One Simple Step Toward Forgiveness

How could she face the family of the young man who murdered her husband?

Posted in , Oct 17, 2012

Jan Thomas at the football field named after her late husband

I thought the EF5 tornado that flattened Parkersburg, our small Iowa farm town, in May 2008 was the most devastating thing I would ever experience.

Big buildings like the high school reduced to rubble. The house where my husband, Ed, and I raised our two sons, in ruins. The football field that Ed, the longtime head coach at Aplington-Parkersburg High, meticulously groomed every morning, ripped to shreds.

I didn’t think anything could hurt worse than seeing the field that was like our town square, the place where everyone came together on Friday nights in the fall, the place people nicknamed the Sacred Acre, utterly destroyed.

Then came that terrible morning a year and a month later, June 24, 2009. The emergency call came in a little before eight, just as I was heading to work in the town clerk’s office. Details were sparse, which I knew from my years as a volunteer EMT was often the case with panicky calls to 911.

Someone had been shot in the school bus barn. I couldn’t imagine it. I knew the building. It doubled as the football team’s weight room.

The school was only three blocks from our house, and what with his duties as athletic director, football coach, and history and economics teacher, it was Ed’s second home. I pulled up to the scene with the rest of the ambulance crew. We grabbed our gear and ran for the door.

“Jan! Stop!” someone shouted. I wheeled around. Our police chief, a family friend. Why was he holding me up? He, of all people, knew I had a job to do.

The chief grabbed me by the shoulders. “Jan, stop,” he said again, more softly. He paused. “The person in’s Ed. He’s been shot. Several times in the head.”

That couldn’t be. Everyone loved Ed. He was the one who pulled our town together after the tornado and led the efforts to get the football field in shape in time for the first game of the season. My brain struggled to make sense of what the chief was saying.

But then my gaze went to the ambulance crew rushing out of the weight room the gurney they were the pale, eerily still form it was carrying. And I knew. God had gotten me there just in time to say goodbye to my husband, the love of my life.

Ed died at the hospital. I’d ridden with the chief. I heard him take a call on his cell phone, his voice hushed. He hung up and turned to me. “They have the shooter in custody,” he said. “You might as well know who it is because you’re going to find out pretty quickly.”

That was true of both good news and bad in a town of 1,900. I took a deep breath. “Who is it?” I asked.

“Mark Becker.”

Oh, no. Even in a town where everyone knows everyone, our family and the Beckers had history.

Dave and Joan, Mark’s parents, were good people. Dave was captain of the first football team Ed coached at the high school, back in 1975 and still called him Coach out of respect. His photo was the first Ed framed and hung on his office wall. Joan was a cheerleader who knew the game as well as the guys.

It was no wonder that all three of their boys grew up to play for Ed too. Scott, their youngest, was a lineman and would be starting his senior season this fall. Mark, their middle son, was a lineman for the Falcons’ state championship team in 2001.

Then Mark started having problems, getting into trouble off the field. More than once Ed had to suspend him from the team, but he always took him back. Our older son, Aaron, who’d followed Ed into coaching and was working at a school an hour and half away, didn’t get it.

“Sounds like the guy’s toxic, Dad. Why are you keeping him?”

“Mark needs A-P football more than A-P football needs him,” Ed said. “I think he’s going to turn around. I’ve been praying for him.”

That was Ed. Always seeing the good in people, the possibilities they didn’t necessarily see for themselves. One of the reasons I’d fallen in love with him.

Aaron and his wife would be here soon. My younger son, Todd, and his wife were on vacation but catching the first flight back.

I thought about how Ed kept praying for Mark in the years since he graduated high school, hoping he’d overcome his psychological troubles.

The Beckers went to the same church we did, First Congregational, where Ed was an elder and taught adult Sunday school. Dave and Joan attended his class. Joan sang with me in the choir.

Sometimes they’d confide in us how worried they were about Mark. They were trying to get him mental-health treatment, but because he was 24, an adult, privacy laws prevented doctors from disclosing full information about his condition.

