An old friend and his tragedy We called him Hoppy, a name he picked up from his dad. He was part of our gang in the old days, a cluster of neighborhood kids, mostly boys, who for that brief, sweet moment known as childhood, did almost everything fun together, growing up in a small town. Age would get the better of us and eventually we would go away, elsewhere – to school, to jobs and careers, to other lives. And, eventually, we would forget about each other.
Our pal Larry Hopkins, the Hoppy we knew from long ago, is in jail. The police say he murdered his wife with a handgun on November 5 at their home in Lawrence. There have been stories about this in the local paper, most of them sympathetic in an odd way. It is apparent that Larry and Margaret Hopkins had fallen prey to multiple curses – harsh economic times, ill health, the indifference of government regulations, the cold politics in lancing help for the poor and the sick. Pride, too, had a role. Reporters have talked to their family, friends and neighbors. Not one of them had anything critical or unkind to say. Larry, 67, and Margaret, 61, were good, polite people who mostly kept to themselves. Before poor health crippled them both, they were avid gardeners, generous neighbors, kind to visitors. (“He was the nicest, sweetest man,” Dayna Lee told a reporter, “sweet as all Margaret was a heavy woman and suffered arthritis, diabetes, nerve damage, bad knees. Larry, 67, is thin and fair-skinned, and like his father has a history of heart trouble, including at least one stroke. Larry was in college when his dad, Leon, dropped dead while bowling in Salina with friends; he was 39. It was his heart.
The stories about Larry and Margaret are less about a murder and more about the pitiless circumstance that led to her death.Larry used a walker. About a year ago he suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Neighbors took Margaret, confined to a wheelchair, to see him in the hospital. They also helped him tend to Margaret at home. “He couldn’t care for her,” a neighbor told a reporter. “He had trouble caring for himself.”As their health continued to decline, their home fell into disrepair. The couple was caught in what bureaucrats call a “resource gap.” Larry was Margaret’s primary caregiver in spite of his own health trouble. The couple fit the profile of a caregiver reluctant to ask for help and a patient in an age gap, which kept her from receiving some services; more, they joined the ranks of growing waiting lists, due to depleted funding. Age and income requirements were obstacles. Margaret was not 65. They were poor, but not poor enough. Or old enough.
LINCOLN, Kansas, the town where we grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, was like most other river towns in those days – unhurried, somewhat isolated, a quiet, sly place. Busy, too. The Interstate highways were on the drawing boards and in some states construction had begun. Kansas would wait.
Lincoln, 45 miles north and west of Salina, was at the intersection of major state highways, east-west
K-14 and north-south K-18, and traffic through town in those days was often heavy, and lessened only slightly after the K-18 bypass was built in the early 1960s.
About 2,000 people lived there, in the Saline
Valley, where the river and its tributaries cut through the northern Smoky Hills. The town’s main intersection included banks on opposite corners, and Snyder’s Drug Store; Snyder’s and Frevelle’s Rexall Drug, with their shelves of goodies, were a hop and a skip from the Roach Theater, which served only popcorn. A large public drinking fountain at the northwest corner of the intersection marked the spot where most of us left our bikes when we went to the movies.
Larry lived across the street on our hill, next to the Millers (our pals Bobby and John George) and not far from the Smiths and Jensens. He was part of our “gang” – boys and, occasionally, girls, who rode bikes together and played Army and
Cowboys and Indians, and who split into two- or three-member teams for ball games in someone’s Larry’s dad, Leon, was the game warden, and one of the nicest men I ever knew. He and Larry did a lot of hunting and fishing, and they were very good at it. Leon also was a superb golfer who won more than his share of local and regional tournaments. Larry had a younger sister, Melissa (Missy).
In school, Larry was brilliant. He enrolled in the college prep curriculum and made straight As. An A-minus was rare for him. HE WAS Hoppy to all of us close to him. In the earliest years I remember, when we were 8 to 10, we did almost everything together outside school.
He wasn’t a great athlete – too skinny –but he was active in pee wee and little league baseball, and we played sand lot ball and backyard football and basketball. Hoppy excelled in the outdoorsman stuff – especially hunting and fishing. There he had an advantage because his dad started him earlier than
I can remember. By the time we were old enough to start with a .22 rifle and .410 shotgun, Hoppy was already a skilled shooter and loading his own 20-gauge shells. He taught us a lot about wing shooting, how to lean into the shot, move with the wind, lead the target, even how to walk on certain terrain – “…Heel first, like this…” he’d say – to make the least noise. His dad was a Boy Scout troop leader, and Hoppy and I camped with him, usually in the woods by the river. It was on one of those campouts that I first fired a .38 revolver, and felt the difference – the double action, the recoil – compared to a .22. Hoppy was also an expert with a fly rod, when all the rest of us could only look at the thing.
One afternoon we were walking home from school when, not far from the Methodist Church, Hoppy groaned loudly and fell to the sidewalk. An arrow was stuck in the back of his parka.
