Thursday, August 17, 2006

Missives from Grove, Part 5

If you moved to a little town like Grove, sitting on a beautiful and undeveloped lake, in the 1950s, you might get ideas about doing something with this untapped resource. Today we interviewed the widow of the man who owned the Grove Sun newspaper at the time that Henrie was arrested. One of her most poignant remarks was that the people of this town "just didn't know what they had." She and her husband rolled into town in 1953 only to discover that there were no places to live. "There were no properties, no places to rent, hardly any buildings." The people in Grove walked around with no shoes, the roads weren't paved and there was no Chamber of Commerce, no Library and no Civic clubs like the Masonic temple.

As we talked to Ms. Wiley, it was clear that she thought Grove was simply living in the 19th century. People like the Wileys, who were starting to move into Grove in the mid 50s got the idea of attracting business and initiating economic development. But, there were some definite obstacles to such plans. For example, there was this county doctor named Doc Henrie who provided abortions for anyone in the town or from other states, who would travel to get an abortion. If you walked into the main square of town on a Friday night, right next to the Community Center, you would see cars lining the block, two deep, with license plates from California, New York, Washington and Kansas. About 500 people traveled through Grove a year seeking out an abortion. And, there sat Doc Henrie's clinic, wedged in between the church and the city officials.

If you were a young, ambitious couple settling in Grove during the economic boom time of the post WWII, you might find it quite unsettling to discover that the country doctor had more patients than just the poor farmers and generations of families living in Delaware county. The Wileys were certainly ashamed of Dr. Henrie and what he was doing. No one they knew would ever visit this osteopath if they needed a doctor. What did he know anyway? A new doctor had just arrived in town and with new comers and some of the affluent town folks was trying to start up a real hospital. But, Dr. Henrie and his unsavory business simply stood in the way.

Don Wiley, the editor of the Grove Sun, wrote an editorial about Doc Henrie after he left Grove for the penitentiary. The article was entitled "The Shame of Grove," and basically argued just that: Dr. Henrie was bad for Grove's reputation. Now, we asked Mrs. Wiley if she disapproved of abortions. She explained that she was a life long member of the First Christian Church and we knew her eldest son is a minister for Campus Crusade. She said "not necessarily." So I sat there for a few minutes trying to make sense of what it meant to call Dr. Henrie the shame of Grove, if abortion wasn't a horrible sin. And, all of a sudden it hit me like a Mack truck. You couldn't really attract new business into Grove, develop the lake area and convince retirees from the big city to spend their twilight years in this sleepy little fishing hole if it housed a big "abortion mill." How embarrassing.

Folks like the Wileys represented middle class, suburbanite values. You just don't have an abortionist who gives vitamin shots to farmers and delivers their babies at all hours of the night if you want to draw in respectable middle class folks. Dr. Henrie was just a symbol of how backward this little town was.

Before Doc Henrie headed off for the penitentiary, folks from all over Delaware county made their way into Grove to be there for his send off. The town had a pot luck and ice cream social. Mothers brought all the babies that Doc Henrie delivered and surrounded him for a picture that never made it into the Grove Sun. Mr. Wiley thought the whole event was a publicity stunt, set up by Doc Henrie. It was part and parcel of his larger than life ego and need to be affirmed and loved by the townspeople, Wiley thought. Another young journalist named Mike McCarville ran a 5 part series on Doc Henrie a year later in the Daily Oklahoman, suggesting that Doc Henrie was a pied piper, whose charismatic personality cast a spell over these poor and uneducated farmers.

We talked to a couple of women who were at that picnic, the current Mayor of Grove and a farmer from Southwest City, Mo. Neither had any sense that this town send off was a publicity stunt planned by Doc Henrie. Nadine, the chicken farmer, said that she drove up with her three babies from Tulsa to be there to see Henrie. Nadine is also the same woman who believed and continues to believe that Doc Henrie was going to hell if he didn't quit doing abortions.

When we asked Mrs. Riley if she remembered the picnic, she smiled and stared at us with a sort of smirk. We pushed a bit to find out what she didn't want to say and then she said: "The whole thing was a comedy." And she smiled. You see, for Mrs. Wiley and other newcomers like her, the idea that the whole town would gather at the community center to send off their doctor to prison--celebrating or bemoaning this moment--was just plain declasse.

So the story of why Doc Henrie finally got caught turns not on a religious conviction that abortion is a sin. He did not get run out by the preachers. And the good Christian people of Grove didn't shun him. Doc Henrie was finally arrested and charged by the local county attorney because it was time clean up this outlaw town of its abortionist and turn this little hamlet into a respectable resort town.

Over and over again in our interviews we heard the residents from "old Grove," the men and women whose families had lived there for generations, bemoan how much this little town had lost its close knit community. In the 40s and early 50s, if you lived in Grove, you might be struggling--starving even--but the town looked after each other. At the heart of this little town was a country doctor on a mission. He was determined to heal these people. He wasn't just interested in curing what ailed them physically, but he cared about every aspect of their lives. He paid for the kids to go to college, he gave jobs to young women and men who might want to be nurses or doctors, he went in on chicken farms with poor farmers, and he gave people who found themselves in trouble another chance.

Doc Henrie's mission was to lift people out of poverty. And he went about it by treating them one at a time. No one was ever left behind in Doc Henrie's Grove.

The new folks who showed up in the mid-50s, however, had different ideas about how to deal with poverty. Dr. Halterman, the dentist we spoke to said, "in the old days when people were poor they were starving, if people are starving now, its their own fault." The close knit community, wherein everyone was accounted for and looked after, turned into a fractured town with really rich and really poor people. Grove became a town where those who want help help themselves. Halterman represents a shift in thinking among the better off in Grove. When Doc Henrie was around, it didn't matter if you were a Baptist or a Methodist, it didn't matter if your father was a businessman or a poor farmer, this was a community and everyone looked out for each other. When new people with new ideas and money showed up, wanting to shape this tiny town into what they were used to in Witchita or California, the community fragmented. The solution to poverty was more jobs, more money coming into the county, decent roads, a real doctor, and some respectable civic institutions.

Alas, the story of the abortionist from Grove isn't really a story about abortion after all. This is a story about power, politics, and economic development. This is a story about middle class Eisenhower Republicans rolling into a town populated by barefoot Okies and looking to civilize them. This is a story of colonization and development of natural resources. And, this is not just a story about Grove, but about small towns scattered all over this country.