ ¶

Bo as a child. (photo courtesy the family)
Although they were just cousins, Bo and Lee were virtually inseparable when they were growing up. (Photo courtesy of the family.)

¶ ¶ ¶

There are some things that you need to know about Bo.

You need to know that he was a Ford man, would even pass up the opportunity for a Porsche if given the option, because he believed God gave Ford as a gift to the world.

You need to know that he could eat. That he gained more weight than his fiancée Alicia did when she was pregnant. That he ate cereal from a punch bowl. Ate snake, squirrel, rabbit, mushrooms, blackberries, ham — and virtually anything that came out of the ground.

You need to know that the man, the way he looked, could send people to the other side of the street. But also that for every year of his life, he had a cake featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and would have taken the toys even in his 20s had someone actually given them to him. That the spray on his casket almost matched the color scheme from the cartoons.

You need to know that he despised shoes and preferred overalls.

That he was country.

That he never walked away from a fight.

That he was never afraid to forgive.

That his desire to protect the people he loved was ultimately his undoing.

That he tried to stop the car, he held his hands up as it was coming toward him, but even he couldn’t do that.

That he was loved.

¶ ¶ ¶

You need to know that it’s only possible to speculate as to why he stayed up on that Hill.

It’s the reason that when you discuss Bo, one of the common sentiments expressed is that it wasn’t all too surprising to hear that he’d been killed. But it’s really not that simple. People say there’s a certain risk that comes with living in a place like the Hill. But in the same breath, they say that he didn’t really have much of a choice. Not too long after Makaylee was born, he realized he had some obligations he hadn’t had before. And he would have liked to provide a better life for her and for Alicia — he even had hopes of moving to a little place there in town, but, as his aunt Angie puts it, poverty is a cycle, and it’s a hard one to break.

But listening to his Uncle James, you get the sense that there were many reasons that Bo didn’t move elsewhere. It might have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t have much money, but that was only part of it, James says.

“Bo had two hearts. One of his hearts was like rock and the other was soft just like modeling clay.”

When the two got together, they talked about death and other things. They’d speed down back roads or slouch down into the seats of whatever vehicle they were sitting in. They’d talk about fishing or getting stranded in the middle of a lake in the middle of the night. They talked about the pickup Bo had just purchased, and how proud he was of that little red truck. But for all its twists and variations, the conversation inevitably came back to death. He’d tell James that he was going to die up on that Hill, just like his dad did.

“I told him, no one’s going to think that you’re less of a man ’cause you need help,” James says. “I said, ‘Fuck, everybody needs help sometimes, but he wanted to do it,’ he wanted to hisself. And he did, can’t nobody take that away from him. He lived the best he knew how to live, he lived it. Not a day goes by that I wish I could drag him off that Hill, but he didn’t want off that Hill. That’s where his dad died … he told me, that’s where my dad died, that’s where I’m going to die.”

When Tom died, Bo was there to give him mouth to mouth. The paramedics arrived and didn’t spend even 30 seconds working on his dad. It was already too late, they told him. Bo just couldn’t understand it, but that same Bo was the person who kept Dee intact. And when he was killed up there on the Hill, that last protector was suddenly gone. Her safety net had been taken away. There was no one there to catch her.

¶ ¶ ¶

James, Bo's uncle.
James, Bo’s uncle.

¶ ¶ ¶

iv.

A few weeks after Bo’s death, the home of Mary Ann and Ken, Dee’s parents, is filled with people. A clock chimes on the hour with bird calls instead of bells. There are tiles that aren’t tiles curling where the wall beneath the cabinets meets with floor, the kitchen counter is filled with bags, bags of food, snacks, chicken, desserts. A bag of potatoes is on the ground. There’s water sloshing around in a humidifier. And none of it’s noticed. The family is spread out on the couch, slumped over the side of the ottoman, halfway in the kitchen, halfway out the door. Bo is on the television. They’re watching the video slideshow that was played at the funeral.

He is putting his face into a cake frosted with the likeness of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Holding his daughter, Makaylee, on his lap. Celebrating a 21st birthday, not entirely sober. Wearing denim overalls. Not wearing shoes. Not wearing socks. Hair cropped short. Country as country can be. Watching the people on the TV react to Bo, watching the people in the room react to what’s on TV, you get the sense that this is a man who is loved, was loved, and that he reciprocated those feelings.

Everyone in the room has seen the slideshow, has already gone through the cycle of emotions that the photos tend to elicit, and just about everyone there said they’d be willing to watch it. But not everyone.

Not everyone can stand to see it one more time, because of what it means. Bo is now limited to what exists in the photo albums, in the frames that Dee’s brought with her and in the slides that pass across the screen of the television in this modular home — by definition a trailer, but which is a home in every sense of the word.

Dee said she’d wait outside. But there she is, behind the couch, eyes fixed on the screen. She’s standing even though there’s a piano bench right behind. She’s watching with her hand below her mouth, knuckles below her lip. She is a small woman with sharp features. Big eyes that are frequently ringed below or swallowed up with hints of red or blue or even green powder. Her emotions this afternoon are erratic as she’s been consoled by one person after another.

The afternoon has gone by in a blur. She was at the pawnshop earlier, trying to recover a chainsaw using Bo’s ID that she carries in her purse. She’d rather that Alicia have the ID because she can’t bear to look at it any longer. These are the things that keep Bo alive.

She talks about how she’d like to get a tattoo, one like the bull that Bo had on his left arm. She says that she’d like to mix tattoo ink with his ashes. One of her nieces helped her change the signature on her phone to read, “Love Bos Mom,” and she talks about the decal she’ll put on the car.

She talks about how important it is that the family continue to host these dinners. When Tom died, they let the death drive them all apart. She doesn’t want to see that happen again. She knows how important it is for them to keep talking about him, because that’s how people get remembered. As the slideshow comes to a close, ending with the day he was born and the day he died written out in white script across the screen, there’s not much to say. Dee comes around to the family on the other side of the couch.

¶ ¶ ¶

The road to the Hill.
The road to the Hill.

¶ ¶ ¶

In the days that followed Bo’s death, there were signs almost immediately. When they saw an “I <3 U” was spelled out in the clouds. When feed dumped on the ground for the pigs he’d been raising made a heart. When peppers in Bo’s garden that had been so reluctant to pop and flower before sprouted within days of his death. All of these seemed almost incidental but were timely in the way that such signs appear when they’re needed most.

Other things which appeared and comforted and consoled were more tangible, less open to interpretation or skepticism. Bo’s notebook filled with to-do’s and grocery lists. Voicemails he left on his mom’s phone. Things that would have under any other circumstance been claimed as coincidence but that now took on special meaning. Things that people clung to.

Then there was the prayer that Bo had written a few days prior to his death:

My Prayer:

Great Spirit give me / the strength for each / new day and the strength / to stand tall when the / end comes and look / after my loved ones / with your never ending / love and Protect / mother earth from evil / Men. and i thank u for the gifts in every day.

¶ ¶ ¶

The house is made of wood. Dee’s house is made of wood. Long, unbowed planks running dark up above, building to a point, and below, running side to side, from the back of the house to the front where she’s sitting smoking now one cigarette after another. There are three ashtrays on the table with several new-looking stubbed-out additions, indications of the one vice she allows herself and which has imbued her speech with a certain raspiness shared by many in the family.

The couch that she’s sitting on is beige, picked out by her parents and given to her because they didn’t like it; there’s a sheet on the lower cushions with flowers, pink carnations by the looks of it; more often than not, she’s seated on the far righthand edge of the couch, crouched in a ball with her feet beneath her. It makes her seem smaller than she is.

She leafs through the photos stacked in bricks filling the Ziploc bags and albums spread over the couch. With Tom, she can look at them and it’s fine. Fine to the extent that it can be fine. That he’s died is tragic, and there’s not a soul in the world who’d dispute the tragedy of a life that ended the way his did — the way that he was falling apart in the last years of his life, ensnared by chemicals and addictions, the way that he passed just a day after Christmas, how when the family saw him in the days leading up to his death, it had seemed that he was doing all right, it seemed that he would have liked to get better. It’s not that he would have liked to go the way that he did. But we’re the products of the environments that we inhabit, the habits we pick up and never drop, the way that we break down.

Tom’s death was one to mourn, but it was one that people — the way they discuss it now seven years removed — understand. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it was a loss.

With Bo’s it was abrupt. It was something more. She can’t stand that he’s gone.

“It’s a creepy feeling that I have in there with [Bo’s] pictures,” Dee says. “It’s like an anger creeping … because it’s that Bo … he’s really dead. And … I don’t know if it’s as simple as Tom was drinking hisself to death and taking too many different drugs and whatever — we knew he was dying — Bo was 28, he shouldn’t have. Shouldn’t have happened to Tom neither, but when you’re drinking yourself to death, it’s going to. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s my boy. The simple fact is that I like to look at Tom’s pictures, I don’t like to look at [Bo’s] pictures. It makes me too sad.”

Makaylee is here at the house, wearing a pink tank top with broad white stripes; her hair is like it always is, pulled up in on top of her head; she has huge cheeks and her mouth is very small between them; she is slightly cross-eyed but it’s endearing. You can tell when she’s looking at you because of how intense her focus is. When she first comes through the door, she’s holding a pink and white Cinderella umbrella, which entirely hides her face and upper torso from view as she walks straight through to the back of the house.

It’s around this time that Dee’s eyes go bright, throw off the frustration and loneliness that death brings, slip away from that and become strong, and maybe it’s just the way that the light hits her through the window where a car’s sitting, white sign decaled across the back with the dates of his life and then death, but for a moment, there’s strength, and you know that this is going to be all right.

Of course, it’s a moment, and the moment fades. It fades into the music of “Dora the Explorer” drifting in from the room nearby where Makaylee is watching and repeating the words. Dee’s husband, Benny, is watching and repeating the words to help her along. It fades into reality, the egg salad on white bread Dee’s got on the plate on the arm of the couch, still hardly touched, with the exception of a half she picks at from time to time and the chips which disappear at intervals.

All the obligations pressing her forward start to press once again. There are bills and petty disputes to be addressed and resolved, affairs to be made right and rectified. There’s the still-distant yet already approaching November court date, when Shaffer will stand trial and the members of the family will steel their nerves and relive the night once more.

¶ ¶ ¶

Dee and the photo album of Bo.
Dee and one of the many photo albums she has filled with pictures of Bo.

