I’ve witnessed wonderful things that come from living in a small town. I am amazed at how much everyone feels the same way when we go through things together. When the high school team wins a tough game, we all are excited. We rally around the team. The cheerleaders decorate the halls of the school to promote school spirit and support for the team. It stirs up hometown pride and we feel like we are a part of the team too.
But the most remarkable thing I’ve ever witnessed is how we dealt with loss, grief, and pain. If you grew up in a small town, I am sure you’ll be able to relate to the things I’m about to say.
The accident that took the lives of my brother, his best friend and my cousin was a defining moment in my life. Its impact was significant. It changed my family. It changed me forever.
My life moved in a different direction because of the tragedy.
However, it did not take long for me to realize that I was not alone in suffering from the grief and guilt of losing someone so young and so much a part of your life.
If you pause for just a moment and think about it, our little town has had so much more than its fair share of loss. Especially when it comes to losing young people. We have lost so many teenagers long before they ever had a chance to experience all the good that this life can bring. While these tragic losses have been surrounded by many wonderful things like sports wins, proms, and graduations, the times of loss always seemed to outweigh the good.
Anybody from a small town can attest to the fact that if someone in your town experiences a loss, it somehow becomes your loss. Why is that? In no way do we feel the hurt that the family and friends of this individual feel, but we see our community hurting and we empathize. It quickly takes us back to that time we experienced the loss of a loved one. Whether it was a sister, brother, cousin, friend, classmate, or significant other. We remember, and we hurt for the person going through the same thing.
This is a reminder that we are all connected in some way. You may not have known the person personally, but may remember them singing with the choir at church, or remember them coming to your house to play with your child. Your child may have ridden the bus with them, you may know their aunt from work, or their mom through a family friend. Either way, there’s a connection, and when you think about all that person could have been or had been while here on earth, you’re saddened.
When a loved one passes away in our small community, news travels fast. Tragic news from a single phone call spreads quickly. Hundreds of people across the area mourn because everyone knows everyone and is connected in some way.
Small towns have a reputation for everybody knowing your business, and for everyone being related in some way, but that’s not always a bad thing. While people usually respond to this issue with an eye roll, this kind of connection results in a stronger community than I have been able to find anywhere else. At the end of the day, we stick together and support one another in times of crisis.
The list of children, teenagers and young adults from Oak Harbor that have died is devastating. I do not have a complete list, but I know that during my life, at least 40 young people have passed on from our small town. There may have been more. Many of them died after I left Oak Harbor, but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t affect me. The list is so long that I could not mention them all. I fear that I would inadvertently leave one off the list. I never want to treat a life lived with so little concern that I might possibly offend one of the affected families.
So, I can only speak to those that had an impact on me during my time living in Oak Harbor. Again, please know this, I have no intention of offending any family or having anyone feeling slighted because I missed mentioning someone.
Regardless of how old or how they have passed on, each loss of a loved one is hard. However, the loss when they are young is the hardest. You don’t expect people to be taken away from you so soon.
This chapter has been hard to write, but I remember being at the baseball diamond at R.C. Waters School waiting for the game to start when we were told to gather around the bench. Our coach told us that there would be no game that night due to a farming accident that took the life of our teammate, Jeff Hurrell.
I know exactly where I was when I was told that our classmate, Danny Neitz, had passed away. It was the first time I had ever known someone who died of cancer.
The September morning in 1974 after Scott Harder and Tom Apling were killed in a car accident was surreal because just a few days before I had talked to them about my brother Bobby’s accident.
On December 4, 1971, five students were killed in a single car accident coming home from Penta County Vocational School. Those students, Jim Foreman, Tom Shanteau, Donald Whiting, Jim Pierson and Earle Douglas were all getting ready to graduate that spring.
Combined with my brother’s accident, these represent 12 teenagers taken from a town of 2,500 in population in less than four years (1970 – 1974).
Again, there may have been more but these are the ones I remember.
There was another event that took place during those four short years of the early 70’s that had a profound influence on me and on our little town.
I think it was about 9:00 AM when I heard the helicopter. It was loud and it sounded like it was landing right outside the window of our 8th grade Ohio History class. Mr. Morse stopped teaching and we all looked out the window of our classroom to see if we could see where it landed. We knew it was close because of the sound but we could not see it. Mr. Morse told us to stay in the classroom as he stepped outside to investigate.
