In Hesston, most people say they have moved on, but small signs of grief linger

Hesston residents are displaying #Hesston Strong signs at their homes, on business marquees and on Facebook pages.
Hesston residents are displaying #Hesston Strong signs at their homes, on business marquees and on Facebook pages. The Wichita Eagle

Shirley Weber, the owner of D’angelo’s Pizzeria, can tell that life has gone back to normal: Her restaurant is loud again. After the shooting at Excel Industries last February, the mood was somber.

“The town itself is such a strong Christian-based town, the faith that they have in each other. ...” Weber said. “They don’t let something like this scare you, but just makes them strong.”

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A “Hesston Strong” poster still hangs in the window of her shop. Her son, an EMS worker in training, saw things last year that, Weber said, no 18-year-old should have to see, and afterward her son said high school sports no longer seemed as important.

Even though most people say they have moved on, small signs of grief linger. A commemorative plaque is visible in the Excel lobby.

“When I drive by Excel, you wonder how they are doing, how is morale,” said Scott Miller, the pastor at Kingdom Life church. “I catch stories that there is still a lot of tension, a lot of nervousness that goes on if somebody starts yelling. They’re like, ‘Who is yelling and why?’ They get nervous.”

Miller said he’s heard from welders who don’t feel like their work is respected. “The reality is, there is a remedy for working in a place that doesn’t necessarily honor your work,” Miller said. “You do it unto the Lord, you always have God watching over you, and he loves you dearly and respects what you do and keeps track of everything.”

Like Miller, Susan Lamb, the director of the Hesston Community Foundation, said her attention has shifted from supporting victims to thinking about what can be done to prevent future shootings.

“My big drive from here on out is looking at the core of the problem, which I see as twofold — mental health and substance abuse,” Lamb said. “Cedric Ford was a person in pain.”

For many, the shooting never comes up in conversations. Many public Facebook posts are about baby showers and baseball games again, not the shooting.

“I think people recognize it and it’s still a heavy heart kind of thing, but I think people are moving on,” said Katie Stutzman, who moved to Hesston from California just before the shooting.

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Many said the main impact, for them, is an awareness that rural Hesston isn’t as innocent as they might have thought.

“We kind of convince ourselves we are protected, and we are isolated and we are glad we are here so we don’t have to be like those places,” said Keith Schadel, the pastor at Hesston United Methodist Church. “And then we have a day like we had last February 25 and we either have to work really hard to sweep that under the rug, or we have to begin the process of reconciling ourselves to the idea that we’re like all the rest and brokenness is here like it is everywhere else.”

The town is weeks away from breaking ground on a new water and sports complex, which had been in the works before the shooting. Kids still walk home from school alone and some residents said they continue to leave their doors unlocked.

At a three-day conference last week, “When the Unthinkable Happens,” put on by Hesston College, Katy Wiebe, the keynote speaker, said she heard from many people who didn’t know what to think about their experiences. They talked about “what it was like to have their house very close to Excel Industries, or be at the school in close proximity where the shooting occurred but not be a direct survivor,” Weibe said. “That’s what I would call vicarious trauma.”

“One of the things we talked about is how trauma and healing are like beauty, they are in the eye of the beholder,” Wiebe said. “ So in some cases people were really genuinely not traumatized by this and that’s okay. And some people do have some latent experiences that they don’t quite know what box that fits in.”

Hesston has become too expensive for many of the people who work in its plants to live there. One of the last places for cheap housing, a mobile home park, is being torn down. After a mass shooting last year that largely impacted its transient wor

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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