¶ ¶ ¶

Dee calls and says she should have said something before. Something she feels rather awful for not mentioning before, but she wasn’t entirely comfortable sharing it. She starts out by saying that “I don’t have my son to call me in the morning … to figure out what I want to do.” She then talks about the Saturday after he was murdered. It was only this one time, but she took the ashes that held her son and the urn with her first husband’s as well, and she took them both out to the back porch. The back porch is screened in and looks out onto a barn, the woods, and it has a green couch with legs that have been clawed into tatters. Taking the two urns, she curled into the corner of the couch, looked out through the window, and she drank her coffee with her son and her husband.

It ought to be said outright that the two men the Hill took away, her son and her first husband, died in very different ways. And they’re being remembered in very different ways. Tom’s death split the family apart. Bo’s has brought it together. Bo’s being gone is the reason that the family has been getting together month after month for the barbecues that each household takes a turn in hosting.

“The simple fact is that I like to look at Tom’s pictures, I don’t like to look at Bo’s pictures. It makes me too sad.”

But at the same time, Dee says that she’s concerned. Because getting together requires commitment. Because the family split apart after Tom died, and what’s to stop it from breaking apart again?

“It’s like it’s taboo or whatever you would call it,” Dee says from her place on the couch. “But that could just be me feeling that, you know? It could be that it just hurts them and they don’t want to talk about it. My therapist says that, it’s what people do. And the promise, you call them at any hour, I’m there for you. But they’re really hoping you don’t call too much. Too long afterwards. Because they don’t like reality. Reality is if Dee calls, people get killed. And people don’t like that.

“‘Cause that forgetting and that not keeping them fresh is what bugs me, even though I can’t right now because it hurts me too much. I don’t want to lose those memories. I would like to talk about Tom; other people don’t. And so, me and Bo was alone, and I said, ‘Does it bother you to talk about your dad, son?’ I like to talk about him. He said, ‘I see my dad in my dreams every single night.’”

The truth is that the Hill, for all that it’s done to the family, is really just a place. It’s a hill with a lower-case ‘h,’ where members of Tom’s family live. And when Dee talks about everything that resulted from their moving up there, it needs to be said that the hill might have played a part, but it wasn’t the cause.

Even if Bo hadn’t died, Dee says later, she’d still consider that place a hellhole. But “it’s not that [Tom] died per say because of the hill.” The hill was a place Dee and Tom first moved because it was convenient for work. The hill was a place that Bo left for a few years after his dad died, but then he came back because the trailer there was a place he could rent for cheap.

¶ ¶ ¶

But whatever distinction it has within the family, the reputations that it’s tainted and bent and warped, isn’t because of everything that’s happened there. It’s a result of the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of relationships as people drift apart and become foreign to one another — when they become as abstract and symbolic as the hill itself. But with Bo’s death, when much of the family looks down the hill, surveying everything that surrounds this swell in the land of Walnut Grove, Mo., what appears on the horizon is an opportunity they didn’t have before, a chance to re-forge the bonds that have fallen into disrepair, to do what he would have liked them to do.

It’s true that the area has no shortage of faults and flaws. And people will say that it’s a scary place, a place of loose ethics, loose everything, wrapped in threadbare moral fiber. But the truth is, for as awful and repellent as it might sound to the people who’ve been wronged, there’s little doubt that they’ve still got ties to the place. For as much as they hate to acknowledge it, they’re still part of it. They still have family up there. It’s a place that — even if he was trying to get away — was home to a young man with a young family.

And even for as tragic a loss as Bo’s was, there’s a legacy there to fulfill. The family talks about what Bo would have liked them to do, how he’d like to see events and happenings proceed, but of course that’s only true to an extent. There’s no denying that the influence Bo had is now limited to the way in which he lived his life. Makaylee will never have the father that she should have, but people around her will tell stories about how he lived, and because he was a good man, and because he was a strong man, those are better than they might have otherwise been.

People can stay alive in many ways, and the gatherings that they have now are where Bo will be most present. He’ll be there because the family is together. He’ll be there when the sun is going down and they’re all still there on the field, the barbecue gone, playing football in front of the fire. Together.

The Jeff Show.

Funny men Jeff Jenkins and Jeff Houghton each came to Springfield 10 years ago, barely knowing a soul. Together, these two men have built up Springfield’s comedy scene from nothing. They’ve created TV shows and improv theaters. After 10 years in the Ozarks, what happens next for Springfield’s leading funny men?

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 13, 2012

It’s a Friday night in July, and downtown Springfield is buzzing. It’s hot, but there’s a breeze, and the cloudless sky makes for a beautiful evening. Parking is never an issue in this town, but tonight it’s nearly impossible to find a spot.

Restaurant patios are filled to capacity, young couples saunter aimlessly down the sidewalk and teenagers whiz by on skateboards and bikes. They’re all here for the First Friday Art Walk, an evening of original art, music, demonstrations and performances in and around 25 downtown galleries.

Springfield’s arts and entertainment scene typically flies under the radar, but on the first Friday of each month, the city’s talents are very much in the spotlight. In addition to the visual arts, musicians perform at the pavilion on the square, and local theaters tease their upcoming productions with brief performances and songs. If you hang out downtown on any other day of the month, it’s likely you wouldn’t even know such a scene exists in this town.

But above the crowded streets, hidden in the attic above an Italian restaurant, a different breed of entertainers are putting on a show. Two comedians from The Skinny Improv are staring at a screen hanging down over the stage. The Facebook page of one blushing audience member is projected for all to see, and the comics poke fun at its content, improvising scenes based around photos and wall posts.

Her Facebook page says she was in her high school’s color guard, which is enough to send the performers into a ridiculously elaborate 20-minute scene. They play multiple characters — a mother-daughter color guard duo, a dopey husband, a color guard rival, a dorky-sounding announcer. They use crazy voices and made-up accents, and together they build a scene that didn’t even exist 20 minutes earlier.

It sends the audience reeling with laughter. It’s the ultimate “you have to see it to understand it” situation, and that’s why people come: to see the these two men perform live, where nonsense like this becomes comedy gold.

10 years ago, no one in Springfield had ever heard of the two performers on stage. In fact, they hadn’t even heard of each other. Both were just faces in the crowd, two men with the same familiar-sounding name — Jeff — each trying to carve out a role in a new city. Neither grew up in the Ozarks, and neither spent much time in Branson, an entertainment-focused town an hour south of Springfield, home to legendary entertainers like Yakov Smirnov.

The Jeffs’ role models came instead from famous comedy hubs like Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, Groundlings in Los Angeles and Second City in Chicago, places where big names like Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Steve Carell got their start. [1] Those groups have been around for decades, and they’re located in cities with comedy clubs, big theaters and agents looking for the next great talent.

When the Jeffs moved to Springfield 10 years ago, this town didn’t have anything like that. But thanks to the two Jeffs, Springfield’s entertainment scene has started to grow beyond its underground roots. Neither improv theater nor comedy would have a place in this town if it weren’t for them.

Between the two of them, they’ve created many of Springfield’s firsts: The Skinny Improv, an improv comedy theater; a Shakespeare festival where one Jeff debuted his own hilariously quirky play that brings zombies into the world of the bard; “The Mystery Hour,” one Jeff’s late-night talk show; and the Springfield Playhouse, an interactive theater experience for children. They’ve also expanded Springfield’s stand-up comedy scene, and both have their own stand-up routines.

They’ve done a lot for this town in 10 years, but lately, they’ve started asking big questions about their own careers. Springfield’s helped take them this far. But is there something more for them beyond the boundaries of the Ozarks?

Or is this as big as it gets?

¶ ¶ ¶

Jeff Jenkins, standing, in "Hamlet vs. Zombies."
(At top) Jeff Houghton, left, and Jeff Jenkins, the men behind Springfield’s comedy scene. (Above) Jenkins, standing, in “Hamlet vs. Zombies.”

¶ ¶ ¶

The cell phone buzzes on the table. “Hold on,” he says. “I’m going to have to answer my phone several times.” His phone is always ringing, always interrupting conversations. But when you’re as busy as he is, that’s just what happens.

“Hello? Yes, it is The Skinny Improv. Yes you can. How many would you like?”

Jeff Jenkins, 40, hangs up and punches the information into his phone. He needs to hold two tickets for next Saturday’s main stage show.

“Where was I?”

Jenkins keeps the story going. He founded The Skinny Improv 10 years ago, when he moved to Springfield to finish school. He was 30, and he decided it was time to finish up his degree. “I was at the point in my life where I was single, no major bills, why not add some student debt?” Jenkins jokes.

In 1991, he had been kicked out of Evangel University — a Springfield university that bills itself as “intensely Christian” — for not attending chapel. He left Springfield and started seriously pursuing improv comedy. He spent five years honing his talent, including a year of traveling across the country doing improv.

Then he decided to try again at Evangel, enrolling in theater and psychology classes. [2] Jenkins was both the oldest guy in class and new in town, but he was used to the latter — his father was in the military, so Jenkins moved around a lot when he was growing up. He says it made putting down roots difficult, but it also made him quick to adapt to new situations.

“It helped me get to know people quicker and talk to people, because you kind of have to break down the walls pretty quick,” Jenkins says. “And I realized comedy was what people responded to.”

This move to Springfield was no different for Jenkins. He wanted to meet people and make friends, and he isn’t the type to sit around and wait for something to happen.

He started talking to students at Evangel, telling them about his past year in improv. He wanted to know if others at his school were interested in starting something in Springfield. It turned out a lot of people were, but they’d never had the opportunity to give improv a shot. That was good enough for Jenkins.

Inexperience didn’t phase him; in fact, he embraced it. As long as people had the right attitude, he could teach them the rest. He gathered together what he calls the “Original Nine” and started The Skinny Improv. [3] Little by little, he taught them what he knew and coached them on how to work a crowd.

Word in this town spread fast, and The Skinny started doing free shows for students every other Saturday at Evangel. [4] Soon, the theater was full at every show. Jenkins was onto something.

Jenkins had done this before — he’d started his first improv group in Dallas, where he performed for about a year. He calls the experience merely “OK.” Springfield was clearly different, and The Skinny was just the beginning.

“I always made people laugh,” Jenkins says. “And I never ever thought it would be a career.”

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Mystery Jeff Houghton, the other Jeff behind Springfield's comedy scene.
Mystery Jeff Houghton, the other Jeff behind Springfield’s comedy scene.

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While Jenkins was establishing what would quickly turn into the backbone of Springfield’s comedy scene, a 24-year-old Jeff Houghton was making the move from his hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, to a place he’d never been to before, all in the name of love.

