· Al Severson (1921-1983)
It’s Tuesday morning, May 15, 1956, in Hutchinson, Kansas.
As Reno County Sheriff Al Severson attaches his prosthetic hook to his left elbow and upper arm, he says to Grace Wells Severson, his wife and jail matron, “It’s finally here, Resignation Day.”
Grace agrees that the last year and four months serving as Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff have been exciting and rewarding, yet disappointing and sad.
“Because of you, the prisoners eat three meals a day, not two,” said Grace, as she placed thank you cards around the large bouquet on the table inside the courthouse entrance.
“Because of you we not only have our son Gene, but we have Anita, a girl who crawled into our lives,” said Al, as he re-read heartfelt messages beginning with, “to all our friends in the Courthouse.”
Al recalled his childhood, meeting Grace, his military career, and the searing pain from the hand grenade that destroyed his hand.
Alfred, a native of Wisconsin, and Grace, born in Hutchinson, met on a blind double-date in Reno County, married in 1942, and the next year welcomed a baby boy, Gene, into their lives.
Staff Sergeant Severson was sent overseas in the summer of 1944, and was wounded in October while serving in the Third Army while in Luxenberg. He was in a half-track ammunition carrier when a faulty pin of a hand grenade exploded and destroyed his left hand. This injury forced the amputation of his arm eight inches above the wrist.
Al remembered being interviewed and hired by Sheriff Walt Dixon to serve civil papers. He was kept on for Dixon’s two terms (1947-1951) and also worked for the next sheriff, Vic Frazey (1951-1955). In a very close Republican primary election in August 1954, Deputy Severson was nominated for sheriff over Undersheriff Orval Mathias. In the November election, he easily defeated Democrat Elmer Foss.
“We’ve had a beautiful view of Hutchinson from the fifth floor jail area,” said Grace. “Few people have a key this big to their front door,” she added with a laugh, referring to the hand-size, heavy-duty hardware.
“Our living room-bedroom combination has been ideal with the little alcoves for Gene, and Anita, our ‘Sunshine Girl’.”
“We sure were lucky to make the trip together to pick up Faye Holder in Denver,” said Grace.
“If Faye hadn’t written bad checks, it’s unlikely we would have ever met three-year-old Anita,” said Al. “And if Faye hadn’t been sent to the State Women’s Farm at Lansing, her daughter wouldn’t have become a ward of the state, leading to our temporary custody of the little girl.”
“She’s still an adorable, curly-headed child,” said Grace. “After we picked up Anita, I remember how she immediately crawled in the front seat and sat on my lap the whole return trip to Hutchinson. From then on, she belonged in our family.”
Sheriff Al Severson resigned his office after the State Attorney General John Anderson and Reno County Attorney John Alden both investigated and found misconduct by Severson. They recommended ouster proceedings.
The inquisition concluded that the sheriff had been drunk on duty, particularly in the courthouse and in his office.
Severson was also found to have participated and encouraged the use of confiscated slot machines at a party held within the courthouse.
Finally, there was a claim of Severson having “misconducted” himself in the keeping of a female prisoner.
The last accusation, if true, would have been especially unsettling to his wife and mother-in law. Grace lived in the jail facility with Al; his mother-in-law, Mabel Wells MacLean, was his office deputy on the first floor.
But Grace continued to think highly of Al as “the most capable Sheriff that Reno County has ever had,” and a man who “has always been fair and honest.”
At 11 a.m. Sheriff Severson met with the county auditor, and the incoming sheriff, Roy Sheppard, appointed by the governor.
As the clock approached the noon hour, when dairy farmer Sheppard was to be sworn in as the new sheriff, Al and Grace slipped away to attend to unfinished business. The married couple and their lawyer, Clair Hyter, presented their mutually agreed upon divorce to Judge John Fontron who granted the decree.
At noon the Severson family and deputies exited the courthouse.
Al planned to remain in Hutchinson.
Grace, with Anita and Gene, were off to Independence, Kansas “to live a normal life again,” commenting, “I still firmly believe that out of all bad things, comes something good.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.