Not forgetting, but forgiving


I was among the many reporters who came to Oklahoma City in 1995 to cover the aftermath of the bomb that destroyed the federal building and killed 168 people and wounded many more. I wrote a lot about it, but I couldn’t make much sense of it, especially because Oklahoma City also happens to be my hometown.

Six years later, in 2001, as the United States prepared to execute Timothy McVeigh for the crime, I profiled Bud Welch for The Washington Post‘s Style section and only then did it seem like I had found an ending. Forgiveness is the real power, I think. It’s something we should always strive for. The online version of my story disappeared, so I’m reposting it here on the 20th anniversary of the OKC bombing. (Photo above from Julie Welch memorial at bombing site.)

Tim McVeigh Killed His Daughter. Now Bud Welch Has Lost His Anger, Too.

By Hank Stuever | Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, Monday, May 7, 2001

OKLAHOMA CITY — Emmett E. “Bud” Welch is the man who forgave Tim McVeigh, and in so doing, became a Bible Belt curiosity.

He owns a Texaco gas station. His daughter was killed when McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building six years ago. Bud was supposed to meet her for lunch at a shabby Greek joint across the street from there. The restaurant is gone now, too. These are plain facts, sad in a way that you almost don’t want to reexamine them.

And then something more complicated happened.

Bud just sort of let go.

When Oklahomans refer to the anticipated “closure” they seek in McVeigh’s May 16 execution, Bud is usually the one to suggest that it is an empty notion, and this has caused some tense ripples in the complicated circles of the city’s tragedy kin, the way the breeze pocks a reflecting pool that sits where the Murrah building used to. There is one woman whose husband, a Secret Service agent, was killed. Bud has learned to keep a wide distance from her when they happen to be in the same room.

Others think of Bud as a kind of saint, and a busy one: A German film crew has been following him around, and so has the BBC. Fox News recently spent time interviewing him, and MSNBC. “And what’s Diane Sawyer’s show called? ‘PrimeTime Live’?” he says. “That bunch was here for about 10 days and like to drove me nuts.”

Finding his way to a mercy he still doesn’t fully understand, Bud became a popular voice of the death-penalty abolitionist movement, much like his new friend, Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun who wrote “Dead Man Walking.”

Bud says his politics are pretty conservative, and yet here he is in a realm of activist clergy and prison reformers, the small crowds that go to candlelight vigils where flickers of light dance off razor-wire fences. He has learned about Amnesty International rallies, hanging out with the kind of people who like to chain themselves to trees or the gates of governors’ mansions, and who know how to go limp in the arms of arresting officers. It’s not his style, but he’s okay with it.

From time to time, he likes to tweak Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Frank Keating, in the press. Both men’s kids went to the same Catholic high school. The governor tells the morning paper that the pope is wrong on the death penalty. That night, Bud is on the local news, saying he didn’t know the governor was now the infallible holy authority.

He thinks his daughter might have enjoyed the way this has played out — her gruff dad holding hands with the fringe, discovering a new grace.

Some Oklahomans say they are sick of seeing Bud on TV. To tell the truth, even Bud is a little sick of seeing Bud on TV, and hopes to make himself more scarce as the execution approaches — out of respect, he says, “for the way most people feel.”

It’s the forgiveness part that’s harder to explain.

“I didn’t say I was going to forget what Tim did. I said forgive, but a lot of people just don’t get it,” Bud says.

He understands why they don’t. He also wanted Tim to fry, once.

“I’ll tell you, if between now and May 16, Tim would ask for forgiveness, my life would get a whole lot simpler. I’d forgive him,” Bud says. “But he hasn’t asked. So I guess I forgive him anyway.”

Or, consider Saint Augustine.

Sixteen centuries ago, without talk radio or Diane Sawyer to guide him, Augustine of Hippo anguished over the death penalty in his weighty apologia. “Man and sinner are two different things,” he wrote. “God made man, but man made himself the sinner. So destroy what man made, but leave what God made. Do not take away his life; leave him the possibility of repentance.”

Then, years later, weary of his critics and the violence around him, Augustine changed his mind and agreed that, in some cases, the death penalty was just. Theologians have chewed it over through the ages. Four years ago, Pope John Paul II issued the Roman Catholic Church’s strongest statement yet against capital punishment in the modern world.