His then-girlfriend, Michelle, was born and raised in Springfield. The two had been dating long distance for a year and a half, and it was time for Houghton to figure out if the relationship was going to last. [5]

With a two-year job commitment just wrapping up, [6] it seemed the perfect time for him to make the change. He packed his things, made the seven-hour trip south and moved into the basement of Michelle’s parents’ Springfield home. It was just a temporary solution until he could find a job and make enough money to pay rent at a place of his own. Houghton had a degree in communications and a certain boyish charm, so he figured he’d be able to lock down a job by the end of the month.

Almost a year later, though, Houghton was happy to be in Springfield, but still without full-time employment. He’d been substitute teaching and waiting tables, but it wasn’t enough to sustain him if he moved out of the basement. He applied for one last job and prepared to pack up and leave if it didn’t work out.

As luck would have it, Houghton got the job. He was hired as a donor recruiter field representative at the Community Blood Center of the Ozarks, where he worked closely with the Center’s volunteers. It looked like he would be staying put after all. He liked Springfield, but he still only knew a handful of people in town besides his girlfriend. He needed more of a social life.

Houghton, now 34, says everything came together “through a very fortunate lunch.”

A friend of Michelle’s family offered to take Houghton out for a meal to see how he was adjusting to the move. He brought along another friend, Brett Stockton, who was the same age as Houghton and happened to be looking for a second roommate.

Stockton “was my entry into whatever social life I have now, Skinny and everything,” Houghton says.

At the time, Houghton didn’t have enough money saved up to cover the rent, so Stockton agreed to hold the spot for him for a couple of months. Months passed, and Houghton still wasn’t ready to move in.

Stockton’s friends would ask about this new roommate, and he’d always tell them that Jeff would be moving in soon, but the date kept getting pushed pack. Stockton’s friends started to doubt that there even was a Jeff.

“So he and his friends started referring to me as this ‘Mystery Jeff,’” Hougton says. He eventually moved in, but the nickname stuck.

One of his new roommates, Chris Sturgeon, was a member of The Skinny Improv, so Houghton went out one night to see a show. Even though he’d never done improv before, he felt immediately drawn to what was happening on stage. “I watched it and I was like, Oh, I can’t just watch this. I can’t watch this without doing it,” Houghton says. “I think that’s when I was like, Oh, I need to figure out how I get into this.”

Houghton became fascinated by Springfield’s history with television. During the 1950s, Springfield was home to a surprising number of network TV shows. Branson, Mo., is just south of the city, and the stars of Branson would come to Springfield to tape shows like “Ozark Jubilee” and “The Eddy Arnold Show.” The city hadn’t been involved in many big TV productions since then, but Houghton was eager to get involved in any form of entertainment the city had to offer.

He started taking improv classes at The Skinny from Jenkins, who immediately recognized his talents.

“I realized very, very quickly, this guy’s very, very funny,” Jenkins says. “He’s so damn funny and so damn charming. Audiences love him.”

The Jeffs were the oldest members of the improv group, and they quickly became close. Before long, Houghton was performing on The Skinny’s main stage and teaching the classes he once took himself. Since everyone in The Skinny already knew Jenkins as Jeff, Houghton went by his new nickname, Mystery Jeff. People in Springfield’s entertainment community still call him that today.

“Springfield turned out to be the perfect place for me to move,” Houghton says. “Unbeknownst to me, there’s this improv group that’s then going to have a theater that’s made up of talented people, and I can join, and then become a part of it. And I felt very fortunate for that.”

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The Jeffs perform their original rap song, “8+”.

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It’s a Friday night at The Skinny Improv, on the corner of South Avenue and McDaniel Street, but it’s easy to miss the theater unless you look up. This past October, the troupe relocated above Nonna’s Italian American Café, the third downtown venue the theater has used since moving from its original home at Evangel University.

The space is a nice fit for an improv theater. It’s not too small, but just small enough to provide an intimate setting without feeling cramped. The 70 seats are almost all occupied for the eight o’clock show. Savory smells of Italian food waft up through the worn, dark wooden floorboards, and the echo of the hustle and bustle from the First Friday Art Walk outside sneaks in through the curtained windows as the audience members settle into their seats, talking excitedly.

The Jeffs are the headliners for the first of two sets that evening. They run on stage and introduce the premise for the show. They’ll be performing a series of short, completely improvised sketches, using everything from personal experiences to an audience member’s Facebook page for inspiration. They’ll be taking audience suggestions. They want people to cheer a lot.

The Jeffs take the first of their suggestions from the audience, and suddenly, they’re off and in character. Jenkins tucks his blond hair behind his ears and twirls a lock around his finger. He grins at Houghton, who insists to the audience that they’re a couple, that they “broke up” months ago and that he can’t see them getting back together. They can grab lunch anytime though — that is, if other people are coming along.

The scene is addressing the notion of the friend zone, and the Jeffs are doing their best to recreate an uncomfortable situation found in high schools across the country. Jenkins plays the role of a persistent high school girl, while Houghton is the guy trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. They’re selling the scene, but the more the audience gets into it, the harder it is for the two men to stay in character and keep a straight face.

Jenkins inches closer and closer to Houghton, stifling a laugh. Houghton appears unsure of where the scene is going, and he lets Jenkins take the lead.

The two are fast friends, and it’s clear from the way they interact on stage just how close they are in their everyday lives. [7] There’s a certain understanding between them that doesn’t happen overnight, and it allows for great comedy.

Amber Jones, Vice President of Operations at The Skinny Improv, has known the Jeffs since she started taking classes at The Skinny six years ago. She says she’s learned a lot from them both.

“They are amazing together,” Jones says. “They complement each other very well.”

Jenkins goes in for a kiss, the perfect dramatic ending to what is perhaps the group’s funniest scene of the night. The crowd eats it up, laughing and cheering. “How did I not see that coming?!” Houghton yells as he wipes his mouth.

The audience is still clapping as the music starts and the lights go down, signaling the end of the scene. The Jeffs share a quick look. They couldn’t be happier — making people laugh is what The Skinny is all about.

“When we’re on, I don’t think there’s anybody better,” Jenkins says. “I think when we click, when we do our show, we could hang with anybody from New York and Chicago and L.A.”

¶ ¶ ¶

When he first arrived in Springfield, Jenkins says it was because “I lost a bet.” He’s always joking around; it’s in his nature. “When I got here nobody really knew what [improv] was. There was no scene. It was … nothing.”

Chicago and Second City have always been in the back of Jenkins’ mind. He wasn’t planning on staying in Springfield long — just long enough to get his degree at Evangel. He wanted to eventually audition for “Saturday Night Live” or be a comedy writer, and he didn’t think he could do that here. But when he started The Skinny and it took off, he got comfortable with life in the Ozarks.

Within two years of the group’s first show, Jenkins started teaching classes at The Skinny as well as performing. [8] He also moved the troupe off Evangel’s campus to its first downtown location, in a basement. The Skinny’s success — and talent — was growing. It was making money from shows, but, more importantly, it started getting recognition.

“I think if there would have been a group that said, ‘Hey, we’re opening up a theater downtown, you should come out,’ it wouldn’t have done well,” Houghton says. “But since they had built up such a following and done so well before there was a theater, it was how it worked.”

The Skinny also had a secret weapon: Jenkins, and his passion for building a community around improv.

“Jeff’s super talented, in terms of improv and acting, but then also in terms of getting people excited about things and having new ideas,” Houghton says. “I think that’s really a strength of his … getting people around an idea and getting excited about it.”

The Skinny was mentioned in local publications, Jenkins was named GO Magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2007 and more new faces started showing up at shows.

Jones says part of Jenkins’ popularity is his charismatic nature and his ability to work with other people. “He really has a vision,” says Jones, “and he’s really good at inviting people into it.”

Over the years, the Skinny has built an improv-savvy crowd, a huge accomplishment for a town that previously had no experience with improv. Jenkins says today’s audience would have walked out on those early performances because they were so one-dimensional.

“Now it’s artistic,” he says. “Now it’s got some meat to it.”

Jenkins is clearly a teacher; he cares about helping people improve in what they do, including himself. He can’t help it, even when he’s performing. When a skit goes off track or a joke gets lost, Jenkins asks the audience, “Where did the wheels come off on that one?” He laughs, but he’s really asking the question to make his fellow comics think about what went wrong. It’s all about having fun, but improv’s still an art that he takes very seriously. He cares about comedy, and he cares about creating an experience that fans of The Skinny will keep coming back for.

“Your audience loves you because you know what you’re doing,” Jenkins says. “And it’s kind of a nice pat on the pack for everybody to say, ‘Hey, here we are in Springfield, Mo., and we kinda know, we’ve figured out what we’re doing.’”

¶ ¶ ¶

Jeff Jenkins as Horatio in "Hamlet vs. Zombies."
Jeff Jenkins as Horatio in “Hamlet vs. Zombies.”

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Success has come to Jenkins in part because he’s not afraid to take risks. If he wants to do something, he does it.

Once he got The Skinny off the ground, he didn’t stop there. He wanted to start a Shakespeare festival — something else new to Springfield — so he went ahead and did it.

“I didn’t ask anybody’s permission, didn’t really think it through,” he says. “I just said, ‘Boys, we’re putting a show up.’ And we did.” Now, six years later, it’s still going strong.

Then he wanted to write and produce a play, so he did. Jenkins teamed up with his close friend Bryant Turnage, and together they wrote and produced “Hamlet vs. Zombies,” a Shakespearean spoof with a monster twist. It was a hit in the Springfield community.

Jenkins’ remake answered the question that the Bard refused to answer: What would happen if Denmark was attacked by a zombie horde? Thanks to Jenkins and Turnage, now we know.

The play is filled with scene after scene of zombie movie references, sexual innuendoes, shoot-outs — and some actual Shakespeare, too.

“The thing I like about it is if you like Shakespeare, you’ll get it. If you like zombies, you’ll get it,” Jenkins says. “There are enough references for both camps of people.”

After success in Springfield, Jenkins wanted to take the show to festivals. So — in typical Jeff Jenkins fashion — he did. And it paid off. “Hamlet vs. Zombies” won Best of Fringe at the 20th Annual San Francisco Fringe Festival, a title usually snagged by a show from a New York or California stage.

“Everybody was excited,” he says. “It was really cool, and you know, we didn’t have a lot of people at the beginning come to see us, just staff and volunteers. Nobody knew us, we’re from Springfield and, you know, then they started telling people and started talking to people and we started having really, really good houses.” [9]

Turnage says Jenkins is great to work with because of his knack for directing. With “Hamlet vs. Zombies” Turnage did most of the writing while Jenkins took care of the body language, character development and staging of it all.

“He will work hard to get a production up. He believes in theater,” Turnage says. “He loves making people laugh. He has some good ideas and he will do what he can to make them come to fruition.”

