April 19, 1995
It was early morning, April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma. I was a sophomore at Stonewall High School and that day would have been much like any other crisp spring Wednesday morning — except we were a bit distracted and filled with anticipation because our local Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter was making final preparations to travel to the annual State Convention next week.
If you’re unfamiliar with the FFA, it’s a way of life all on its own. Country kids growing up on farms and ranches all across the nation spend their high school years in shop and agriculture “ag” class learning about everything from land and soil to trades like welding and carpentry, with a good bit of animal husbandry as well. “Show animals” are a fierce competition in Oklahoma for FFA members. If you grew up in a family grounded in FFA and 4H traditions, it was expected of you to join the chapter and work as hard as you could for four years to certify as a State Farmer, the highest award the state-level organization can bestow on a student.
Every year, students looked forward to attending the state convention —to donning those ubiquitous blue corduroy jackets with the name of their school embroidered on the back and spending a week of both camaraderie and celebration of accomplishment of another year in the FFA community.
Stonewall was blessed to have one of the best Ag teachers around, Mr. Williams. He put a lot of emphasis on participation and being the best we could be in whichever arena of FFA we chose to pursue. He sponsored award-winning Land Judging teams, had more than a few Grand Champion ribbons for pigs and cattle on the walls of the shop classroom, and coached several speakers up through the speech contests held around the state. The state convention was a milestone each year for him as well as a point of pride for our school.
That was the year things would change forever.
“There’s been some sort of disaster,” the chatter began down the school hallway. “Something’s on fire in Oklahoma City,” others said after first period.
This was 1995 and there were no smart phones in every pocket yet. There were only a handful of land line phones in the whole high school building and one or two televisions on media carts you could borrow from the library.
One of those old TVs was wheeled in to Mrs. Wood’s classroom — homeroom for the class of ‘97 — and there, huddled around the cart, through a grainy image we got our first glimpse of the plume of thick black smoke rising from the center of downtown Oklahoma City.
What was it? A fire? An accident? A plane crash? It looked like a building collapsed. The scene from the local news helicopters looked familiar. This was the nearest “city” to Stonewall and we were all familiar with the metro, but that image was strange at the same time. It was like watching something wholly foreign and unfamiliar unfold. It was about a hundred miles away — or a couple of hours given that we measure distance in time traveled instead of linear mileage in Oklahoma — but it might as well have been another world.
We were riveted yet no one quite knew what to do. The faculty and administration gave the school some deference and let the students gather and watch, setting aside our normal daily schedule. A few hours later it became clear: the whole city was on lock-down for a manhunt of some sort and there would likely be no state convention.
We felt attacked — not only as a state and community, but — perhaps selfishly — as students. We’d worked hard all year for this! It was a time to celebrate and enjoy the results of our hard work. The theme that year was “The Leadership Advantage” and Autumn McEntire (Kiowa Chapter) had invited her aunt Reba to give the keynote speech. It was supposed to be a convention to remember.
We sympathized with our class seniors; normally they’d walk across the stage at the Myriad Convention Center that week in front of 20,000 members, shake the hand of the state president, and receive their award. What happens now? It was like something was stolen from us personally. This doesn’t happen — not in America — and certainly not in Oklahoma, where we’re known for our legendary hospitality and hearts as big as our sunsets.
The news started calling it “Terror in the Heartland”. This was in the days before cable news ratings were a thing to be coveted and our ridiculous 24-hour news cycle became a way of life, but the chyrons and scenes on the major television networks were terrible to watch all the same.
Over the coming days things came into focus. A scrawny and angry young white man — who I’d come to learn was a right-wing terrorist —named Timothy McVeigh was upset with the federal government and went through a lot of effort to park a box truck filled with fertilizer in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in downtown Oklahoma City — and blow it up.
President Clinton was on the nightly news making statements, and the FBI was investigating. I didn’t even know what a “federal building” was or what it did for us — and certainly not why anyone would attack it.
This was all long before I moved to Washington and spent eight years serving under the 44th President. In those days I naively assumed that the best person for the office was the one elected, and they’d do a good job running the country without input from most of us. I miss those days.
As President Clinton remarked, the Murrah Building, one of the federal government’s major civilian installations in Oklahoma, was filled with public servants who came to work to do their jobs on behalf of the American people every day. That building housed the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the 5th floor. On the same floor was the Veteran’s Affairs office, Customs office, and the Labor Department, among many others throughout the building. It was the daytime home to public servants who were working to support Oklahoma farmers and veterans — many of whom no doubt had kids in FFA who were probably just as excited as we were about the state convention that year. Some who dropped their kids off at the day care facility on the first floor earlier that morning.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols leveled most of the building and killed 168 people — 19 of whom were kids in day care. They were presumably disgruntled about gun rights and angry at the federal government for disarming the cult in the Waco siege two years earlier. But rather than engage the government and politicians through peaceful discourse and petitioning Congress, they turned to violence to prove their point instead — and left a scar on our state, our community, and many of our young hearts with that attack.
Our state convention was understandably postponed until later that summer. It was a much smaller one-day affair held at the state fairgrounds a few miles away from the convention center and bombing site to formally present the awards and elect new statewide officers for the upcoming year. We felt like staying out of the way was the least we could do after the tragedy.
Later that fall as a junior, I joined the school yearbook department and we traveled to Oklahoma City and documented some of the bombing site. It was largely just a leveled city block then, surrounded by security fences and barricades while the workers removed the rubble.
Outpourings of support and solidarity became a makeshift memorial: people donated gifts and left mementos along the fenceline outside the site. The small chapel across the street, St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral, became the de-facto gathering site for mourners, and the “Survivor Tree” that made it through the blast still stood on the site.
Eventually, life returned to as normal as it could be after something like that happens. The memorial completed a few years later, stands where the Murrah building once did, bookended by two walls bearing the timestamps 9:01 and 9:03 am, between which 168 empty chairs hold vigil for the Oklahomans we lost to hate and terrorism in one moment.
Sadly, Texas and Oklahoma bore the brunt of domestic terrorism in those days. 9/11 would happen just a few years later and we’d become embroiled in wars that still haven’t really ended. Now, over twenty years later, the debate about guns remains in a painful stalemate, politicians stoke the fears of citizens about the function and role of government, and we have an elected official spewing 240-character tweets that may very well incite violence in the same strain as that of McVeigh and Nichols.
But Oklahoma City still stands. Our national memorial is a reminder to all that our heart and shared experience as Americans will endure through hateful times. It’s a reminder that we will come back even stronger as those of us affected by terrorism resolve to craft a better world than we inherited.
We carry the hope that some day another state farmer will walk across a stage free from fear and swelling with pride in their school, their state, and their country — from the heartland that imbued them with the leadership advantage they need to join the next generation of leaders and carry America forward into a chapter free of domestic terrorism.