* * *

Closer to earth, Bud’s Texaco is three miles or so from where the Murrah building stood. He first leased the Texaco in 1972. It still has full-service pumps and sits at a busy intersection, next to a Homeland supermarket, a Braum’s dairy store, and the Coit’s Drive-In that sells root-beer floats.

Bud is 61, and speaks with that calm, careful plunk of an accent that is neither Southern nor Texan, but has always been its own; a mellow sound like tires gently coming down a gravel driveway. His glasses are slightly tilted on his broad, pink face, and his receding hair is white. He looks and talks like almost anybody’s dad, and wears a brown windbreaker. He says most theological discourse is “way over the head of Bud Welch.”

Growing up on a farm in Shawnee, Okla., in a family of eight children, Bud went to the local Catholic school, where he was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. He remembers sitting under a tree with his grandfather, waiting to shoot squirrels, and the stories the old man would tell about Oklahoma’s days as Indian territory, in the late 19th century. There were public executions in the Shawnee town square — death sentences handed down by a federal hanging judge, Isaac Parker, in Fort Smith, Ark. Bud’s grandfather said he once saw a man’s head pop clean off at the noose.

For a while, Bud used to tell people that he had “reconciled,” in his mind at least, what Tim McVeigh had done. “Reconciled” seemed like a good enough word. You hear it at Mass sometimes, and after his daughter was killed, Bud had decided it was time to start going back to Mass. “What’s the difference between ‘reconcile’ and ‘forgive’? Really, I don’t know,” he says.

At one of Bud’s many speaking engagements — he once made six appearances in a single day — the bishop of Tulsa, who was sitting in the front row, interrupted him. (“You know how a bishop is,” Bud says. “He just starts talking when he’s ready to start talking.”)

“It sounds like you’ve forgiven him,” the bishop said, and went on to cite Scripture and church teachings. “Well, bishop,” Bud said, “if you say I’ve forgiven him, then I accept that.”

Later, a caller to a talk radio show yelled at Bud, who was an on-air guest. Clearly, the caller huffed, you didn’t love your daughter or you wouldn’t have this sympathy for McVeigh. You’d be like the rest of us, you’d want to see that man dead. You’d want to do it yourself.

“I used to want that,” Bud says. “I used to want to kill him.”

But not anymore. This is almost too much for the listeners of talk radio to bear, which is why he frequently agrees to do radio. He also likes to give speeches to Rotary Clubs and Lions Clubs, for the same reason: “That’s the heart of the beast, right there, the Rotary Club,” he says, with a grin. “But a little bit at a time, people are listening. I got one guy at the Shreveport Rotary Club come and tell me he’d never thought of it this way, but he would now.

“And,” he says, “I get to tell them about this terrific kid of mine.”

* * *

Julie Marie Welch was 23 years old, had shoulder-length, light brown hair and a crooked smile that dimpled her right cheek. She worked as a translator and claims representative for the Social Security Administration.

It was her first job out of Marquette University, where she’d earned a Spanish degree and had been something of a conservative Catholic, with leanings toward issues that can put the church in curious company with lefty causes — the death penalty, social work, the poor, the environment. At Marquette, she lived in a women’s cooperative affiliated with Opus Dei, a group for devout Catholics. She attended church events and pitched in with various charities and, as the bumper sticker adage goes, worked for justice because she wanted peace.

After graduating, she turned down a job in Chicago and decided to live at home for a while, with her mother, Lena Compassi Welch, on the northwest side of town. (Bud and Lena divorced when Julie was 7.) After moving back to Oklahoma City, Julie started dating Eric Hilz, a lieutenant from Tinker Air Force Base, whom she’d met at a young-adult prayer meeting. They had talked about getting engaged.

She often prayed the rosary in traffic. She drove a red 1992 Pontiac Grand Am. What a lot of people didn’t know was that, in life, Julie suffered from occasional depression. Her mother used to ask God to give Julie a good day and give the bad day to herself instead.