Jenkins has also been successful because of the culture in Springfield. It’s the perfect place to take risks in because it’s full of people willing to support locals who do stick their necks out. In 2009, The Skinny came 12 hours away from filing for bankruptcy and shutting everything down. To prevent the theater from closing, a friend stepped in and helped it get back on its feet.

Most comedy in this town stems directly from The Skinny. That stage is important to the people of Springfield, and they don’t want to see it go.

“Everybody knows The Skinny,” Turnage says. “And everybody knows Jeff.”

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An improv game from The Skinny, called “Buzz,” and featuring the Jeffs.

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Although he’s been with The Skinny since its early days at Evangel, Hougton’s recently found a new calling card in Springfield. He is the host of “The Mystery Hour,” a Springfield-centric late-night talk show.

The show — a spinoff on Houghton’s nickname, Mystery Jeff — began in Nov. 2006. It’s grown a lot since then. At the start, even though it looked a lot like other TV talk shows, “The Mystery Hour” wasn’t broadcast on television. The show started as a live, untelevised production in front of an audience at The Skinny’s theater space. The entire thing was run off of an iPod.

One of the guests on Houghton’s first show was Doug Harpool, who was running for Missouri State Senate at the time. [10] Unbeknownst to Houghton, a political science professor at Missouri State found out about the show and offered extra credit points to his students if they attended. As a result, “The Mystery Hour’s” first show had a packed house.

“So after that show was done, I was just on a high,” Houghton says. “I was like, Oh, this is it for me.”

Houghton started putting on the production once a month, with each show featuring guest interviews, a musical act and various comedy sketches. Jenkins has been an occasional player on the show. In one memorable bit, Jenkins donned a sirt and a wig to portray Missouri senator Claire McCaskill.

So sometimes the show has gotten weird. But Houghton has found a way to blend that weirdness with real discussions from local guests who just want to reach a larger audience.

“One of my thoughts with ‘The Mystery Hour’ has always been, Let me find these cool things and bring them to the surface a little bit,” Houghton says. “Because there are secretly a lot of talented people here.”

Michelle Houghton — the woman who first brought Houghton to Springfield, and who later became his wife — says the show has been a neat way for the couple to meet people in the community and to be in the know about what is going on. She also says it’s the perfect creative outlet for Houghton.

“It’s like everything that he wanted to do,” she says. “He’s got this crazy creative mind. He would just pour his energy into writing these sketches.”

Houghton has always made fun of “The Mystery Hour” as a fake TV show that he created to make himself feel important. But after five years, the show made a big change this year: They added cameras. This spring, it became a bona fide late-night talk show that airs Saturdays at 11 p.m. on KOZL-TV.

“It’s crazy,” Houghton says, ”but it’s a dream come true that I have a late-night talk show, even if it’s on local TV.”

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Jeff Houghton and Barry Williams on an August taping of "The Mystery Hour." Williams is holding up a sign that reads, "Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Iowa."
Jeff Houghton and Barry Williams on an August taping of “The Mystery Hour.” Williams is holding up a sign that reads, “Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Iowa.”

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Moving to TV wasn’t easy for Houghton. At their first taping back in April, Houghton’s wireless microphone started picking up feedback from an old radio station’s nearby transmitter. Once that audio problem was solved, a torrential downpour began outside the studio — which doubles as a local artist’s downtown art studio and gallery — and the sound of rain on the ceiling drowned out the guests. Nothing seemed to be going right.

The Aug. 10 taping brought back some frustrating memories from that first night of taping.

Houghton’s first guest was Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” and who now has his own show in Branson. But Williams was running late, and he was sick with a bad cold. On top of that, the technical difficulties piled up. Everything that could go wrong with the mics or the lighting seemed to go wrong.

Every seat in the studio was taken, and Houghton and his crew whipped out some improv to entertain the audience while the staff backstage put together an alternate plan. The audience was laughing, but they also started getting restless — and so did Houghton. He runs the show, securing guests and writing material with the small staff that he hired. He found a student from nearby Ozarks Technical Community College to direct episodes.

Getting everything set up for tapings isn’t easy, so “The Mystery Hour” tapes a month of episodes in a single night. There were four different guests backstage, but Barry Williams wasn’t one of them. They called Williams and found that he was en route to Springfield. Houghton decided to move their second guest up to the first slot, and they got the show rolling 45 minutes late.

Through all of the unforeseen issues and technical snags, Houghton somehow managed to keep his cool. He got agitated, sure, but he stayed remarkably focused and calm throughout the four tapings. There were a couple points throughout the night when he had to step into the back room alone and regroup, but he kept the show on track as best he could, always with a smile on his face

The first 30-minute taping went relatively smoothly. He ran through his nightly monologue, which he calls “Things I’ve Noticed.” He played a pre-taped fake TV ad campaign for President of Springfield, and a video of auditions for the role of “Mystery Hour” sidekick. [11] The guest was Dan Reiter, the director of sales and marketing at the Springfield Cardinals, and he was a good sport about moving up a slot. Musical guests Hamburger Cows, a bluegrass Springfield band, performed two songs — one for the first episode, and then another that would later be added to a second episode. [12]

Hamburger Cows lead guitarist Bo Brown has known Houghton for years. Like most who know him, Brown says Houghton’s a natural when it comes to entertainment. He shook his head and smiled as the team got the show back on track, “And that’s why it’s called The Mystery Hour.” Just like anything in the entertainment business, you never know what is going to happen.

The worst happened when Williams finally took the stage for the second episode. He was on “The Mystery Hour” to promote his Branson show, “Lunch with the Brady Bunch.” In the middle of the interview, his lapel mic went out. Houghton cringed for a split second in disbelief, but then a crewmember handed Williams a new microphone, and the show continued. Williams smiled and said that the mic made it look like he was eating an ice cream cone.

“I had a great time – until my mic went out,” Williams joked afterward

Still, Houghton pressed on. He whipped out a story about the first time he met Williams — yes, he’s met him before, he revealed to a surprised audience. He was a freshman in college at the University of Northern Iowa, and Williams had visited the campus to speak. Houghton had his photo taken with the TV star, and when he brought it to him to sign, he asked for a rather odd message. He wanted Greg Brady to write, “Jeff, corduroy pants they feel like sweatpants,” because it was his first experience wearing corduroy pants, and that’s what they felt like to him.

Williams had asked Houghton to get back in line and think of something better. So, Houghton returned and asked him to write, “Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Northern Iowa.” Williams did sign the picture, but he didn’t write either phrase, and he didn’t think he’d ever see the kid again — let alone be a guest on that kid’s TV show 15 years later.

Now, on this August night in Springfield, Houghton kindly requested that William write one of the two phrases on a piece of paper. Williams obliged, laughing, and wrote, “Jeff, you are the Greg Brady of Iowa.” It no longer made sense, but that was the beauty of it. The crowd laughed at the spectacle of it all.

“I haven’t felt this good since I was surfing with the Bradys in Hawaii and I got a glimpse of Marcia standing on the beach in a bikini,” Williams said.

After everything that had gone wrong during the taping, Houghton still managed to get the famous Barry Williams on the show and make him laugh. It had been a stressful night, but throughout it all, he was able to keep smiling.

It all came back to the fact that Houghton loves what he does. And that he’s damn good at it, too.

“I love the fact that I have a TV show that’s filmed downtown now. It’s local, but I think Springfield has an interesting history in that way,” Houghton says. “Now you can go downtown and see a TV show.”

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The Jeffs in a parody ad for “The Mystery Hour,” titled, “Absraham Lincoln, Ab Emancipator.”

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Although he says Springfield turned out to be the perfect fit, Houghton wasn’t always so certain.

Like Jenkins, Houghton isn’t afraid to take risks. He says a lot of what has motivated him to try so many new things over the past decade is his mantra: “I got to go see about this.”

After graduating college, Houghton landed an internship at “The Late Show With David Letterman” in the talent department in New York City. He assisted with guest bookings and learned to take care of guests while they were on the show, and he did get to be in a few sketches, he says. During the internship, Houghton got a taste for big cities, and it stuck in the back of his mind.

So when he found himself in a small town in the middle of the Ozarks, he couldn’t help but wonder if he might have been able to hang with the marquee names had he stayed in the big city.

“I’m always fairly adventurous, and so I always want to go on to the next adventure,” Houghton says. “And for me, it’s more of a challenge to feel settled than it is to go on an adventure.”

Two summers ago, Houghton and his wife started to talk seriously about starting a family. Both of them knew that once they had kids, Houghton wouldn’t have the chance to give his big city dream a shot. “So I was like, OK, I gotta go see about this,” Houghton says. L.A. is the center of the television universe, so he decided to go west.

He didn’t want to make Michelle quit her job or sell their house, so the couple agreed that he would move out there for one year and see what came of it. Houghton says the worst thing about the whole adventure was seeing Michelle standing in the driveway as he was pulling away. [13]

Houghton started a daily blog called The Mystery Year to keep a record of his time in L.A. It also served as a place where friends and family could check in to see how he was doing. He posted one entry each day for an entire year, documenting his personal journey. From bombing an audition to rocking a stand-up routine to landing a part as an extra in Mad Men to missing Michelle, he recorded it all.

One of the things Houghton discovered in L.A. is that there are a lot of rules when it comes to creative content. For example, you need to get a permit in order to film anywhere, and the costs of those permits add up quickly. He also learned that in order to be taken seriously, he had to become part of the Screen Actors Guild, which is not easy or cheap.

More importantly, though, he began to fully understand the power of connections.

“I think here, it’s about opportunity,” Houghton says of Springfield. “For me, because I feel fairly well-connected at this point, if I have an idea, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll call this guy to do this and I’ll call that guy to do that’ … In L.A. I was like, ‘OK I have this idea, how do I even start on this?’”

Springfield’s comedy scene isn’t on the national map yet, and until a local performer breaks through onto a big TV show or theater production, a stage like The Skinny will remain a regional name. Still, Houghton says The Skinny Improv sticker on his bag got a couple of head nods out west. In his time in L.A., a few people told him they knew of the theater, and they were excited to meet someone who’d performed there.

But that just reiterated for Houghton that he belonged in Missouri, not Hollywood. He says the thing that makes him unique in Springfield — doing comedy and improv — didn’t stand out L.A. He knew he had to come home.

“So instead of moving away and going [somewhere else] to have these things that I want, where I’m just a little guy going to other people’s things, I can create them here and bring those things that I would love to have if I lived in a big city to here,” Houghton says. “Because there’s enough talent to support it and there’s the community support to support it.”

It was a strange realization. Houghton had to move from L.A. to Springfield to get his own TV show, not the other way around.