After a few minutes, Mr. Morse returned and said that the helicopter landed on the practice field right next to the high school. He told us that a police car picked up a few people from the helicopter and they had left.
In a small town like ours, this was big news. I had never heard of a helicopter landing on the high school practice field before and we all were wondering what was going on.
As the day wore on there were rumors and stories floating around about who was in the helicopter. Some were saying it was someone famous and others were saying it was just someone visiting the mayor. What we would find out about why this helicopter landed in Oak Harbor would change how I slept at night.
In the early hours of November 12, 1974, a few area young men broke into a local bar in downtown Oak Harbor. They broke into a few coin machines at the bar and took a few bottles of alcohol. They left that bar and went driving around and after they finished off the bottles, they drove to the Northland Bait and Sporting Goods store located on North Locust Street.
Around 4:00 AM, they removed a side window and entered the store. They were going to steal some guns and ammunition and during that process a hunting decoy was knocked over. This woke up the owner’s dog and it started to bark.
After the dog started to bark, Mrs. Musser, the owner, came down the stairs to see why. Unknowingly, she walked into an ongoing burglary. The young men that were involved immediately pulled out the handguns and rifle they had just stolen and pointed them at her. She was then led to the back of the store where they took a scarf and made it into a blindfold and covered her eyes. They had been in the store before and they were afraid that she could identify them.
Gretchen Musser, along with her husband, was the owner of the bait store. I knew Mrs. Musser and she knew me. Also, she knew my brother Bobby before he died.
I used to go to the store often. Sometimes to buy a pop or some candy after playing football or baseball games with the kids that lived at the north end of town. Also, I would go to the store when Kenny Wheeler, our next-door neighbor, would take me fishing with him. We would stop in the store and buy worms and tackle for our fishing trips. She wasn’t always working in the store, but she was there enough for her to know that I was the youngest Lee boy.
These men kidnapped her and took her with them when they left the store.
The helicopter that landed just outside of the school that morning was the FBI that came to assist the local police in finding Mrs. Musser. All the authorities knew was that there had been a robbery and that she was missing. For our little town, this was devastating. We never even considered locking the doors to our house, let alone comprehending the horror of someone kidnapping another person.
News travels fast in a small town. It wasn’t long before the whole town was aware of the situation and the shock wave of fear had made its way to each home. Suddenly, people were locking their doors and keeping their lights on all night.
Everyone was on alert. Questions that this small town never had to face before were on the mind of every person. Who could have done this? Why did they do it and most importantly, where was Mrs. Musser?
Those questions would be answered three days later when one of the young men who was involved confessed to the police what happened.
Within a half-hour after breaking into the store, they took Mrs. Musser to a barn a few miles away and took her life.
For the first time, I realized the evil that people can do. Up to this point in my life, I had never known evil in our small town. Sure, I had endured and experienced tragedy and loss, but not pure evil. Those things happened in big towns, cities and other places. It was something that you heard on the news, or read in the newspaper. It wasn’t found a few blocks from your home.
I think of Mrs. Musser often. I have not forgotten a wonderful woman that just wanted to live long enough to see her grandchildren. She was cheated out of that. She was cheated out of a full life by the hands of a few young men.
For a long time, there is no doubt that the events that took the life of Mrs. Musser, changed our town. Suddenly, people withdrew and kept to themselves. I stopped knowing all the names of people that moved into my neighborhood. Porch lights that once offered warm invitations for everyone to visit, were now burning cold and protective. They were now used as shields of defense to keep people away.
It took a while for it to get back to normal, or should I say, the “new normal.” I am not sure we ever “got back” to how it was before that November day in 1974.
Once innocence is shattered, it cannot be put back as it once was.
Most people never stopped locking their doors and porch lights still functioned as security lights. As a community, we have withdrawn and do not know the person that lives down the street.
Personally, I have locked my doors every day since that day.
However, this truth remains… in difficult times, our small town remains resilient.
We rally around each other in times of tragedy and the loss of loved ones, regardless of age.
My hope and prayer is that even with our differences and perspectives, the values and way of life that was established when the village of Hartford was founded will forever be found in the people of Oak Harbor.