“An elm tree still stands facing what was once the Murrah Building … The tree signaled the passing seasons: Spring blooms giving way to summer, autumn colors, and the starkness of winter. Julie Welch liked to park her car on the east side of the tree, in the shade, while she was at work. Though ravaged by the power of the bomb, the tree remains, refusing to surrender to violence, vowing to provide fresh buds for many springs to come. Frequent visitors call it the Survivor Tree.”
By Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda
“Their Faith Has Touched Us”
he smiled down at me from the fence at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
Ringed by red flowers, her photo contrasted with the surrounding chain-link clutter.
She was a pretty young woman, bright-eyed, intelligent, easy to love and treasured by those who had surrounded her photo with letters, tokens, poetry and trinkets. I snapped a single photo.
The camera, heavy on my neck, was already filled with three hours of memories — the “Field of Empty Chairs” representing the 168 victims; the “Survivor Wall” representing those who lived, and the “Survivor Tree,” a blasted and burned American elm now thriving and representing resilience.
I took dozens of photos of the reflecting pool, flanked by the “Gates of Time,” twin entrances to the memorial. The eastern gate, bearing the time 9:01, symbolizes the city’s innocence the moment before the bomb went off. The western gate reads 9:03, when the city and its residents were changed forever.
Of all the images I captured, my eye was drawn to Julie Marie Welch, a 23-year-old claims representative and Spanish interpreter for the Social Security Administration, who died in that minute in between — 9:02 a.m., April 19, 1995.
Amid the clutter on the fence surrounding her photo was a typed tribute by a man she never knew. He obviously wished he could have known her, and his tribute — sweet, maybe a bit creepy — hinted of mystery and longing. The amateur poet’s salute, “Lunch With An Old Gray-Headed Man,” started this way:
It was the most astonishing thing to see.
Every Wednesday, undaunted and indiscreet,
This charming and beautiful young lady
Met this old gray-headed man on 5th Street.
Where they were going, I had not a hunch
I reluctantly confess that I followed them
To the Athenian Restaurant for lunch.
He went on to describe his efforts to solve the mystery. Admitting he was prying and perhaps too curious, he sat at a nearby table, eavesdropping, hoping they wouldn’t notice him.
Each meeting, they sat in the same chairs,
Ordered the very same lunch every time.
They laughed aloud, in spite of the stares,
As if they’d not visited for a long time,
Like they were friends for years and years.
But she was too young to have known anyone,
Especially not him, for that many years.
The writer observed them every Wednesday, listening to their chatter — the high school she had attended, her trips to Spain and her studies at Marquette. He wondered if the old man was her professor or her mentor. Obviously, the poet had a thing for her, but she never noticed him.
In the days after the bombing, the writer failed to see the young woman and the old man at the Greek restaurant. He wondered in his prose if they had simply found a new place to eat, away from the destroyed downtown. He found his answer two and a half years later.
I saw that old man in the news today.
Holding a picture of that girl, his daughter.
He said she died in the bombing that day.
That old, gray-headed man was her proud father.
I have to admit, I was intrigued by this secret admirer’s rough salute. I was concerned some might consider him a stalker, but curious about her story. And, yes, I found more. “The old, gray-headed man” was Emmett E. “Bud” Welch, Julie’s father. Divorced from her mother, he had a standing date with Julie every Wednesday at the Athenian. “Julie always called me,” he told the American Catholic, but that day she never called. Her body was recovered three days later.
He said his mind was filled with rage and a desire for vengeance against those who caused his daughter’s death. “I would have killed them with my bare hands,” he said. But one day he asked himself what vengeance would accomplish. Would it make him happy? Would it bring his daughter back? No, he decided.
Soon, he met a man who lost his son. They visited in the man’s New York kitchen, walked in his garden, shared stories of their children … and found common ground. Both were in pain, and each was fighting to keep the New York man’s son alive.
They were an unlikely pair — Bud, father of bombing victim Julie Welch, and Bill, father of Timothy McVeigh, who had parked the Ryder truck near the Murrah Building, lit the fuse and calmly walked away. Actively campaigning against the death penalty, Bud traveled the country, lecturing at churches and wherever anyone would listen. Bill kept his silence and his distance.
Timothy McVeigh was found guilty of murder for the deaths of 168 people — 19 of them children. Despite the quest by Julie’s father to keep him alive, he was executed in 2001.
The memorial does not celebrate that death. The investigation, arrest, conviction and execution are recounted, but the focus is where it should be … on the 168 who died, the survivors who are forever changed, the rescuers who rushed to the stricken downtown and the resilience of a city that showed America how to deal with tragedy.
On my next visit, I plan to sit in the shade of the Survivor Tree, search the names engraved on the Empty Chairs and leave a yellow Tyler rose on the one for Julie Welch, the forever-young woman I met smiling down at me from the fence.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.