Special Reports

Service for Tiller is peaceful as family, friends remember

Jeanne Tiller, far left, escorts her late husband's casket from College Hill United Methodist Church after the service for Dr. George Tiller, who was shot last Sunday.
Jeanne Tiller, far left, escorts her late husband's casket from College Hill United Methodist Church after the service for Dr. George Tiller, who was shot last Sunday. The Wichita Eagle

In the last week of his life, George Tiller went to Disney World. He wore a floppy sun hat, goofy wraparound dark glasses, way too much sunblock on his face and white socks with sandals. He read paperback novels, hugged his grandchildren a lot, and told them they were good kids.

And even though he wore the same shirt a couple of days in a row, "He was a joy to be around," his oldest daughter, Jennifer, told more than 1,000 mourners at his funeral Saturday. "He was just a wonderful guy."

Tiller may have been a central figure in America's heated debate over abortion. But at College Hill United Methodist Church he was eulogized as a loving father and friend, a regular guy, a lover of Elvis and old movies, of ice cream and axioms.

Tiller, 67, was shot and killed May 31 at Reformation Lutheran Church, where he was serving as an usher. Scott Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting.

With 700 people filling the sanctuary and more than 300 crowding into a sweltering, standing-room-only overflow room, the service was conducted against a backdrop of security concerns, heightened by the presence of U.S. marshals inside the church and a heavy police presence outside.

A police helicopter circled as services began at 10 a.m., and Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams was at the scene briefly.

Before the service, the Rev. John Martin, senior pastor of College Hill, pointed out to the overflow audience where the exits were "in case something happens."

Nothing did.

Police Capt. Hassan Ramzah said no incidents occurred at the church or during the service. Neither he nor marshals would say how many of their officers were on hand.

More than 50 American Legion Riders arrived on motorcycles at 8:24 a.m. and formed a protective shield around the church.

Cregg "Bronco 6" Hansen of Derby, a spokesman for the group, said they were not there because of the abortion issue.

"We're here in respect for George Tiller's naval service. We're here because he was a veteran," Hansen said.

Westboro Baptist Church protesters arrived from Topeka and set up their demonstration a block and a half from the church at First and Volutsia. But they were hidden from view of the church behind the heavy branches of tree-lined First Street.

In front of the church, about 100 people formed what they called a "wall of martyrs" extending the length of the block. They wore blue National Organization for Women T-shirts with "Attitude is Everything" -- a catch phrase of Tiller's -- on the back.

"I felt I had to come down and make a statement for Dr. Tiller, who spent his whole life being chased for doing a great job," said one of the members of the wall, Alden Consolver of Wichita. "I came here because he was a good man."

After the service, Gloria Allred, a nationally known women's rights attorney and talk-show guest, urged them to keep up their courage and stand up for their beliefs.

"First we cry," she said, "and then we fight."

A day of peace

Saturday was a day of peace and remembrance.

The emotional high point arrived near the end of the service when Tiller's wife, Jeanne, stood before the gathering and sang "The Lord's Prayer" in a strong, unwavering voice.

She received a standing ovation from the sanctuary and the overflow room.

Her husband's body lay in front of the altar in a casket draped by a white shroud. Floral arrangements towered around him, and his portrait sat on an easel on the left side of the altar near a large wreath that said, "Trust Women."

The service began with the classic hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."

Readings included the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, which begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love..."

The Gospel reading was John 11:25-26 and 14:1-7.

The funeral ended at 11:25 a.m. with Tiller's casket leaving amid a rousing version of "Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises," with piano, bongo drums and many voices.

One of Tiller's pallbearers was Colorado abortion provider Warren Hern.

Many funeralgoers carried long-stemmed white carnations handed out by church officials, "as a sign of hope and love," Martin said.

His children remember

Tiller's children spoke of his unconditional love, counsel and advice, and of his warmth, humor and humanity.

Jennifer said her father loved to relay axioms, "pearls of wisdom for how life should be lived."

Baskets in the church lobby held copies of a page marked "Dr. Tillerisms" for guests to read and take home.

Tiller recently told Jennifer that "life is like an Impressionist painting," she said. "'When you are up close to it, it can be confusing and not make any sense.... Only when you stand back from it can you see the broad, masterful strokes of the artist.'

"And then he laughed at himself," she said.

After her father's death and the outpouring of condolences, sympathy and stories, "I thought, 'Well, if life is a painting, then Dad, you're the artist,' " Jennifer said.

"As I look out on you today -- all of you, in many colors -- I see all the brush strokes. I see all the dots. I see all the people, the color, the canvas of my dad's life.