On a Wednesday morning in April 1995, Julie got up and dressed for work, went to 7 o’clock Mass at St. Charles Borromeo parish (she had memorized daily Mass schedules across town) and then drove to her office at the Murrah building, downtown, at Fifth and Harvey streets. She liked to park near an elm tree that spread its shade across the lot. She spent an hour helping two other Social Security employees rearrange some files and equipment in a storage room. At 9 a.m. she had an appointment with a claimant who spoke only Spanish. She said she’d come back and help clean up when she was done.

Her body was found three days after McVeigh’s 5,000-pound homemade fertilizer bomb went off. She was beneath several tons of a devastated building that in some other reality might only be the beige expression of government office space. Instead, everyone knows how it ended — that stringy, gaping hulk. The wounds are insistent. The words “Oklahoma City” will always be, in some way, about evil in a yellow truck, about pain. This urban cowtown is not the same.

Julie’s neck had been broken, and both ankles, and there were cuts on her face. Her mother remembers being grateful that they were able to have a viewing of the body during services at the Church of the Epiphany of the Lord. It was as if her daughter’s beauty would in some way persist.

And Bud? Among the fleeting, gauzy thoughts that Bud recalls about those weeks after April 19, he remembers watching television one night. He saw Bill McVeigh, the bomber’s father, who lives in Pendleton, N.Y. The news had a shot of Bill working in his garden, trying to ignore a clutch of reporters on his lawn. “I saw this big man, about my age. He looked at the camera, kind of sideways. . . . He was literally stooped over in grief. I felt like I knew everything he was feeling.”

It was one of those tiny moments where Bud began to go different from almost everyone else in Oklahoma City.

* * *

Vengeance comes and goes in this land. Oklahoma is now killing more of its prisoners, per capita, faster than any other state, including Texas. It executed 11 last year, and in the first four months of 2001, there have been 10 executions by lethal injection at the state penitentiary in McAlester. Nine of them occurred in a 29-day period, a record.

Among those put to death were Wanda Jean Allen, with an IQ tested at 69, who shot her lesbian lover in 1988; Dion Smallwood, who in 1992 beat his ex-girlfriend’s mother to death with a croquet mallet and then set the body on fire; Loyd LaFevers, who killed the aunt of a Colorado state lawmaker in 1985, and neglected to apologize for it even from the execution gurney, opting to instead say hello (and goodbye) to his own family and lawyer, which further infuriated the politician nephew. He said LaFevers’s final words were “incredibly insulting to the family” and so interfered with the closure.

Also, there was Robert “Eagle” Clayton, who stabbed a 19-year-old woman 12 times and strangled her with the bikini top she was wearing. The woman’s mother, meeting reporters after Clayton’s execution, said she wasn’t there to get revenge: “We sought justice, and justice was served.”

Another three executions are scheduled this year, two more are pending, and 125 or so inmates are on death row. The execution most fixed to the vulnerable psyche of Oklahoma, however, will take place in Terre Haute, Ind., in two weeks, when Tim McVeigh becomes the first federal prisoner executed since 1963.

Oklahoma tends to wear its heart on its sleeve. In the bombing’s initial aftermath, attention focused on the courageous way people here took care of each other and welcomed the supportive embrace of the world. Tourists still leave small teddy bears and other talismans at the symbolic stretch of chain-link fence left at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

But underneath these warm fuzzies, there is a certain sense of homespun Judeo-Christian fairness. From the moment McVeigh was pulled over for speeding in a getaway car 90 miles north of the bomb he’d just detonated, Oklahomans have overwhelmingly lobbied for his death. (A stalwart, bolo-tied district attorney, Robert “Cowboy Bob” Macy, has relentlessly pursued a state trial for McVeigh conspirator Terry Nichols, to give Nichols the death sentence he did not get in a federal trial.)

On the wall of the former Journal Record newspaper building, which now houses a slick and almost overwhelmingly poignant memorial museum, a rescue worker spray-painted, in April 1995: “We search for the truth. We seek justice. The courts require it. The victims cry for it. And God demands it.” When it started to fade, a group gathered to repaint it, a group that included the governor’s wife, some survivors, some relatives, and Bud Welch.

The afternoon McVeigh’s death sentence was announced in a Denver courtroom in June 1997, the city blocks around the bombing site erupted in joyous (some said ravenous) cheers of hundreds of people. There were clangings from bells.