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The Jeffs, on the stage of The Skinny Improv, in the attic of an Italian restaurant downtown.
The Jeffs, on the stage of The Skinny Improv, in the attic of an Italian restaurant downtown.

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Just as he was 10 years ago, Jenkins is at a turning point in his life. He is recently divorced and recently without a full-time job. He’d been selling copiers during the day, but apparently you have to be passionate about copiers to sell them, he says. He’s also taking a bit of a break from performing on The Skinny’s main stage.

He’s still happy, still relaxed, still funny, but for a while now, Jenkins has been asking himself if it’s time to leave Springfield. He’s still not sure. If there was ever a time to make a move, it’d be now, without a family to keep him here or a career to tie him down.

Houghton tried the L.A. scene and ended up happier back in Springfield. But that hasn’t kept Jenkins from wondering if a move to a big city might be right for him.

“There’s always the question of, ‘Could I compete and hang and do it? Could I be successful?’” Jenkins says. “Because being in Springfield, there’s a comfortability here, you know. Artistically, I have a lot of license, a lot of freedom.”

If he were to stay in Springfield, he would consider opening a stand-up comedy club. “The town doesn’t have one, and I think they’re ready,” Jenkins says.

Houghton says Jenkins is the godfather of Springfield comedy, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that. But creating something — in Jenkins’ case, multiple things — from scratch takes a lot of work, and it can be exhausting.

“It’s really awesome that Springfield has an improv theater,” Houghton says. “Big cities can’t always sustain it, and so for a city the size of Springfield to sustain it is pretty amazing.”

Jenkins is the man who started it all and, with help from the community and his fellow improv perforfmers, has kept it all going. He’s taught improv students how to meld snappy one-liners with fully developed scenes to create an artistic, hilarious — and occasionally intelligent — form of comedy that keeps Springfieldians coming back. He says it would be tough to let it all go and move on to something new, but if he’s going to do it, now would be the best time.

Jenkins calls each scene a “living, breathing thing” and says “if you listen to it, it will tell you where it’s going.” He’s been trying to listen to the scenes playing out in his own life and figure out where they’re leading him. For now, he’s auditioning for shows around town and down in Branson to see if anything sticks. He still has Chicago on his mind, but nothing’s standing out just yet. All he’s certain of is that whatever happens next, comedy will play a role.

“I’ve been doing it 10 years, you know,” Jenkins says. “I’ve been doing improv almost every weekend for the last 10 years. And I love it.”

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In 10 years, the Jeffs have experienced an eerily parallel set of changes.

Houghton was a restless kid who wanted to get out of Springfield and move to Hollywood to make it big. Now, he’s doing what he loves right here, and he’s planning on sticking around.

Jenkins quickly grew comfortable in Springfield and made a name for himself establishing a scene. Now, he feels like his work here is possibly done. He wants to move on to bigger and better things, to explore his options elsewhere.

Neither had planned to stick around for more than a couple of years, yet here they still are. Springfield has this strange power to draw people in and keep them here. It’s growing and changing, and for people like the Jeffs, it’s the perfect place to build a fanbase and a community.

After all the change they’ve brought to this town, now is a time of personal change for each of them. They’re both doing what they’ve always done on stage — making it up as they go along, and trying to make something people love in the process.

Their futures are uncertain, but one thing is for certain: No matter where the scene takes them, Springfield will always have their backs.

In This Holy Month Of Ramadan.

For the congregants at the Islamic Society of Joplin, their holiest month of the year has also been a month of hate. Since July, the city’s only mosque has been the site of two fires. The first was at the hand of an arsonist. The second fire, still under investigation, burned the mosque to the ground. Now without its place of worship, Joplin’s Muslim community must find a way to endure.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Roman Stubbs and Dan Oshinsky
published August 7, 2012

Maydelle Bayona pulled up in an SUV to the front of the mosque in Joplin, Mo., on a mid-July afternoon, and knocked on the heavy wooden doors. The mosque’s spiritual leader, Imam Lahmuddin, answered the door and greeted her warmly.

As the two began to talk in the entryway of the building, Bayona tried to sell Lahmuddin on a piece of secluded property in town. Bayona, a local real estate agent, had a mansion available on West Brompton Road in Joplin, which sits on a gated plot of 10 acres and has a cathedral-like ceiling. It also has security capabilities that she thought Lahmuddin might be interested in.

“I’ve heard that you have had some problems here,” Bayona said to Lahmuddin, as he merely nodded along. The problems went unstated. In its four years on the city’s west side, the Islamic Society of Joplin had been the target of both hate speech and physical attacks.

The most recent was an arson attempt that had occurred only 15 days prior. During the early hours of July 4, a man in a dark collared shirt walked up to the front of the mosque carrying an explosive package, with a long fuse attached to it. He lit the fuse and threw it on top of the mosque’s roof, then fled through the parking lot. The blaze didn’t spread, however, and first responders were able to limit the damage to a few melted shingles.

It was the second time in four years that someone had attempted arson at the mosque. In 2008, a year after opening, the property’s sign burned down.

Lahmuddin listened to the realtor’s pitch. When the conversation ended, she left, and the Imam returned inside to his mosque, with a flier advertising the property in hand. He loved this space, which featured a large amphitheater for worship and several dining rooms and a kitchen in the back, perfect for celebrations for the 50 Muslim families that came to his services every week. Outside, there was a shed that Lahmuddin built himself for utility purposes and a playground for little ones to play after prayer.

Bayona’s offer was on the table. But Lahmuddin already had his mind made up.

He wasn’t leaving.

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(At top) Some of the mosque’s youths look at what’s left of their former house of worship. (Above) Surveillance footage from the arson attempt on July 4. The suspect in the video has yet to be identified.

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On the blistering morning of Aug. 6, Lahmuddin still doesn’t want to leave. His vacant stare falls upon the charred rubble of his mosque, which has burned through most of the morning. Law enforcement vehicles are everywhere; officers rope off the entire property with yellow crime-scene tape, while agents sift through the ashes. The surveillance box, which had helped law enforcement in its search for a person of interest in the July 4 arson, now sits where the mosque’s front door once stood. The box is smoldering black, awaiting transport to the FBI lab to see if any evidence can be salvaged. All that remains on the property is the shed Lahmuddin built and a playground for the children.

“This is a big test for us, and this Ramadan is a test to us to manage our temper, not to get mad, not to get angry,” he says. He is calm, even smiling. This is the nature of his faith: To listen when God speaks, and to relinquish control to a higher power.

He doesn’t want to speculate on the nature of the fire, he says. He’ll leave that up to the authorities.

The authority in question is Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn. The mosque is just outside of city limits, leaving the county in charge.

As of Monday afternoon, Dunn says the fire is still under investigation. On Monday morning, dogs roamed the grounds, sniffing for accelerant. Investigators are waiting to hear back from the lab.

“As of right now,” he says, “it’s just a fire of a suspicious nature.”

But even at this early juncture, some things are already clear: At 3:33 a.m. Monday, a newspaper carrier calls 911 to report a fire at the mosque. Six minutes later, the Carl Junction Fire Department arrives on the scene, but the fire has spread too quickly, officials say. The mosque is already gone. By mid-morning, the Council on American-Islamic Relations offers a $10,000 reward for information about the fire; the FBI is already offering $15,000 for information about the July 4 fire.

That first incident continues to trouble Dunn. The mosque’s security cameras caught a very clear picture of the suspect, he says, but no one has come forward to identify him. Dunn stepped up his patrols for a week following that incident, setting up late-night roadblocks around the mosque to identify vehicles frequently driving by the site. Those roadblocks turned up no serious leads, he says.

Dunn believes that if the department is going to catch a break in that case, and possibly in the Aug. 6 incident, it will come from a tip.

“It’s pretty simple,” he says. “We just need a break. We need somebody who knows who this person is from the first fire that we can start with. We know how to interrogate, we know how to interview. Somebody is just not talking.”

Maybe, he suggests, a bigger reward might lead to better tips. He says the suspect in the July 4 arson is most likely a local, and he says that there are sources out there who might soon crack — if the price is right.

“It’s hard to keep a secret like this,” he says. “But you’ve got to make it worth my time to tell you what I know. You have to offer me a carrot on a stick — or a big carrot on a stick.”

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The burned remains of the Joplin mosque. At left, the shed built by Lahmuddin still stands, as does the mosque's playground.
The burned remains of the Joplin mosque. At left, the shed Lahmuddin built still stands, as does the mosque’s playground.

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After the first fire, which only burned a small section of the mosque, Lahmuddin told himself that the damage “can be worse than that.” But he remembered his teachings. He reminded himself of the challenges he’d already faced.

Still, he wanted to know why.

“There is always disagreement between one person and another when you live in a group or a community,” he said. “We have disagreements. And we need to find out what caused these disagreements. … Respect the differences.”

Finally, he settled on a thought, something instilled in him from years of prayer.

“I don’t have control,” he told himself. “Nobody has control. Who controls the fire? God. He controlled the fire.”

So Lahmuddin turned over control to God. He led his congregation. He prayed. He fasted.

And on the morning of Aug. 6, for the second time in a month, Lahmuddin wakes to the shocking news that his temple is on fire — this time, a fire that can’t be controlled.

“According to our scripture, everything belongs to God, and everything will return to Him,” he says. “So He loaned us this place in 2007, and we use it to worship Him. Now He takes it back. So we let it go.”

Many of his members come by to see the destruction before work. At the mosque, he says, at least 80 percent of his congregation works in the local health care system.

The mosque itself sits just three miles west of Mercy Hospital, which suffered catastrophic damage during the 2011 tornado. Lahmuddin lost his house — “complete,” he says — and 60 percent of his congregation did, too. [1] But since then, the congregation’s pain has been inflicted by man, not nature.

Practicing Islam in this part of the country has never been easy. Groups in the region have endured hate in different forms. Vandals tagged the Springfield Islamic Center with anti-Islamic graffiti in January 2011. A few months later, burned Qurans and a threatening letter were found at the building. Other incidents have marred Cape Girardeau, Mo., in May 2009, and St. Louis in September 2010. A horrific arson in Wichita, Kan., in October 2011 caused more than $100,000 in damage.

The timing further complicates this latest act of destruction in Joplin. This month is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar. On this day, Lahmuddin stands in 90-degree heat for much of the day, fielding calls and completing dozens of interviews. He has to rise above the shock and sadness of the fire to complete his duties as Imam, and also as a Muslim. He leaves the site frequently to return home for prayer — prayers that would otherwise be completed at the mosque — and per Ramadan tradition, he does not eat or drink all day.

