Coach Ed Thomas' life, death loom heavily in Iowa communities 10 years after his murder

Photo: Justin Hayworth/Des Moines Register
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PARKERSBURG, Ia. — You have to make a deep impression to leave a void like Ed Thomas did here.

This week marks 10 years since the man most devoted to Parkersburg’s success was gunned down in a red shed while supervising high school athletes doing some early-morning weightlifting. That’s a decade of anguish for those closest to Thomas, which was seemingly everyone who ever came in contact with him. And 10 years of trying to honor the memory of a beloved football coach and teacher who was so much more than that for this northeast Iowa town of 1,870 people.

Thomas’ impact can still be heard in the voices of his former players, who continue to lean on the lessons he taught them so many years ago. Emotions remain raw for the countless friends he made during 34 years of service to Parkersburg. It’s a tight-knit community that also includes the family of the mentally ill young man who killed Thomas — a family grateful to be embraced instead of shunned after one of the most high-profile crimes in Iowa history.

A stone engraving on the wall at Aplington-Parkersburg High School’s Ed Thomas Field features a quotation from the coach, who was killed on June 24, 2009. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

No one feels the weight of the Ed Thomas legacy more than Aaron Thomas, who moved back home in the wake of his father’s death and is now the principal at Aplington-Parkersburg High School (Iowa). Here, he gazes daily at an homage to his dad permanently displayed near the front entrance.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my dad. Not necessarily his death or how he died, but his impact on my decision-making. I try to continue to make him proud. I don’t think that will ever change,” said Aaron Thomas, 40.

“My last name’s not just mine.”

Aaron Thomas, principal of Aplington-Parkersburg High School and son of Ed Thomas, stands for a photo near the school’s football field Thursday, June 13, 2019. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

The day when everything changed in Parkersburg

Ed Thomas was murdered on June 24, 2009, by Mark Becker, a former football player of his who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Thomas was 58 years old. Becker was sentenced to life in prison and has been kept in Coralville at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center facility, known as Oakdale, ever since. Becker had come to believe that Thomas and his parents, Dave and Joan Becker, were poisoning the minds of the children of Parkersburg and needed to be stopped.

The murder scene was ghastly. It still haunts those who witnessed it.

Dan Smith got to the shed moments after Becker shot Thomas. He was dropping off his daughter, Shelby, a volleyball player, when he saw Becker leave the building and scream something at some nearby girls.

Aplington-Parkersburg students and teammates hug each other in 2009 during a vigil following Ed Thomas’ murder. (Photo: File/The Register)

Smith raced inside.

“There was utter panic. Many of the kids were up against their lockers with their hands up as if they were under arrest,” Smith said.

He saw Thomas on the floor and hustled Shelby out of the building before she could get a close-up view of what he will never forget.

“It was just gruesome. I still have nightmares about that,” Smith said.

The events of June 24, 2009, have given him a new mission. Smith was a Baptist minister at the time. He now works at the Quakerdale Foundation, a New Providence-based organization that provides Christ-focused youth programs, as a fundraiser and teacher.

“The thing that it solidified for me is if we don’t step it up and get more help for kids out there, this is going to be more of a common occurrence,” Smith said. “Do not assume that everything is OK. We need to be more vigilant about helping with mental health.”

The tombstone for Ed Thomas in Parkersburg includes five footballs. (Photo: Mark Emmert/Des Moines Register)

Ed Thomas’ former players still draw inspiration

Ed Thomas’ tombstone at Oak Hill Cemetery doesn’t stand out from a distance; it’s just one in a long row, as modest as he was in life. You have to search to find it. The most noticeable feature is the five footballs planted beside it. The onetime quarterback at William Penn College was devoted to the sport and to the town he moved to in 1975.

Thomas won 292 high school football games and two state championships as coach at Aplington-Parkersburg. Four of his players — Jared DeVries, Aaron Kampman, Casey Wiegmann and Brad Meester — went on to play in the NFL, an incredible feat for these rural communities of about 3,000 people total. He also taught social studies and served as activities director at the high school. Scores of local teenagers learned how to drive from Thomas, who taught driver’s education in the summer.

