SPRINGFIELD — Thirty years ago, I received my master’s degree, packed up my Ford and headed for an adventure in Texas.
I’d accepted a job as the education reporter for the Galveston Daily News and was assigned to cover nine school districts and a medical school.
My first day on the job, a fellow reporter, Doug Loveday, drove me to Santa Fe, a small town near Galveston. We ate lunch at the Busy Bee Café.
When we walked into the diner, all the men were wearing cowboy hats and boots. These weren’t fashion affectations. They wore them to work in the factories, oil refineries, building sites and shipyards.
Most of the folks in this town of 10,000 had calluses on their hands and took showers when they got home from work – not before they left.
As Willie Nelson and Hank Williams played in the background, Doug and I sat in the café, ate chicken fried steak and talked about the community.
The schools were good, the parents supportive and the churches strong. The town was so quiet that the newspaper never sent a reporter to review the daily arrest reports at the police station. After all, nothing ever happened in Santa Fe.
Folks from Santa Fe could fit well in just about any downstate Illinois community. They work with their hands, love their kids and value their faith.
The town reminded me of my hometown of Galesburg.
Early last Friday morning, my computer began chirping. Prayer requests from friends in Galveston County poured in. These were earnest supplications, not those throw away “thoughts and prayers” lines you so often hear from so many politicians.
My first clue something was amiss was when a friend posted this: “My beautiful, beautiful niece is ok, but we are waiting for her boyfriend, whose been taken into surgery at the hospital. … but please pray for everyone involved here. There are lots of families who are devastated here.”
I received that note, before word of the shooting made it on to the national news.
I remember wondering, “What is she talking about? A shooting?”
And then there were calls for blood donors. Later came more calls for prayers for the many victims. Pictures of grieving mothers and children soon filled my newsfeed along with fragments of information: Everyone’s favorite teacher shot dead. Blood in the hallways and classrooms. Children being carried on stretchers.
My friend Ted Hanley called from Galveston. He said first the police and ambulance sirens sounded as emergency personnel raced to the neighboring town. Then helicopters carrying the wounded kept roaring over his house. Later, a large gray van carrying the bodies rolled by his office on its way to the county morgue.
“It’s so hard to wrap my mind around. It was only seven or eight months ago when this community was hit by Hurricane Harvey. There has been so much suffering here already,” Ted told me.
Ted, who has been a friend of mine for 30 years, runs a social service agency called the Jesse Tree. It works with churches and other organizations to help people in need in Galveston County.
I have never encountered a more efficiently run charity.
Already, the Jesse Tree is preparing to provide wheelchairs, crutches and other durable medical supplies to those injured in the shooting. Galveston County has a high number of families without health insurance.
Perhaps, more important, the Jesse Tree has a team of grief counselors who will work with children at Santa Fe High School and with others in this community that has suffered much.
If you would like to donate, send your check to: The Jesse Tree, P.O. Box 575, Galveston, TX 77553. Or donate online at jessetree.net.
“I just keep thinking about the high school graduation coming up,” Ted told me. “There will be all of those students who won’t be there to graduate. This community will never be the same.”
Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.