The fire in Joplin comes just a day after a shooting at a Milwaukee Sikh temple left seven dead. Lahmuddin doesn’t need to be reminded of this. He understands that his God gives and takes away. He says he is grateful nobody was hurt in his mosque’s fire. All that was lost were material things.

“I would invite you in,” Lahmuddin says to a bystander Monday morning, pointing at the smoking rubble. “But there is nowhere to invite you in to.”

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Imam Lahmuddin, the morning after the fire that burned down his mosque.
Imam Lahmuddin, the Joplin mosque’s spiritual leader.

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On the third night of Ramadan in late July, the Islamic Society of Joplin was a festive place to be. Weeks earlier, an arsonist had tried to set fire to the mosque. But the building refused to crumble. For the fifth consecutive year, the congregation could celebrate Ramadan in Joplin.

And so the community continued to come to services. More than 70 members of the assembly had made it through the third day of fasting and arrived at the church to pray twice over a four-hour span.

In between, they ate. The women of the congregation had provided massive amounts of exotic foods — colorful recipes from the assortment of Middle Eastern and Asian countries that the members once came from. After the sun went down, the faithful prayed for about 10 minutes, and then took their grumbling stomachs and formed lines for the buffet. Lahmuddin, dressed in a gray tunic, his black hair and long black beard neatly combed, was one of the last to take his place in line. The men sat in one dining room, the women in another; small children darted through the hallways, trying to grab onto the ends of one another’s miniature tunics.

At the end of the table in the men’s dining room, a young Muslim from Philadelphia named Taimur sat and shared laughs with an elder Muslim from Bangladesh named Shafique. Both are unwavering in their discipline during Ramadan; it not only takes devout faith but a determined will to follow Ramadan in contemporary America. [2]

What makes it easier for these men is the strong leadership of Lahmuddin. He and his wife come from small villages in Indonesia, where he received extensive education in Islamic ministry as well as historical studies. In 1995, when he received a Fulbright scholarship, Lahmuddin came to study history at the University of Arkansas, where he eventually earned his Ph.D., in Middle Eastern Studies. He’s strikingly intelligent, able to transition effortlessly from giving an interview in English to speaking with his wife in Indonesian to addressing his followers in Arabic, all within a matter of seconds.

The poise that Lahmuddin displays on the morning of Aug. 6, as members of his congregation arrive to see the destruction for themselves, is the type of composure that has made him an influential leader in his community — one that stretches far beyond Joplin.

“There is always disagreement between one person and another, when you live in a group or a community. We have disagreements. And we need to find out what caused these disagreements.”

In 2004, Lahmuddin was handpicked to lead the Indonesian Muslim community in New York City — a congregation of about 3,000 members. He stayed in Queens for three years, where he learned the daily routines and rigors of being a minister. It was a mighty ascent for a boy from a small Indonesian village. But for all that New York City gave him, when an opportunity to build an Islamic community in an unconventional part of the country arose in 2008, Lahmuddin answered the call. He came back to the Ozarks to become the Imam at the Islamic Society of Joplin. It would be the greatest task of his spiritually driven life.

“When there is a challenge,” he says, “God gives you the courage.”

The community was already in place for Lahmuddin to lead, and he loved the congregation’s new facility. It didn’t look like a Middle Eastern mosque, with minarets and bright colors. More than anything else, it looked like a common Bible Belt church.

Inside, it had large pews facing a large stage, but Lahmuddin tore the pews out, and laid out beautiful burgundy and turquoise prayer rugs with Persian embroidery. He also had a sound system to work with, with speakers in each room of the mosque. The hum of his prayer became a normal echo throughout the mosque every session — including on that evening in July. When Lahmuddin began his sermon, each and every one of his members was in the mosque, ready to kneel with him in prayer. Children continued to chase one another around the stage, above where their parents were worshipping for the fifth and final time that day. Lahmuddin’s opening remarks reverberated through the speakers and into the empty building, which still smelled of chicken, rice and pudding.

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An evening of worship during Ramadan, here at the mosque after the July 4 arson attempt.
Above, the mosque, as seen after the first arson attempt. Below, an evening of worship during this year’s Ramadan celebrations.

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For more than 15 years, Ross Humphrey has lived on Black Cat Road. Five years ago, the Islamic Society of Joplin moved next door. When they came to this location in the heart of the Bible Belt, Lahmuddin and his congregation became Humphrey’s unexpected but welcome neighbors.

Humphrey’s seen Lahmuddin work tirelessly to integrate his congregation into the neighborhood, and the rest of the community. When someone in Humphrey’s family is sick, a member of the mosque comes over to offer food or support. Humphrey’s children often play on the mosque’s lawn, and Lahmuddin’s children play on Humphrey’s. Even on the Fourth of July, just hours after the failed arson attempt, the neighbors sat out on their lawns and watched the fireworks together in Joplin. As long as they’re neighbors, Humphrey says, there are no boundaries.

Humphrey has also witnessed plenty of hostility toward the mosque. He has watched people drive by the property and yell obscenities while children play on the lawn. He’s watched grown men give them the finger. And after the July 4 arson, he feared that the mosque could be targeted again.

“Too many prejudiced people in the world,” he says.

On Monday, just before 4 a.m., the sound of fire engines jolt Humphrey from his sleep. Humphrey steps outside. The smoke and flames confirm his worst fears.

“It was huge,” says Humphrey. The fire engulfed the structure, the roof collapsed and the flames shot through the top of the mosque.

By sunrise, Humphrey’s out in front of the mosque, smoking a cigarette and trying to console his shocked neighbor, Lahmuddin. They talk casually for a while, and Lahmuddin eventually makes light of the fact that the shed he built is still standing in the back of the burnt rubble. It is one of the lasting remnants of his temple.

There is not much left.

The parking lot soon harbors a white crime lab truck, a tent for investigators and a few bulldozers. There are a dozen law enforcement officials on the grounds. News trucks park on the outskirts of the property, and passersby crane their necks in disbelief. Even in Joplin, a town that has grown accustomed to the daily sight of debris, the torched building causes slow-and-stare — if not stop-and-stare — reactions all day.

It’s a day of fasting unlike any other for Lahmuddin and his congregation, but that doesn’t excuse them from their religious obligations. The FBI and ATF [3] agents have their responsibilities, and Lahmuddin has his. Even without a building, Lahmuddin vows to continue to lead his congregation though the holy month — starting immediately.

“In terms of worshipping, we still have to worship God on a regular basis,” he says. “But we just can’t do it in this place. If we don’t have a place to do it together, we still have to do it at home.”

He glances at what’s left of the mosque.

“We cannot make excuses for not doing it,” he says.

By the end of the afternoon, Lahmuddin has changed out of his brown tunic and into more casual attire. He surveys the destruction one last time, then takes a call on his cell phone while climbing into his red minivan. He returns home with several members of the congregation, to pray and prepare for the evening feast.

As night falls on the city, there are only a few law enforcement officials left on the scene. The foundation of the mosque has already been cleared by bulldozers. The families of the mosque should be here, like they were last night, celebrating Ramadan late into the evening.

Instead, across Joplin, some 50 Muslim families await the evening prayers — for the first time during this holy month of Ramadan, alone.

On this night, and tomorrow, and the next, they will pray. They will pray even though so much has already been taken from them. They will look again to their leader, to Lahmuddin.

He will not leave, and neither will they.

Stry.us reporters Dan Oshinsky, Jordan Hickey and Zach Crizer contributed to this story.

The Fake Grenade Toss Heard ‘Round The World.

Five years ago, Phillip Wellman’s on-field theatrics earned him an ejection — and a spot in YouTube lore. Now he’s in Springfield, Mo., coaching the Cardinals and trying to make a new name for himself.

story by Zach Crizer / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 4, 2012

The Mississippi Braves third baseman struck out on a borderline call to end the top of the first inning. It was June 1, 2007, and the Braves were playing a regular series finale on the road against the Chattanooga Lookouts. The minor league hitter briefly questioned the call before grabbing his glove and heading over to his fielding position.

When he got there, the third base umpire scolded him for arguing. Braves manager Phillip Wellman, a veteran minor league coach who had previously managed Chattanooga for three years, hopped out of the dugout to intervene. The umpire, Wellman says, was speaking to his player in an unprofessional manner. Wellman said his piece and made his way back to the dugout without incident.

But Frank Burke, the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts and Wellman’s former employer, could tell tensions were high. Less than an inning into the game, he abandoned his seat and called the press box to let them know where he could be found.

“Look if anyone needs me, I’ll be in my office,” he told them. “I’ve got to get a video camera. Phillip’s never going to make it to the ninth inning.”

If only Burke had known how prophetic those words would prove to be.

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(At top) Phillip Wellman in his Springfield Cardinals uniform, five years after his infamous YouTube video. (Above) The original broadcast that aired on Chattanooga’s WDEF-TV the night of Wellman’s ejection.

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At the time, Phillip Wellman was just a 45-year-old minor league manager — and a rather anonymous one at that — proud of the work he had done to help players reach the major leagues in the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves organizations.

But that night in 2007, he inadvertently set off a craze that made “the guy who threw the fake grenade” a household name among sports fans — and nearly anyone with access to streaming video. Today, Google results for his actual name include YouTube videos entitled “Phillip Wellman blows up,” and “One of the greatest manager ejection tirades in baseball history.” Combined, these videos have been viewed more than a million times.

But in the five years since his infamous three-minute ejection, Wellman’s learned to live with his not-so-secret identity. Today, he is a Springfield Cardinals hitting coach whose face doesn’t draw autograph seekers or cell phone cameras. Most fans probably don’t even know he’s the manager from the videos. Here in Springfield, coaching the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double-A ballclub, he’s doing what he’s always done: Coaching minor league baseball and moving toward his ultimate goal of one day making it to the majors.

Wellman doesn’t shy away from his spot in Internet lore. He’s up there with the Double Rainbow guy, and Boom Goes The Dynamite, and any of those other viral sensations.

So he talks about the video freely. He’s not hiding from it.

He says that he wants people to know Phillip Wellman, a man who is more than just “that guy.”

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Tempers flared with the third base umpire again in the second inning of that game in Chattanooga, Tenn., after the umpire once again made what Wellman considered an inappropriate comment to a Braves player. Wellman made his feelings known for the second time and returned to the bench. “As soon as I got back to the dugout, the next pitch was close, and I yelled, ‘Where’s that pitch?’ Wellman says. “And he threw me out from third.”

“Basically I was just defending my players,” he says. “An umpire shouldn’t be talking to players like that.”