While Hoppy moaned and reached for the arrow in his back I took cover behind a nearby tree, looked around, and then heard a noise overhead. There was Paul Peters, grinning down at us. By the time he hit the ground, Hoppy was up holding the arrow and cursing his (former?) pal. I don’t remember the terms, but I think Paul owed Hoppy all the sodas he could drink for a month at Snyder’s Drug.We kicked around as boys, built forts using old saw horses with roofs of scrap planks and weed clods, rode bikes at night and looked in windows of unsuspecting neighbors; we swam in the creek (in spite of parents’ cries that the town had a perfectly safe swimming pool); we built camps in the woods and thickets east of our house, and occasionally camped there overnight. We were pals, solid pals in those days.
AS ALL boys will, we ultimately suffered the curse of growing up. The pals became buddies. Because Hoppy was a year older we had no classes together, but somehow landed in the same German class in high school. At the time, German instruction began in 7th grade, and by grades 11 and 12 we were in classes that forbade spoken English.
Hoppy and I took great delight honing our skills in hurling German insults – at each other in class. It may have been good, in a way, for our language development, but our teacher, Herr Schmidt, found it less than amusing. (At times, though, we could see just the slightest twitch of a smile behind those enormous eyeglasses of his.)
They were creative insults, nothing profane, but they did disrupt the class and for that Herr Schmidt would pronounce penalty: a 100-word theme of apology, in German of course, due at the beginning of class the next day. But because one insult always begat a response, and so forth, usually muttered but easily heard by Herr Schmidt, the 100-word punishment could quickly become 200, 300 or more.
“Aber Herr Schmidt, Ich habe nichts getan!” I would whine, insisting I had done nothing, trying not to laugh.Often we’d wind up at one or the other’s house that night, working on our German punishment and laughing as we thumbed through our German dictionaries, reference books and private catalogues of creative insults.
HOPPY, A BRAIN, had made the best grades – or nearly the best – in school, and headed to Kansas University with a full academic scholarship. Ayear later I was there, and we saw each other occasionally, but we could never manage our way into the same German class.
I heard nothing from Hoppy after his dad died, and then I learned he had dropped out of school and joined the Army – stunning news. He’d been a brilliant student, burning through some of the most difficult coursework at the university. And he left to join the Army?
THREE YEARS later, in late 1970, I heard from him. He was in town – Salina – and wanted to have a drink, catch up. I’d just returned to Kansas from a couple of years in New York and was a reporter at The Salina Journal. Hoppy came to the house with a couple of bottles of his favorite Hungarian wine, Tokay.
He seemed happy. He loved the Army. He was to specialize in weapons systems and weapons research, and had continued studying German.
As I recall, he said he expected a posting soon in Eastern Europe, for him an exciting prospect with a cold war then showing little signs of a thaw.He had a lot to say about the political tensions in Eastern Europe, the development and deployment of Soviet weapons there, the dangers looming for that region and what might be done to avoid escalating tensions. I was vacant through most of his lecture. Hoppy seemed intent on convincing me that he was still brilliant (I needed no convincing), that he had important work to do, and that he intended to advance his career as quickly as possible.
I wanted, ultimately, to write the great American novel, I told him. What did he want to do?A distant look fell across his face. He wanted to put in 20 or 25 Army years and retire. Then he would buy a piece of the best land in Montana, build a home on it, and there he would enjoy the best hunting and fishing in the country. That’s what he would do.
I never saw him again.THE STORIES about Margaret’s murder note that she and Larry were married in 1989. She had grown up in Overland Park, graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School, left home for KU and settled in Lawrence, “where she would spend the rest of her life and, for a time, serve as a social worker,” one of the stories said. Details about Larry are sketchy, but include that after their marriage he had begun a 19-year career at the Spencer Research Library at KU. There is, so far, no mention of his service in the Army, or for how long.
Their garden in Lawrence was apparently a source of great pride and, in 1989, the subject of a feature story in the Journal-World. There were hundreds of bulbs, heritage plants, sculptures. Margaret’s health declined. Margaret had fallen and was hurt several times. A wheelchair ramp was built at their house. Neighbors told reporters that Margaret hadn’t been in her garden for many years. The home was deteriorating. Ambulance visits became more frequent. As the neighbors had said, Larry could not even care for himself, let alone Margaret.
REGULATIONS governing medical help for the poor are a matted undergrowth of irony and complexity. The Senior Care Act, for example, is a non-Medicaid program offering in-home care for people 60 or older who have applied for disability. But there are regulations about disability, and applying for it, and waiting lists because of low funding.
It is unclear what resources may have been available to Larry and Margaret. And no one seems to know whether they were eligible for the state’s retiree health insurance plan. None of this matters. Larry and Margaret were poor, and they were sick. Larry could no longer even hope to care for his wife, and now she is dead.
And so, in a way, is Hoppy. On November 6, the day after Margaret’s murder, a judge asked if he had any comment about his bail, set at $150,000. “Your honor, even if on my own recognizance, I have no place to go,” he said. One thing an old pal knows: Margaret Hopkins is dead and her husband is accused of killing her, but Hoppy is not a murderer. He just isn’t.
story by – John Marshall