It seemed like every boy in Parkersburg participated in the Saturday morning youth football league he began. He knew them all by name and would encourage them all to become future Falcon players once they reached high school. Almost all of them did. It was common for 80 to 90 boys to go out for the football teams Thomas coached. A decade later, Aplington-Parkersburg had 50 on the roster.

Near the conclusion of each football season, Thomas would have his seniors write down what being a Falcon had meant to them. They would read the messages to the entire team, then put them in a capsule along with a football and bury them on the field that Thomas so tenderly manicured for 34 years, “The Sacred Acre.” Their location was unmarked. No one is sure if Thomas ever had a plan for digging them up and re-reading them. No one will ever know. They remain an unrevealed part of his legacy.

A stone outside Aplington-Parkersburg High School’s Ed Thomas Field, named after the school’s late football coach, marks “The Sacred Acre.” (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

Thomas’ former players have never been shy when speaking about his impact, however.

Two of them — Wiegmann and Jon Jordan — were instrumental in forming the Ed Thomas Family Foundation shortly after the 2009 tragedy. The nonprofit offers a leadership academy for 500-plus MIdwest high school students each fall in Parkersburg and another each spring in Des Moines, becoming another part of Thomas’ legacy.

Then there are former Falcon players like Matthew Wicks, who had never touched a football growing up in Alaska but threw himself into the sport immediately after his family moved to Parkersburg when he was a fifth grader. Thomas was the reason.

Wicks’ family attended First Congregational Church, where Thomas was a deacon, and their home was one of many destroyed in a May 2008 tornado. Thomas became the driving force behind a rebuilding effort that left everyone, Wicks included, in awe. Thomas’ finest moment in the spotlight led to the town actually adding population.

“He was able to inspire people,” said Wicks, who was in the weight room preparing for his sophomore season as a lineman when the shooting occurred.

Wicks has never forgotten the example Thomas set. He now lives in Orlando, Florida, and recently left a job as an editor with the Jesus Film Project to pursue a career as a freelance videographer and writer. It’s a bit of a scary proposition, requiring a “willingness to believe in yourself and take risks and work hard,” Wicks said.

“I’ll be remembering a lot of days on the football field with coach Thomas” to help get through it, he said.

Erik Kalkwarf still refers to Thomas as just “Coach.” He, too, played on the line at Aplington-Parkersburg, right next to his close friend Mark Becker in their senior season. In a sense, Kalkwarf suffered a double loss on June 24, 2009 — the coach who inspired him and the childhood buddy he has not seen since the shooting.

“It was a pretty shocking blow when you figure out it was one of your friends who did it and you’d just seen him maybe four or five days before that and you thought he was doing better than he had been in a long time. It was the best I’d seen him in years,” Kalkwarf said of Becker.

Kalkwarf is a resident counselor for North Iowa Juvenile Detention Services in Waterloo. He was at work the day of the murder, trying to make sense of what he was hearing from afar. He still has been unable to find meaning in it. From his house in Parkersburg, Kalkwarf can see the high school football practice field.

“There’s not too many days that I don’t think about either one of them,” he said of Thomas and Becker. “When I think about Mark, I usually think about the good memories we had growing up.”

That includes bowling trips or taking “The Lap” — a teenage ritual of driving for hours through downtown Parkersburg on a weekend night. It was two pals talking about life, in an era before cellphones were ubiquitous.

Kalkwarf’s life now involves trying to steer troubled young people onto a better path.

“I see kids who aren’t given much of a chance and try to show them there’s still hope for you, there’s still a way to change your life,” Kalkwarf said.

It sounds like something Ed Thomas would have said. Kalkwarf recalls Thomas’ favorite quote: “If all I’ve taught you is how to block and tackle, I’ve failed you.”

“Ten years down the road, it means a lot more to me,” Kalkwarf said of that message.

Aplington-Parkersburg head football coach Ed Thomas helps players fit their helmets. (Register file photo)

A legion of Ed Thomas’ friends: ‘I’m a better person for knowing him’

Parkersburg, surrounded by farmland, is the largest town in Butler County, which is the only county in Iowa to not have a stoplight. It was here that Thomas came to cultivate friendships.