Wellman, a mountainous man with wide shoulders and rounded features, stormed onto the field. In the stadium’s back hallways, Burke was running to get a better view. After hearing the ejection on the radio, he grabbed the camera off its charger and bolted out of his office toward the field. [1]

The lens was initially focused on home, where Wellman gave the plate umpire a piece of his mind before submerging home plate in dirt and drawing a much larger outline of the plate with his finger. Next, he made his way to third base, where he uprooted the bag and strode defiantly across the infield before hurling it like a discus toward the second baseman’s position.

Turning his head toward the home plate umpire yet again, he took a few more steps toward the first-base line before he stopped in his tracks and shifted directions.

“It’s like the old saying, if you get thrown out, you might as well get your money’s worth,” Wellman says now, lounging in a hallway outside the Springfield Cardinals training room at Hammons Field. “I just happened to look and the only thing between me and him was a rosin bag. And I just said, ‘Ah, what the heck.’”

Wellman turned toward the pitcher’s mound, then abruptly dropped to all fours. A determined look washed across his face and he Army crawled like a soldier wading through no man’s land. He stopped at the base of the mound. There, he picked up the white, powdery rosin bag and acted as if it were a grenade. He pantomimed biting the pin out and then rose up from behind the mound to hurl the “grenade” toward the home plate umpire.

“The thing I do remember is when I got up and let that rosin bag go, for a split second I thought, ‘Oh my God, I hope it doesn’t hit him,’” Wellman says. It landed inches from the umpire’s right foot.

Over the course of baseball history, managers have covered home plate with dirt before. Several have famously stolen bases — in the physical sense — and more than a couple have lost their hats, but nobody, until Wellman, had ever transformed the diamond into a theatrical rendering of a battlefield. “People have asked me, too, if I had that planned,” Wellman says. “And I say, ‘You think I’m that bored in my life that I sit around and script that out?’ It just all came to me when I was going through it out there.”

And that final moment of creative anger is undoubtedly what launched the tirade into the upper echelon of viral videos. “If I’d continued to walk off the field,” he says, “it would have probably never made the news.”

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Phillip Wellman, on Hammons Field after a come-from-behind win over Tulsa.
Phillip Wellman, on Hammons Field after a come-from-behind win over Tulsa.

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Wellman did eventually leave the field, even giving the crowd a bow as he exited. He took a shower and found a place to watch the rest of the game. Afterward, Burke came to his office with a copy of the video and a blank check for whatever the Southern League, the Double-A league based in the southeast states, decided to fine Wellman for the ejection. The league decided it only warranted a $100 fine, and the president told him it would end up benefiting the league because of increased attendance. Burke and Wellman shared a laugh at the ballpark that night and then Wellman left Chattanooga with his team. That was, seemingly, the end of that.

But on the bus, Wellman got a phone call from his brother in San Antonio. “What the hell did you do tonight?” his brother asked. Wellman didn’t understand. And that’s when his brother explained: The ejection had already made it to the airwaves.

Wellman scoffed when one of his coaches suggested the video would be on ESPN by the next morning. It did make “SportsCenter,” and it didn’t stop there. Within hours, the video was airing on repeat on CNN.

The coach initially feared for his job, but he says his worries were quickly quashed when then-Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox called to assure him his place in the organization was safe. [2]

So there wasn’t fallout within the Braves organization, but Wellman’s still feeling the public after-effects of his 15 minutes of fame.

“They say 15 minutes,” Wellman says. “I said this 15 minutes just keeps going, though. And when it gets going again is every time someone else does it.” His video resurfaced on ESPN earlier this season when Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie threw his helmet during an argument.

Queue the Top 10 list on “SportsCenter.”

“I still get text messages every time it does and people text me, ‘You’re still No. 1. You’re still No. 1,’ because it always gets ranked,” Wellman says. “And I guess it’s good to be No. 1 at something, but that’s not exactly what my objective was with that, being No. 1 at having a blow-up.”

“It’s like the old saying, if you get thrown out, you might as well get your money’s worth. I just happened to look and the only thing between me and him was a rosin bag. And I just said, ‘Ah, what the heck.’”

Friends were shocked earlier this summer when Wellman reminded them the five-year anniversary of that game in Chattanooga was approaching. Had it been five years already? Most people he told thought it had only been two or three. But he knew it was only fresh because of the numerous replays that had been shown of those same three minutes, the millions of people whose only glimpse into the life of Phillip Wellman involve a man vaulting himself onto BuzzFeed’s “Top Seven Sports Coach Meltdowns of All-Time” list.

“It’s obviously not my proudest moment in the game of baseball,” Wellman says. “I’ve been in it for 29 years, and unfortunately some of the things I’m more proud of — whether it be team accomplishments, personal accomplishments or a player I managed, his accomplishments — those things will never get seen on ESPN or YouTube.”

The Internet has a way, for people who become viral video “stars,” of zeroing in on a fleeting moment and making it the lasting public image of a man’s life. For Wellman, the three minutes of his life that seemingly everyone has seen don’t even explain why he would throw a tirade. The umpire who drew his ire, he says, had been ruffling feathers across the league and ended up ejecting three more players from Wellman’s team that night, almost unheard of in games that don’t include bench-clearing brawls. By game’s end, the Braves’ backup catcher was playing third base.

But those who see the YouTube video don’t see that part. So when Wellman signed as the guarantor for his son’s college apartment, just a few weeks ago, the teenage girl in Alabama — calling to let him know the apartment was ready — had another question at the end of the brief conversation.

“Are you the Phillip Wellman that we can see on YouTube?” she asked. He always answers with a straightforward, “Yep, that’s me.” She told him her friends were baseball fans and she loved the video. She thought it was hilarious. But she wanted to know one more thing.

“What made you so mad?”

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The WDEF-TV newscast from the night of Wellman’s return to Chattanooga.

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In Springfield, Wellman is still working to change the Google results for his name. Of course, that’s not exactly how he thinks of it. He has no problem acknowledging he threw the tirade, but he doesn’t advertise it. He doesn’t regret what he did — he was standing up for his players, he says — but he wishes all the people who have formed an opinion of him could know a little more about him.

“In the beginning, I remember some of my closest friends saying, ‘Just give it a little while, it’ll turn into something funny,’” Wellman says. “And it has. I think people that understand the game and know the game understand what it was about. People that have no clue about baseball don’t understand any of it. They just see a raving lunatic making an ass of himself.”

But even later that season, it had indeed become a bit of fun. When Wellman’s Braves returned to Chattanooga, attendance went up as Burke’s club played up the manager’s fame with ballpark promotions. “Especially in minor league baseball, people went nuts. People loved it,” says Burke, the Chattanooga owner. “They came back that year, and when they came back we gave rosin bags [3] to the first hundred people every night they were back. We had a contest out front where people had to get on their hands and knees and throw rosin bags at a dummy of Phillip [from] 60-feet, six-inches away.”

And the baseball world understood Wellman’s passion from the start. Burke says Wellman’s players would “run through a brick wall for him.” Wellman’s Mississippi Braves made the playoffs that season and then won the Southern League championship the next season. He coached the Braves for a few more seasons before joining the Cardinals organization in Springfield last year.

Springfield, he says, is like most minor league towns. Here, he’s able to do his job in relative anonymity. It’s only when his name gets mentioned — and that happens maybe once in a blue moon — that a fan might smile and ask, Was that you?

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After years in the Braves organization, Phillip Wellman joined the Cardinals last year. He's the Springfield club's hitting coach.
After years in the Braves organization, Phillip Wellman joined the Cardinals last year. He’s the Springfield club’s hitting coach.

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The Cardinals have just won an Aug. 3 extra-inning battle with the Tulsa Drillers, in walk-off fashion. The club is jovial, eating barbecue and watching the big league Cardinals on TV when Wellman enters carrying some gloves and a pair of sunglasses.

“Whose are these?” One player lays claim to the sunglasses. And Wellman begins walking away, “They’re mine now,” he says as the player leaps onto his back and jokingly grabs at the shades. He spills a little Powerade on the coach, but no temper flares. Instead, Wellman laughs and shoots a grin over his shoulder as he moves on to chat with another player.

“He’s kind of laid back, actually,” says Greg Garcia, the Cardinals shortstop sitting nearby. “He keeps the clubhouse loose and makes sure everybody’s having fun.” Garcia says he found out his coach was “the guy from the video” during spring training this year, but who would want to bring that up while trying to make the coach’s team?

At first, nobody mentioned it. “The whole team was talking about it under our breath because we didn’t know how he would take it,” outfielder Jermaine Curtis says. “But once we got to know him, we found out he’s really open about it, has fun with it.”

Earlier this year, when “the guy who threw the fake grenade” made one of his impromptu “SportsCenter” cameos, the team was on the road in Arkansas. Garcia said the club huddled around the TV to see where Wellman ranked. “We knew he was going to be top three,” Garcia says. And when the coach finally appeared on screen — Wellman was No. 1, of course — the Cardinals burst into a cheer. [4]

Burke, the Chattanooga owner, says the video is a pure display of passion, a moment on a baseball field that shows how much Wellman would do for his team.

“I’ve seen Phillip Wellman standing in the batting cage when it’s 97 degrees working with a kid who will never play in the major leagues,” Burke remembers. “And Phillip’s there six hours before the game working with a kid. This is a guy who cares.”

Curtis says Wellman connects with each and every player on the team. “Everybody has a weakness,” Curtis says. “He tries to help you as much as he possibly can.” And during his baseball career — 29 years all spent in the minor leagues [5] — Wellman has assisted in developing a laundry list of players who make the Top 10 lists more for on-field play than antics.

“My more proud moments in the game, in 29 years, may be the small fingerprints I’ve had in helping some guys get to the big leagues,” he says. “I managed some pretty good guys in those years with the Braves — [Brian] McCann and [Jeff] Francouer and Jason Heyward, [Freddie] Freeman. And I come over here and you’ve got Matt Adams who got to the big leagues this year and Oscar Taveras.”

He hints that he has aspirations of coaching in the big leagues, but he’s visibly proud of the impact he has already had there. “That’s our reward, for guys like me who are minor league lifers, is to turn the TV on and see Matt Adams in the big leagues and know you had maybe just a little bit to do with helping him get there.”

“In the beginning, I remember some of my closest friends saying, ‘Just give it a little while, it’ll turn into something funny. And it has. I think people that understand the game and know the game understand what it was about.”

While the videos of “the guy throwing the fake hand grenade” are accumulating hits every day, Wellman generally gets to be himself these days. After going back to his church, after seeing that none of the kids he coaches privately would drop him, after seeing that his daughter actually made some friends at Baylor University because of her father’s moment, he started to loosen up about the incident.