Bud was somewhere in the crowd. The emptiness he felt inside, which he didn’t think could get any worse, now felt emptier. The local TV crews knew, by then, which guy to come to for the dissenting opinion, a lively sound bite. Bud gave it.

He doesn’t feel alone: “Lots of people have come up to me, in private, people who are very close to the bombing, and said, ‘You know, I think what you’re saying is right. I think that this vengeance, this rage, isn’t helping us one bit.’ “

Until recently, Bud was the lone voice who was willing to go public. As May 16 nears, a few others — relatives of the dead, some survivors of the blast — have said they’d rather McVeigh serve life in prison.

The problem is that the death penalty is one of those issues that compel people to think and speak in terms of black and white, either and or. If it stumped Saint Augustine, and it stumps Bud Welch, then it might well stump us all. There are so many shades of gray.

There are 168 shades of gray.

Bud’s mercy is about the gray.

* * *

On a drizzly recent Sunday afternoon, the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty calls itself to order at its monthly meeting, which is held in the basement of an old Methodist church not far from Bud’s Texaco.

Of the couple dozen members who show up are a minister or two, pro bono lawyer types, and a woman filing her nails. A husband and wife whose son had been one of this year’s executed are active members, and they tell the group that they’ve received his ashes back from the crematorium.

The pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church, Richard Lunsford, rises to speak about the ostracism he feels when he takes to his pulpit to preach against capital punishment. It’s probably the only Baptist church in Oklahoma City where you’d hear it, and Lunsford admits membership is down. He brandishes his own self-published scriptural treatise on the matter, single-spaced typewritten pages bound together. He has a galvanized, wet-eyed manner, as if he’s received some divine and complex truth that runs counter to the belief of his flock.

Sitting at the head table is the coalition’s president, Johnnie Cabrera. She has silvery hair and perfect makeup. She recently attended the execution of her granddaughter’s killer. She has also married a prisoner.

She ably steers the group through its agenda: There is $ 4,629.61 in the coalition’s bank account. A thousand is earmarked for helping families bury death row inmates. A discussion ensues about the chapter up in Tulsa, which seems to have gone its separate way — all three members. The annual spring banquet is mentioned.

And finally, what about May 16?

Some in the group would like a vocal protest, to counteract any death penalty proponents who will come to the memorial site to revel in their justice. There might be noisemakers, cheering crowds, T-shirt sales.

“It should be quiet, whatever we do,” Cabrera says. “It should be prayer.”

Someone wants to know: “Where’s Bud going to be on May 16?” (He doesn’t regularly attend the coalition meetings; on this Sunday he’s out of town at a speaking engagement.)

“I’ve heard from him,” Cabrera says. “My sense is he’s laying low. That seems to be what we need to do.”

Someone says: Not even a small sign or a banner against the execution? Not brandished, just maybe pinned on a wall?

No. Motions made and seconded, the group will meet by Jesus Wept, the statue where the old St. Joe’s rectory used to stand. They will meet across the street from all that emotion. They decide they won’t say anything, or stage a media event. They’ll pray. They might sing.

* * *

Bud gets back to town that Sunday night. He is also getting over a cold, which he no doubt caught on one airplane or another, because he almost always has a speaking engagement at a church or college, or testimony to deliver to somebody’s state legislators, or hands to hold in prayer circles.

He finds time to meet at a new International House of Pancakes, so new that pinkish Oklahoma dirt still cakes the parking lot.

He talks about how it was, right after it happened. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for a year, twice his normal. He drank every night to get to sleep. “I would fix a drink 10 minutes after I’d get home from the gas station. I was sick,” he says.

“I went down to that damn tree every day and looked at that fence. I felt a special closeness down there, because that’s where she was last alive and we were supposed to have lunch. I finally said to myself: Bud, you are sick. What does Bud Welch need to get better, to move forward? Do we need trials to begin? Do we need an execution?

“It took me three weeks of asking that. I finally realized it was an act of vengeance and rage if we killed either one of those guys. And that was why Julie and 167 other people were dead — because of vengeance and rage. It has to stop somewhere.”