“More people would call Ed their best friend than any other human being I’ve ever known,” said Chris Luhring, who grew up with Aaron Thomas and later helped Ed Thomas coach track at the high school.

Luhring, who was the Parkersburg police chief at the time of the murder and is now the city administrator, was among those who counted Thomas as his closest friend. They spoke nearly every day. They talked about Luhring having a large family some day. Thomas joked that it was one way to assure that the high school could remain classified as 2A for athletic competition. Luhring has seven children. The oldest two, Blaine and Ty, got “draft cards” in the mail from Thomas when they were born. These were letters Thomas would send to every boy welcoming him to his football team 15 years in the future. They are prized possessions for the Luhring family.

Luhring draws inspiration from Thomas every day.

“Whenever I have a tendency to think, ‘That’s good enough,’ it never is. He pushes me,” Luhring said.

“If Ed heard me talking about him right now, he’d be a little angry. He’d be a little upset. He’d want me to talk about our school. He’d want me to talk about my community. He’d want me to talk about one of the players who’s really successful. He’d want me to talk about everything but him.”

Tom Teeple and Chuck Krusey talk about Ed Thomas at Tom’s Barber Shop in downtown Parkersburg, Iowa, on Thursday, June 13, 2019. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

But it’s difficult for those who knew Thomas to not talk about him. Tom Teeple met Thomas in 1969 in What Cheer, an occasion he can recall with clarity 50 years later. In 1977, he followed Thomas to Parkersburg, opening a barber shop downtown that he still runs. Teeple considered Thomas his best friend. They would travel the state together to find Thursday night high school football games to watch, an activity Thomas insisted on as a way to try to relax on the eve of his own contests.

Teeple and Thomas were scheduled to meet for dinner and a haircut the evening he was killed. Teeple chokes up thinking about his lost friend.

“I’m a better person for knowing him,” he said.

An anguished anniversary for the Thomas family: ‘I just hope he’s never forgotten’

This month has been particularly troubling for Susan Reynolds, Ed Thomas’ oldest sister. A 67-year-old nurse, Reynolds moved to Montana in 2008 and so was far removed when her brother was slain. She came back to Iowa for one week, but skipped Mark Becker’s trial. She didn’t want to hear the grisly details about the death of her beloved brother, only 18 months older than her. The two were always very close, Reynolds said.

The emotions have come pouring back for Reynolds as the 10-year anniversary neared. She didn’t get to grieve with her three younger siblings and her brother’s family, and she thinks that may be why she finds it so hard to find peace. She said it actually grows more difficult to comprehend what happened with each passing year.

“It’s something that changes you,” Reynolds said. “You’re never the same. You definitely look at life differently and how precious it is. And what is sad is Jan has been robbed of a husband. The boys have been robbed of a dad. And the (five) grandchildren have been robbed of a grandfather.”

Reynolds said she has no animosity toward Mark Becker. She rarely thinks about him. But her brother is always in her thoughts.

“I just hope he’s never forgotten,” she said.

Aaron Thomas echoes this. A former basketball star at Aplington-Parkersburg, Aaron at first took over his dad’s activities director duties. He has been principal for five years. He co-teaches the adult Sunday school class at First Congregational that his father once led. Dave and Joan Becker were among Ed Thomas’ first pupils in that class.

In this small town, the echoes of his father are everywhere — mainly for the better. But June is very difficult for the Thomas family. Father’s Days have never been the same, Aaron said.

To this day, he believes he needs to be a bigger man, to help the town heal. It’s what Ed Thomas would have required of him.

“I don’t spend a ton of time on that,” he said of the manner of his father’s death. “I’m able to sleep well at night.

“My dad always talked about the power to choose. We can either get stuck in June 24, 2009, forever or try to find a way to move forward and dust ourselves off. The same thing he talked about after that tornado was kind of great foreshadowing for what we’d need to do 13 months later.”

And what Aaron Thomas is still doing.

Ed Thomas’ legacy is alive and well in Parkersburg. And, this month particularly, so is the sadness.

Read the full story at the Des Moines Register.

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