A walk of memory dedicated in Kirkwood | St. Louis Public Radio

A walk of memory dedicated in Kirkwood

May 30, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: About 300 people gathered on the front lawn of Kirkwood City Hall on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon to dedicate a new memorial walkway to the six city officials who died as a result of the Feb. 7, 2008, attack on the city council.

Mayor Art McDonnell said no memorial could "replace what we lost," but that the walkway would remind people "every day to work as they did ... for a better community."

About 100 city workers and relatives of the slain city officials gathered under a big shade tree. Another approximately 200 residents watched from an adjoining sidewalk. Kirkwood Road was closed to traffic. The only sounds competing for attention were the big freight trains hauling coal through the center of town.

The curved walkway runs next to the railroad track, just north of City Hall.

The city officials memorialized are former Mayor Mike Swoboda, Police Officer Thomas Ballman, Police Sgt. William Biggs, Councilmember Connie Karr, Councilmember Michael H.T. Lynch and Public Works Director Kenneth Yost. They died as a result of Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton's assault on a city government he accused of "plantation politics." Thornton was killed at the scene by police officers.

Swoboda's widow, Sue, and his son Michael, were among the family members who attended the dedication and then strolled along the walkway when it opened. As mayor, Swoboda was a perpetual motion machine, showing up at all kinds of civic and school functions.

Asked if she understood why Swoboda was so dedicated to public service, Ms. Swoboda said, "He loved Kirkwood, he loved being mayor, he loved everything about it."

Situated at the entrance to the walkway, near Kirkwood Road, is a large granite ball that rotates in a small fountain of water. "It symbolizes the community coming together," McDonnell said, as he made his way along the walkway after the ceremony.

On this day, the walkway did not entirely accomplish that goal. Of the 300 spectators, fewer than 10 were African-Americans. None of those on the memorial committee, seated at the podium, was black, nor was any speaker.

Asked about the small turnout of African-Americans, McDonnell said, "It's sad they don't want to participate. Maybe they will later." He said part of the problem may have been a lack of publicity about the dedication and added that African-American church services may extend into the afternoon, past the 1 p.m. dedication time.

He said that the memorial planning committee members were chosen "for their expertise" in getting the project finished." Race was not a factor, he said.

Councilmember Paul Ward, the only African-American on the council, said, "I wasn't offended because of who he did have on the board." Ward said that the mayor could have called "the same old folks, like my brother Wallace," to bring diversity to the board, but that would not have been very meaningful, he added.

Michael Moore, a critic of City Hall, recently filed a lawsuit challenging the use of public money to honor the dead city officials.

John Hessel, the city attorney and himself a target of Thornton's, said that the case still is pending in court. A judge refused Moore's attempt to stop the project. Hessel, on hand at the dedication, said the suit had no legal basis.

McDonnell said he thought it important that everyone's tax dollars went to the memorial because it was a memorial for the whole community. He added that he didn't want to take private donations, some of which might have been tied to honoring one or another of the dead officials more prominently.

"We made the decision right away that everyone would be equal," he said. The mayor said he did not have a final accounting of the cost of the project, for which $400,000 was initially appropriated.

In recent weeks Kirkwood has been moving ahead with implementation of promises made in a mediation agreement negotiated under auspices of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service. It recently strengthened the city's human rights commission by adding new members.

William H. Freivogel heads the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is a regular contributor to the Beacon.