A strong wind is a constant in this hard-working little town on the Kansas prairie.
It whipped and stretched the crime scene tape around the Excel Industries lawn mower factory on Saturday, two days after police sealed it off from workers and the public. It toppled a small memorial to the three people killed and 14 wounded.
But the wind didn’t stop Brandy Quinn and Gaye Pennington from sending a message to their town.
In a schoolyard across the road from Excel, the joined a few others in poking red plastic cups into a chain link fence to spell out the words “#HESSTON STRONG.”
“We are just showing our support for not only Excel, but our community, because the majority of us were directly impacted,” said Quinn, a school teacher like Pennington. “We know people that work there, we know people that were injured.”
Elsewhere, residents showed solidarity in a way that makes sense in a town with an economy dominated by farm and lawn care equipment factories.
They parked Hustler and Big Dog lawn mowers, both manufactured by Excel, in their front yards.
“We stand with Excel. Thoughts & prayers,” said one sign beside a mower. “Hesston Hustler strong” said another.
In front of the plant, somebody jabbed four potted plant poles into the ground. Four company T-shirts on coat hangers fluttered in the breeze.
Killer was a factory employee
The people of Hesston are understandably traumatized by a lightning strike of violence that left three Excel employees dead.
But the killer was not an outsider or a homegrown terrorist sympathetic to ISIS.
Cedric Ford, 38, was an Excel employee known to many people here.
On Thursday afternoon, Ford shot two motorists, taking one of their vehicles, and drove to the factory, where about 200 people were working inside, Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said. Armed with two guns — an AK-47-style rifle and a Glock 22 .40-caliber pistol — Ford shot at least one person outside the building and killed three people inside, Walton said.
The violence didn’t end until the Hesston police chief went inside the factory, engaged Ford in a gunbattle, and killed him, Walton said.
Authorities are not certain of Ford’s motive, but think he may have been enraged because a former girlfriend filed a protective order against him.
‘I think I’m just numb’
Hesston, occupying four square miles about 35 miles north of Wichita, is home to 3,700 people. It has three public schools and a two-year Mennonite college, Hesston College. Two factories dominate the town economy: Excel and a hay-baling equipment plant owned by AGCO Corporation.
With a town so small and tight-knit, it’s no surprise the violence vibrated through every resident.
“I think I’m just numb, because I haven’t had any tears,” said Terre Bowlin as she watched her 5-year-old grandson play in a park a block from the Excel plant while the child’s father, Brandon, was being interviewed by police about what happened inside the plant.
Thursday was a terrifying day, she said.
“I was at work myself in Wichita and couldn’t even get to my phone until about 8 o’clock and didn’t know anything was going on,” she said. “Then I went to my phone and saw all of my messages: Call Brandon this is going on, this is going on.”
She says her grandson doesn’t understand exactly what happened, but knows all of the details.
“As soon as he saw his dad last night he said, ‘Dad there were four dead and this many wounded,’ ” she said. “He just rattled off everything. And he just said ‘I’m so glad you’re OK.’ “
Police chief would not want the attention
One thing doesn’t surprise the townspeople: The courage shown by Doug Schroeder, chief of the six-officer police department.
The governor and sheriff have called him a hero for risking his life to battle the shooter inside the factory. The people of Hesston agree.
“We are not in a metropolitan city,” said Pennington as she worked with the red cups. “It’s just maybe not in our minds that they risk their lives every day.”
“I would just say, ‘Thank you, thank you,'” Bowlin said. “He was doing what he was trained to do and it was just instinct, natural.”
“Even though he will be classified a hero, and well he should, he is humble and will graciously accept but would not care for a lot of fanfare,” Hesston City Council member F. Clare Moore said in an email to CNN. “Doug and his family live two doors from us. Great family man. Doug kind of epitomizes Hesston.”
Schroeder, 40, takes pains to know a lot of people in Hesston, Quinn said. He recently stopped by a class she runs for middle-school girls to see if one of them lost a watch that police found on the ground.
“It was just nothing for the police chief to drive by and talk to us,” Quinn said. “It’s just a small town. I mean I know probably … three-fourths of the police officers here. We saw the police dog right here. We know it by name.”
Schroeder, she said, would be embarrassed that so many people are making a fuss about him.
“(He) would not want any of this attention,” Quinn said. “He would … want us to thank everybody else. That’s just how he is. He kind of stands in the back and doesn’t want attention on him.”
But attention is something Schroeder — and Hesston — have had plenty of lately. It’s one more thing the town will have to overcome, Quinn said.
“We are going to get through this,” she said.