"I can stand back from it and I can see the plan. I can see the whole picture. He really did paint an incredible masterpiece, and it's you. It's all of you. You are my dad's living masterpiece."

Tiller's youngest child, Krista, shared a letter her father had written to her after she lost a race when she was 13.

"'I'm proud of the way you handled yourself -- no whining or complaining today,' " Tiller wrote. "'One race does not spoil the entire racing season. Remember, nobody wins all the time -- not Dad, not Mom.'

"'Be gracious in victory, never arrogant. Share the credit and the praise. And the sting and the loneliness and the depression of defeat or setback will be less severe. Because the friends with whom you have shared the good times will not abandon you in the bad times.'

"'Love, Dad.' Underline, underline," Krista added, chuckling.

Tiller's daughter Rebecca said she shared her father's "warped sense of humor" and his love for action movies and "Star Trek." Years ago, Tiller gave Rebecca a poster of Star Trek axioms --"Star Trexioms," she said. She said he told her, "'Read these every day before you go out, and you will be successful in life.' "

Then she shared several: "Seek out new life and new civilizations."

"Keep your phaser on stun."

"Humans are highly illogical."

His two favorites reflect Tiller's life and philosophy, she said, fighting back tears. "'Live long and prosper.' And, 'When going out into the universe, remember: Boldly go where no man has gone before.' "

Tiller's son, Maury, was the only member of the family to refer to the shooting.

"I struggle with the manner in which he was welcomed into heaven," he said.

But he was comforted by memories of the last weekend, when Tiller spent time with his children.

After that, he said, "I believe that God decided, 'You have done everything I asked a person to do here on earth. Now I will show the world what a loving, compassionate, courageous, selfless man you are.' And so it happened."

Maury also drew the longest laugh from the audience. He said Tiller was in a much safer place now, where he can see his family every day. You can't see him with your eyes, he said, but, "If you close your eyes and take a deep breath, you feel him right next to you," he said. "But please, don't do this while you're driving."

Larry Borcherding of Overland Park, a fraternity brother and friend of Tiller's for more than 50 years, delivered the 22-minute eulogy.

He described Tiller as someone who "always put us first," even when he was experiencing threats to his life and security.

"George's constant challenges over these last decades have been exemplary of his brave, courageous, passionate and dedicated attitude... most of which the common man can't even comprehend.

"He went to be in that better place. And dear God, get heaven ready, because Mr. Enthusiasm is coming. Heaven will never be the same."

He said that Tiller told him he had lost his freedom when he was shot in 1993.

"Today," Borcherding said, "George is a free man."

Protesters, supporters

The 85-minute service started at 10 a.m. But police and others arrived as early as 7 a.m. At 8 a.m., security already was tight, and parking was getting scarce.

Police set cones along some side streets around the church to prevent motorists from stopping or parking in no-parking zones. Some who live in the area were in yards and on porches watching.

At least one protester was there as well.

Daren Buchanan of Wichita arrived at the church at about 7 a.m. carrying a sign that said, "Pro-Life (does not equal) terrorism." He said he feels the pro-life movement "has kind of been under attack for the past week."

"I don't support what Tiller did for a living," Buchanan said. "But I was really hurt by the way some people... have kind of turned this into a bash-fest against conservatives in general."

The Westboro protesters drew a family of counter-protesters from Derby who said they were just fed up with the Phelpses.

"Blah, blah, blah," Kelly McCormick yelled back at them as they shouted slogans and sang.

At one point, Rev. Martin walked over to the Phelps clan and offered them white carnations. There were no takers.

Across the street, David and Stacy Towne, stood in their yard watching the screaming and singing protesters with a mixture of curiosity and distaste.

"It's kind of overwhelming to have this happen out in front of your house," Stacy Towne said.

Her husband was more irritated.

"It's kind of sickening," he said. "The guy passed away. Let him go in peace."

After the service, funeralgoers said that it was emotionally intense, with Jeanne Tiller's singing as the moving high point.

Marilyn Grisham, like many who attended, said she was there to show support for Tiller's mission.

"I've always been on the side of what he was doing, but I've never spoken out," she said, teary-eyed. "I just felt it was important to finally speak out with my presence."

Krista Vollack of Wichita said she came out partly to make a statement.

"To show that the people who support his work are not afraid, and not intimidated and will not be silenced and made afraid by extremists."

Jan Deering of Wichita said she was a longtime friend of the Tillers and wanted to honor George Tiller and his family.

"I remembered him and his courage," she said. "If I can be as brave as he was in the practice of my life, I think I will have lived well."

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