He went out, and started telling his story a different way.

* * *

In the summer of 1998, a nun in Upstate New York arranged a secret meeting at a house with a garden out front. Two men in their late fifties, with only their Catholic upbringings and an insistent grief in common, had agreed to meet, with no media, no specific thing to talk about. Bud Welch went up and knocked on the door of Bill McVeigh.

In the hallway, Bud looked at a color photograph of a high school senior with blondish hair and a long face. “God, what a good-looking kid,” he told Bill, without thinking. The two men cried. Since then, every few months, Bud calls Bill to see how he’s holding up.

When Tim announced late last year that he was not going to pursue any more appeals to his death sentence, Bud felt terrible. “It’s like an assisted suicide,” he says. “You can’t be very damn normal to drive a rental truck from Kansas to Oklahoma with 5,000 pounds of bomb right behind your head. I think Tim always wanted to die. But that’s not something I would ever say to Bill. He may read it someplace, but he’s never going to hear it from me.”

Bill McVeigh saw his son for the last time on April 10.

Tim has specifically kept his family off his list of six witnesses to his death. He didn’t want to hug his family when they saw him. His ashes will be sent to his attorney.

There is much speculation on what his final words will be. It’s like waiting for one more bomb to go off. Wary of pain, many Oklahomans are now tuning out, vowing not to pay attention to the execution at all.

Bud Welch — living in a country where 65 to 70 percent of voters favor the death penalty, where it is possible to attend Mass at any Catholic church and sign up for antiabortion rallies in the foyer but rare to hear a parish priest inveigh against capital punishment — isn’t sure where he’ll be on May 16.

Probably not at Jesus Wept.

Maybe at home.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “There was a woman who came up to me in December of ’99 at a meeting. Her daughter was killed in the bombing, like mine. She said to me, very quietly, in essence: ‘Bud, I want to be where you are. How did you get there?’

“At first I didn’t know what to tell her. I said, ‘Here’s what I think is going on with you . . .’ “

Bud holds up a tightened fist.

“I had her make a fist and I said: ‘Look in there, where your fingers are squeezed into your palm. Look in that little space here, inside your fist. See? You’re holding on to it. There’s vengeance in there. I understand. You’re holding on to it because you feel like you’re honoring your daughter’s life. But here’s what I think: I think you can honor her better by letting go of the hate and rage. Loosen it up just a little at a time. If you feel like you’re losing too much of it, then tighten it up again. Then, loosen it later, see if that revenge is slipping out. Physically try it.’ “

A few months later, Bud was coming back from a death row vigil, outside an Arizona penitentiary. (“Some states kill at midnight,” he observes. “Arizona has no shame about it — they do it in the middle of the afternoon.”) Somewhere in the warped heat of a desert nowhere, as he drove back to the interstate, Bud’s cell phone rang.

The connection was bad, but it was the woman with the clenched fist, calling from Oklahoma City. He had to call her back three times just to hear her through the static.

“She said, ‘Bud, I’ve been trying what you said, with the fist. . . . I’ve been trying, and I think it’s beginning to work.’ “

(c) 2001 The Washington Post


  1. Linda on April 19, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    Thank you. Bud is an amazing person and teacher for humanity. The best article I ever read about this issue because it was so personal thanks to Bud and his courage to be open to transform.

  2. Jolene on April 19, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    A good portrayal of this man’s life now–or when you wrote the article. Captures the tension in the community and his sensitivity to it, as well as his separateness from it.

  3. Laura Keefe on April 20, 2015 at 12:25 am

    Thank you, Hank, for reminding us of the need to be humane. Bud is a fine man and you wrote a beautiful, touching picture of his journey from grief to reconciliation. Thanks for re-sharing.

  4. Liz on April 20, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Really powerful. Thank you for re-posting this.

  5. Nancy Adkisson on April 20, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    This is a beautifully written, very personal description of one man’s search for wholeness in a world of broken people. I am usually in favor of the death penalty. Bud’s example has made me think more seriously about that…. God and I will have to talk about it. Thanks for sharing it again.

  6. Joe on November 6, 2021 at 5:08 am

    I read this for the first time today and it reminded me that I’ve missed your writing lately.

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