Brett Wellman, his son, is about to begin playing college ball for Auburn University at Montgomery. He’s sitting at his father’s locker on this August night and has been traveling with the Cardinals, absorbing some of the club lifestyle. He says his dad has always had a flair for the dramatic on the baseball field, but the Chattanooga tirade left him speechless — well, it got him laughing, but he didn’t really know what to say. His dad’s moment of fame doesn’t bother him in the slightest. It’s more of a conversation starter.

“Every time my friends introduce me to someone, it comes up within five minutes,” he says. “‘Hey do you remember that guy?’”

After all, Brett says, it’s not like he’s crazy. People think he is a “psycho,” but Brett says he was just “putting on a little show.” The elder Wellman treats the tirade as if it were a statistic. “There’s no reason to lie about it,” he says. “There’s no reason to run and hide. Because it’s out there.”

Still, he is part of a small group of people whose legacies will include viral video fame. “More often than not, if you hear my name, people associate my name with the guy crawling on the ground throwing a grenade,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll outgrow that some day before I die.”

Since it is such a recent phenomenon, it’s hard to tell exactly how it will evolve, but Wellman’s son doesn’t think the video is going away. “My son said one day, ‘You know Dad, you ever thought about that after you die, I’ll probably still see that on TV?’”

He’s probably right, Wellman says, but the Cardinals hitting coach isn’t shying away from cameras or the baseball diamond. He says he’s learned to present himself in a way that he is proud of. But when ESPN called to ask what he had been doing in the five years since the tirade, he told them that he had been doing the exact same thing he was doing before: coaching baseball. And it seems that he’ll probably have the same answer in another five years.

“People have asked me, ‘Are you ever going to do something like that again?’ And I say, ‘You saw it once. That’s enough,’” Wellman says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ll manage again, and I’ll get ejected again. I just won’t put on a show again.”

For Kickapoo Hoops Legends, A New Home Court Advantage.

Kelly Byrne (above) and Anthony Tolliver were teammates on Kickapoo’s title-winning basketball team in 2003. Now they’re together again — but this time, the goal is flipping homes, not winning championships.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 31, 2012

The boarded up, one-story home on South Catalina Street is one of the more decrepit properties in this peaceful neighborhood in southeast Springfield. The siding is weathered and stripped to bare wood. Yellow stains run down the window panes, and cobwebs stick in the corners of the front door. Inside, a musty smell circulates throughout the empty house, which features a dusty kitchen that is partially gutted with dated purple countertops. The front room is down to its original flooring, and the dining room has obscene graffiti inscribed on its walls.

This is exactly the place where NBA contract dollars are being funneled, to this rundown, unoccupied home on South Catalina Street. A few years ago, when Springfield native and current Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Anthony Tolliver started his home-flipping business, Say U Can, it was properties like this in Springfield that he wanted to find and turn into real homes.

The Springfield market is populated with many builders and a historically strong realtor community. But house flippers are more rare in the city.

A company like Say U Can will find a home for cheap, renovate it and then work with local realtors to “flip” the home to a new buyer for a higher price. Most of their properties were once considered too old or decrepit to go back on the market, but after renovation, the homes can often sell quickly.

There are usually no licenses necessary to secure this kind of work. House flippers connect with a local network of subcontractors, enlisting plumbers and landscapers and electricians. They lead a piecemeal team that concentrates on one project at a time.

But Tolliver’s schedule doesn’t allow for the freedom to work on homes on a day-to-day basis. He needs a business partner who shares his vision and taste. He needs a guy who has boots on the ground in Springfield, someone who can not only handle the enterprising rigors of the flipping trade, but also a guy who can walk into a home and rough up some drywall on command. Someone he trusts. That’s where 27-year-old Kelly Byrne comes in.

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A tale of two kitchens: One, at left, that needs renovation, and the other in a finished home.
(At top) Kelly Byrne in the bathroom of a home that’s about to undergo serious renovations. (Above) A tale of two kitchens: One, at left, that needs renovation, and the other in the finished home on South Catalina.

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Byrne is intelligent, skilled with his hands and, as a lifelong friend of Tolliver’s, a trustworthy co-founder of one of Springfield’s unusual real estate ventures. Say U Can targets single-family homes, taking run-down properties priced at anywhere from $30,000 and $60,000, making renovations and turning the homes into conceivable options for young buyers. They have flipped about 10 homes since the company’s 2009 inception, Byrne says, selling their refurbished homes for anywhere from $80,000 to $160,000. One of the major successes of the summer has taken place at a 2,700-sq. foot home in a cul-de-sac, also on South Catalina.

The four-bedroom, ranch-style home is perched on a hill – and Byrne held an open house in late June to show off the renovations. Contractors were still doing touch-up work in one of the rooms, but the house had come a long way in just a few weeks. Byrne gave the kitchen a face-lift, installing granite-colored countertops and heavy, durable wooden sliding doors in the dining room. He laid cherry-colored hardwood flooring in the front room and hung a flat-screen TV in the renovated master bathroom. The house is currently listed at $179,000 — slightly beyond the typical range for a Say U Can property.

But Byrne’s always got his eyes on whatever’s next. One home on South Catalina is finished, but another just down the block needs plenty of work. On the final Saturday in July, Byrne walks in, surveying the amount of work he has ahead. He can’t quite put into words why he wanted this home to flip, what he sees when it comes to risk versus reward. But Byrne sees something. On his Twitter account, after securing the property earlier in July, he called it a “gem.” All he knows is where he’s going with it: He wants a return on the investment, and he wants to remodel the home for a family.

“Hopefully this is where someone can raise a family,” says Byrne, walking through a hallway inside the home.

In a way, Byrne is like a talent scout. But instead of looking for the next great basketball player or singer, he’s on the lookout for a property that might one day become someone’s home.

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Byrne knows plenty about the scouting process. Once, he was the one being scouted, when he was a shooting guard with enormous potential on the basketball court. When Division I coaches visited Springfield’s Kickapoo High School during the 2002-03 season, they saw one of the best high school basketball teams in Missouri state history. Kickapoo lost just once that season, and went on to comfortably win the 5A state title. They finished the year ranked 12th in the country by USA Today.

The team was led by the legendary coach Roy Green, and all five starters would go on to play college ball. Three went on to play at the Division I level, including the powerful Tolliver, who played at Creighton. Byrne was considered the three-point sniper of the group, and he landed a scholarship at St. Cloud State University, a Division II school in Minnesota. It was a fast ascent for the childhood friends, who had played basketball together since the third grade. Tolliver was always vibrant, while Byrne was more quiet and reserved, Green remembers. But more than the power of Tolliver in the post, and more than five three-pointers that Byrne hit in the championship game of 2003, Green remembers two guys deeply in sync on the court.

“They were very unselfish with each other,” says Green, who retired from coaching in 2009. He says that chemistry makes them logical partners at Say U Can.

The two have basketball in common, but their backgrounds are very different. After college, Tolliver bounced around the NBA Development League and Europe for a few seasons before signing his first series of NBA contracts in 2008 – using stints with San Antonio, Portland and Golden State to advance his basketball career while laying the blueprint for Say U Can. Tolliver brings the checkbook to power the business.

Byrne has plenty of knowledge of real estate in Springfield — his mother worked in the field — and he used his time at St. Cloud State to learn about real estate and marketing matters. After graduation, he landed a job as a project developer for a local real estate company in Springfield, and he formed the background and confidence of a man who could help run an independent company. In addition to Say U Can, Byrne is a partner in No Limit Marketing, a Las Vegas firm that has taught Byrne more about the art of sales.

“Sales is very transferable to everything in life,” says Byrne. “If nothing else, I’ve learned a lot from that business that is transferable to my other businesses.”

He’s learned construction techniques along the way – being a tall, muscular ex-athlete doesn’t hurt – and he has continued to market the business when Tolliver is away from Springfield.

“There’s a lot of trust there,” says Byrne of his relationship with Tolliver. “Our roles are well defined. He trusts me and I trust him, and being apart isn’t necessarily a bad thing either because that trust has to be there.”

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Kelly Byrne outside one of his just-finished properties on South Catalina, listed for $179,000.
Kelly Byrne outside one of his just-finished properties on South Catalina, listed for $179,000. It’s a bit above the company’s normal price range.

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Compared with other cities across the country, Springfield’s real-estate market didn’t exactly crumble in 2008 – but it lost considerable momentum gained in the 10 years prior, with the growth of housing working in concert with the population boom occurring in the region. In terms of new properties sprouting up, southwest Missouri had 17,322 housing starts between 2004 and 2007 – and only 4,631 in the four years after, according to the Home Builder’s Association of Greater Springfield.

Much of that dip was related to the recession, although Springfield didn’t experience the 20 to 30 percent foreclosure swings that occurred in many towns across the country. By the time Springfield came out of the recession, it was still a very economical place to live, statistically speaking. The 2010 Census indicated that the median household in Springfield earned just $33,000 – about $13,000 less than the rest of the state – and the homeownership in town between 2006 and 2010 was about 51 percent. Missouri’s overall rate was 70 percent during that four-year span.

Traditionally, Springfield hasn’t had increases in housing prices, according to Shirley Cofer, president of the Greater Springfield Board of Realtors. The average home in Springfield sells for about $137,000 as of July – which is a substantial increase from last year’s prices, which hovered between $124,000 and $127,000, according to Cofer. [1] A home sits on the market, on average, for about 80 days, which Cofer says is also an improvement from 2011 housing data.

“That’s showing me that things are moving,” says Cofer, who is also a realtor with Murney Associates, one of the more prominent real estate firms in the city. “We hope that that sale price average still goes up a little bit, but I think that’s a viable amount that people can buy right now.”

Byrne asserts that if he and Tolliver were trying to flip $500,000 mansions in Springfield, Say U Can would be in considerable trouble. But they’re not. Tolliver signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with Minnesota in 2010, and he is continuing to pump his money into investments in Springfield. Byrne says the company has about 10 properties in development at the moment – all centering on single-family homes that can be purchased through a realtor with financing.

The profits fit the modest profile of the Springfield housing market, and Byrne has built a solid system of more than a half-dozen subcontractors to help him on projects. Jackie Snead of Carol Jones Realtors handles the day-to-day marketing of finished renovations for the company.

“There’s a lot of markets within real estate… and within single-family residential, there are a lot of niches,” says Byrne. “There’s definitely a need there, and that’s what we are. There’s all kind of other opportunities in the Springfield market, it’s just not the ones that we chose to focus on.”

Say U Can hasn’t lost money on any home yet, Byrne says. But risk isn’t something Byrne thinks about when he’s scouting. Just potential — to turn a profit, and to turn an aging property into a home that a Springfield family might one day love.