· Othar Wilson “Steve” Stapleton (1888-1963)
It’s Saturday evening, November 14, 1942, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Brothers Stevie, 8, and Billy, 10, are playing hide-and-seek in the Reno County courthouse, First Avenue and Adams Street. Their father, Steve Stapleton, 54, a deputy and sheriff-elect, is taking his turn as relief for the regular jailer, Lloyd Gardner, who receives Saturday nights off beginning at 6 p.m.
“I’ll count to a hundred before I come looking for you,” said Billy to Stevie. “Remember dad’s rule, no going outside.”
Stevie hurried from the fourth floor jailer’s quarters, pushed the elevator button, then hurried down the marble staircase.
Billy stopped counting and thought about how his father had been elected the new Reno County sheriff and would take office in two months. At school, Billy’s classmates had already begun asking Billy to have his father visit their classroom. They wanted to know how he caught chicken thieves.
A chicken thief was nothing to laugh about. The criminals disrupted the family, especially the wife of a farmer who often counted on the sale of chickens and eggs for her spending money.
Once sheriff, Billy had been told by his father, his trips to pick up and deliver prisoners would increase, he’d inherit the first-floor office desk of Sheriff Ankerholz, and there would be less opportunities to stay overnight in the courthouse.
“Ring!” the elevator bell announced, making Billy aware he’d been deep in thought. He walked towards the staircase to find Stevie.
On the first floor, Stevie sipped a drink of water from the fountain while on tiptoes. Then he entered the inner ring—the wall of counters—where the employees stood during the day, facing outwards, as they served the public.
Quietly, Billy walked down the staircase to the third floor and entered the lobby. Visually, he scanned the open space for Stevie then stared at the huge horizontal painting above the doors on the north wall. It was Coronado and his men encountering hostile tribes of plains Indians. There was also a priest who was trying to assure the red men.
Billy opened the door to the courtroom and immediately kneeled on the floor to see under the benches that resembled church pews. No Stevie. He stood up and walked to the stainless steel gate that opened into the official carpeted area where attorneys argued.
Again, Billy admired the historic art. Above the judge’s chair was a colorful mural displaying five people. Billy’s father had told him that the seated lady was the goddess of justice. The others included a woman pleading for mercy, a prisoner on his knees, a warrior with his sword, and a shackled prisoner awaiting punishment.
On the first floor, Billy said loudly, “I see you Stevie, you can come out now.”
Stevie was quiet. He didn’t move from his hiding place because he had been tricked before by his brother.
Billy walked over to the desk, kicked Stevie’s shoe, and said, “You’re it.”
As Stevie got to his feet, he asked, “What’s a prostitute?”
“I don’t know. Where did you hear it?”
“There are four women locked-up in one of the cells. When I asked dad what they had done to be put in jail, he didn’t answer. But later, I heard him talking to Mr. Winfrey about them being prostitutes.”
“Let’s find a dictionary,” said Billy. “I’ll look it up.”
Once the boys located a dictionary on a nearby desk, Billy found the word prostitute. He read the definition twice, but it didn’t make any sense to him.
“Should we ask Mr. Winfrey?” asked Stevie. “He’s always been nice to us.” Stevie looked down at his belt and touched the empty tobacco can that Mr. Winfrey had attached by making a belt loop. “He’s a trusty, doesn’t that mean he can be trusted?”
“Maybe,” answered Billy, “He’s nice, but he’s also a person who repeatedly writes worthless checks as soon as he’s released on parole. Dad says he doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Let’s wait and ask mom tomorrow when we get home.”
“Congratulations on your landslide victory,” said trusty Ormel Winfrey, 32, to sheriff-elect Steve Stapleton, 54.
“Thanks,” said Stapleton.
“I hope you’ll continue to be supportive of us listening to the radio as long as it’s kept at a low volume and not disruptive,” said Winfrey.
“That’s up to the jailer, not me,” said Stapleton.
“Will you be keeping Mr. Gardner on as your turnkey?”
“We’ll see about that,” said Stapleton, noncommittal.
“Remember Turnkey Kelly?” asked Winfrey.
“Of course,” answered Stapleton.
“That man loved the smell and look of fresh paint,” said Winfrey. “I think slate-gray was his favorite color.”
“He used to be a painter,” said Stapleton. “He knew the importance of keeping this place neat and clean.”
“He had us washing our overalls twice a week and baths three times a week. Whenever there was a new prisoner, we could all hear Jailer Kelly declaring, ‘There’s not going to be any filth and dirt up here.’”
“Good for him,” said Stapleton.
“I remember when you were our full-time jailer,” recalled Winfrey. “You sure got our attention with those greeting cards you placed in each cell.”
“I meant every word of it,” replied Stapleton. Then he quoted the greeting by memory:
“‘My Friends, you and I are living under the same roof for a while. All of us make mistakes and at times do wrong. Perhaps you have. I know I have. My hope is that I will be a better man for having known you, and you will be none the worse for knowing me.’”
Deputy Eugene Schroder unlocked the south door to the courthouse and entered. He heard the Stapleton boys before seeing them.
“Hello, Mr. Schroder!” yelled Stevie. “What are you doing here at night?”
“Stevie,” said Billy, “it’s none of your business.”
“It’s okay,” said Schroder, “I have a little tax-collecting work to do in the office, but I may do that later and go visit your father first.”
“Can we ride the elevator with you?” asked Stevie.
“Sure,” agreed Schroder as he pushed the service button. “Do you want to be locked inside the prisoner gate?”
“Yes!” answered both boys enthusiastically.
“First, let’s see how many of the bronze etchings you can identify,” said Schroder.
Billy pointed to one panel of the elevator door and said, “The bees stand for work or industry.”
“The owl means to be wise,” offered Stevie.
“The stair-steps that lead to the top of the pyramid mean strength or stability,” said Billy, “just like the steps in this courthouse.”
“That scale of justice shows equal weight or balance,” said Stevie. “It means justice.”
“You boys sure are smart,” said Gene as he watched the floor dial arrive from the fourth floor. As the elevator bell rang, and the doors opened, Gene looked at the boys and asked, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.