Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dennis McKinney

Dennis McKinney at right, speaking with Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

Few events in Nature are more terrifying or devastating than a tornado, as the people of Greensburg, Kansas will tell you after their community was leveled by a tornado packing winds of 205 mph over the weekend.

Dennis McKinney was one of the first people I met my freshman year at Wichita State University. He lived in the room across from mine in our dorm. Already, Dennis was interested in politics, working to elect Democrat Bill Roy in the race for the US Senate against the Republican Nancy Kassebaum. Upon hearing that I leaned toward the Democrats, Dennis asked me if I was registered to vote.

"No", I said, "I just got here from Illinois, and I don't turn 18 until October."

"No problem", Dennis replied. "You only have to be a resident for 30 days, and you'll be 18 by the time of the election in November."

Dennis had the voter registration papers handy, and thanks to him, I became a registered voter for the first time. We also agreed to split the cost of a Wichita Eagle subscription, both of us being impoverished college freshmen. Roy lost the election to Kassebaum, a common result for Kansas Democrats in those days, but due to Dennis McKinney's efforts, he at least got my vote.

Dennis had a sharp mind for politics, and he taught me a lot about how life was on the windswept plains of southwest Kansas, which was his home. Everything I know about sheep ranching I learned from him. Already he was thinking about going into politics. His goal was to return home, buy a farm, and one day do something to help the people of his home region.

Dennis would go on to distinguish himself as the president of WSU's Student Government Association, while I would distinguish myself by spinning records at the campus radio station and by frequently getting drunk. Following graduation, Dennis went on to achieve his dreams. He settled down in Greensburg, not far from his hometown of Coldwater, and became a farmer and politician. He won a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives and rose to the rank of Minority Leader, a position he currently holds.

Dennis was home with his family in Greensburg the day the deadly tornado hit. Denis Boyles, in a National Review article describing the strength and resolve of Greensburg residents in the face of the storm, tells the story:

The minority leader of the Kansas house is Dennis McKinney, a much-admired conservative Democrat who represents the heavily Republican constituency that includes Greensburg. Until 9:45 last Friday night, McKinney had a house in town, and when the storm hit, he had been in it. I asked him about the miracle of the cleared roads. “We got help,” he told me over an intermittent cell connection. “We live in an area where most of the towns are small, but most of them have volunteer EMT units and volunteer firefighters. After the storm, within minutes, we had several fire companies here, and then more came. We had a huge response from the surrounding communities — all well-trained volunteers. And we have a lot of pick-ups! One of the things about living out here is we all have four-wheel-drive pickups. So for example a few of us cleared my road right away — cut up a tree that was across the road, hooked a chain to it and dragged it away with the pick-up. We just helped each other.” On Main Street and out on the highway, the people who only minutes earlier had been residents of a small Kansas town had been joined by others and together they all spent the whole night hard at work on a dark and unsheltered plain.

One of the remarkable stories to emerge from the storm coverage is the one about McKinney receiving a call a little while after the tornado warnings were issued. It was from a young man who lived next door. He explained to McKinney that he was too far away and didn’t think he could make it back home in time to take care of his wife and baby. His house had no storm cellar, no place for them to go. Could he tell them they could seek refuge in McKinney’s basement? McKinney said of course. He sent his 14-year-old daughter, Lindy, down to the basement and went out to wait for the woman and the baby.

But it was too late. As his house started exploding around them, McKinney turned back toward the basement stairs. Debris showered down on him; he lost his flashlight. His daughter helped him into a bath in the basement, and he threw his body over hers to protect her. As the house disintegrated above them, Lindy McKinney suggested they pray for the mother and child next door. “And that’s what we did,” McKinney told me. “My daughter — she didn’t pray for us. She didn’t pray for herself. She prayed for the people next door.” The significance was still settling on McKinney. His voice suddenly hoarse, he said, “As a father, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud.”

When the wind subsided, McKinney climbed out through the wreckage of his home into the darkness and found the house next door had vanished, leaving only a thick carpet of debris. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a woman’s voice crying for help. Working with another neighbor, the two men pulled the mother and baby out. Their only injuries: a few scratches.

When McKinney told his political rival and personal friend, former Kansas House speaker Doug Mays about it the next day, Mays told me McKinney had called it “a miracle” and Mays agreed. “Dennis said that after emerging from the rubble of what once was their home, and seeing every thing including their vehicles gone, one might expect to feel absolutely despondent. Instead, he was overwhelmed with joy at the knowledge that he and his daughter were alive.”

“Dennis McKinney and his daughter, Lindy, demonstrates the strength and resolve that typifies Kansas,” Mays told me in an e-mail. “Knowing their lives might end in seconds, what could have been their very last prayers were given for their neighbors. That is why Greensburg will rebuild.”

In Dennis McKinney, the people of Greensburg and southwest Kansas have a leader they can be proud of. And Dennis can certainly take pride in raising a fine daughter.