This past weekend Mark had landed in the hospital again, after he grabbed a baseball bat and smashed it into a family’s house, then led the police on a high-speed chase. Someone had turned Mark’s driver’s license in to the town clerk’s office and I heard about everything from Joan when she came by to pick it up.

“He’ll probably be in the hospital for a while,” she said, her expression weary. Once his condition stabilized, the hospital was to release him into police custody. “We’ll pray for him,” I told Joan. And Ed and I had.

Why would Mark do what he did? I just couldn’t get my head around it.

Then Aaron walked in the door. We didn’t say much at first, just held each other for a long time. I took Aaron to see his father so he could say goodbye. A police investigator and a victim advocate arrived. They told us what to expect over the next several days.

“Because Ed was well-known, the media will be here and at the funeral too,” the advocate warned. “You’re going to have to make a statement at some point. One person can speak for the family, but you’ll probably want to decide together what to say.”

What if people blamed the Beckers for what their troubled son did? I knew Ed wouldn’t have wanted that. Day in and day out, he exhorted his players to do the right thing—on the field and, even more important, off it. And for Ed, the right thing was always to choose to follow God.

My sons and I agreed: We didn’t want to have the Beckers feel unwelcome in their own town over something that wasn’t their fault, or worse, to see our community divided over this.

Aaron made our statement to the media. “We also want to express our concern and our compassion for the Becker family. We ask that people pray for them as well, and that people take time to comfort and be with them through this.”

I went home to the house Ed and I had rebuilt after the tornado, the house where we thought we’d live out our lives together. It felt so empty now. That night I couldn’t sleep. I needed some time alone with God. Around dawn I slipped out of the house and walked to the high school.

Red plastic cups stuck in the chain-link fence around the practice field spelled out “Coach T.” with a big heart after it. People had left flowers, cards, photos. I read some of the cards, tears trickling down my face.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the bleachers above the football field. I looked out over the thick grass to the sign that read “Ed Thomas Field.” Ed hadn’t wanted the recognition but everyone at the school insisted. “I’m just a man,” he said. “It’s God who’s doing the work.”

Everything in the hours since that EMS call yesterday morning had been such a blur, but now I could feel Ed’s absence like a physical ache. Why, God? I asked. Why did it have to end like this?

Was it in my heart or my spirit that I heard a whisper in reply? “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

In all things. Could God be at work even in a senseless tragedy like this?

Oh, Lord, it just hurts so bad right now. But I believe you. I trust you. Please take this act of evil and use it for good.

I made my way home as the sun rose. I knew what Ed would have wanted, what I needed to do. I went in our bedroom and closed the door. I picked up my cell phone and dialed Joan Becker’s number. It went straight to voicemail.

“Hi, Joan. It’s Jan,” I said. “I know we’re both going through a really tough time right now. I wanted to tell you how sorry I am that it was Mark. I’m praying for you. Please call me when you get a chance.”

Five minutes later Joan called. “I am so sorry,” she said, her voice cracking. “Dave and I both are. I can’t explain my son.” That was as far as she got. She started to cry. So did I. They’d lost Ed too, and in a way, it was harder for them because it was at the hands of their son. I knew they’d tried to help him.

I arranged for Dave and Joan to pay their respects to Ed privately before the visitation.

At Ed’s funeral, our pastor spoke about forgiveness and healing. A message our family hoped people in Parkersburg would hear. And they have.

That summer Aaron moved home and took over his father’s job as A-P athletic director. Todd came back too, to be the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. September was our first home game.

I knew it would be hard for me not to see Ed down on the field, but I had to be there for our sons, for our team and for one player in particular.

It seemed like everyone in town was there. The players and coaches ran onto Ed’s perfectly groomed field. The announcer introduced the players one by one. When he said Scott Becker’s name, I stood up with the rest of the crowd.

My gaze met that of my friends Joan and Dave. And I cheered as loud as I could.


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