· Tom Jennings (1860-1916)
It’s Friday, October 21, 1927, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Julia Whiteside and her husband, Houston, are still talking about the opening of the newest J. S. Dillon & Sons store at 13th and Main.
“The new Dillon store is clean and modern with reasonable prices,” said Julia.
“John Dillon’s sons, Ray and Clyde, are carrying on their father’s tradition,” said Houston. “Since his early days of repairing wagons and buggies in Sterling, John has always been a successful businessman.
“His business model works,” continued Houston. “Cash and carry, no credit and no home delivery.”
“I hope he’s enjoying his retirement,” said Julia. “Did I tell you I ran into Don Jennings at the store opening last night?”
“No, I didn’t see him. How is he?”
“Don told me he had just received a postcard from Emerson Carey who is traveling in California.”
“He’s known Emerson since he was a boy,” said Houston. “Besides farming, Don’s father, Tom, was the foreman for Emerson’s properties.”
“I know you’ll never forget the phone call we received ten years ago from Emerson in regards to Tom. It was New Year’s eve, almost 1917,” said Julia.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Houston.
“What a loss for all of us, what a tragedy,” said Julia.
Houston Whiteside hung up the phone and turned to Julia. “That was Emerson. Tom Jennings is dead. So is his daughter, Mary. She would have been ten years old in February. Mattie is injured, but alive.”
“What happened?” asked Julia.
“Car accident in the thick fog, on the Trail road between the reformatory and the reformatory barn. Their car ran over the edge of a culvert. They were on their way home from taking supper at John Wallstein’s place.
“Tom thought he heard a car approaching from the rear at a fast rate of speed. He swerved to the side of the road to let the faster car get by. That’s when his Ford went over the edge of the culvert, turning over, and pinning all three of them.
“After a half-hour, they were discovered by occupants of another car who got help from Milt Cross, the superintendent of the Reformatory farm.
“Tom died from being crushed, but he didn’t die immediately. For a while he yelled for help. Mary seemed the least injured, but she gasped her last breath as Mr. Cross carried her to his house. The bodies of Tom and Mary were taken to the Johnson morgue.
“What about Mattie?” asked Julia.
“She was severely bruised and is having breathing problems. She’s at the sheriff’s residence, not a hospital.”
“Remember how the church was overflowing at the double funeral?” asked Houston.
“It was hot inside,” replied Julia. “Mattie had turned worse. She couldn’t be there.”
“Without Tom and Mary, I wasn’t sure if she wanted to live,” said Houston.
“She tried to rally in order to attend the funeral, but she wasn’t able,” said Julia.
“The Methodist church was packed; there were 1,500 mourners seated, another 500 people standing, and a thousand more outside,” said Houston.
“I’m not sure why, but there were three ministers,” remembered Julia.
“Maybe there were three because one minister wasn’t sufficient to explain why we lost Tom,” said Houston. “He was a man of integrity and a loving family man. Mary, the youngest, was the unexpected child who was considered a gift from god.”
“The Jennings family was so happy,” said Julia. “Tom had won reelection for his second term as sheriff.”
“A landslide win, especially for a Democrat,” said Houston.
“Tom and the family celebrated, but no one in the county should have been surprised about his victory,” said Julia. “He was popular. Tom and Mattie were pleased to have two more years to work for the people of Reno County, and they didn’t need to move their family back home from the sheriff’s residence.”
“The pall bearers for Tom’s coffin were all Kansas sheriffs from surrounding counties,” said Houston. “The Odd Fellows Lodge kept everything orderly.
“Members of the Bar Association, the court house officials, the police force of the city, and the members of Junior Musical Club, to which the little daughter belonged, were all in attendance.”
“There was hardly a dry eye as the two caskets were carried down the aisle of the church with the father and daughter asleep in death,” said Julia.
“The petition to ask Governor Capper to appoint Don Jennings as the new sheriff was picking up steam at the time of the funeral,” said Houston. “Don was young but a competent deputy.”
“People got upset,” said Julia. “They were more annoyed with William Morgan than they were with the governor. People hoped that even though Morgan was the Republican lieutenant governor, that he would support the wishes of county voters and use his influence with the governor.”
“I know the Democratic papers accused our lieutenant governor of not using his position when it was needed by the voters who elected him,” continued Houston, “but there wasn’t any chance that Capper would select Don Jennings, a Democrat, to fill his father’s spot for sheriff.
“What about Tom McGinn?” asked Julia. “He was the one with six years of experience as under sheriff. Why wasn’t he chosen to succeed Jennings?”
“The petitions were asking for Tom’s son, Don, to fill the sheriff’s spot,” answered Houston, “because it was a sympathy vote, sort of a widow’s succession. In some states and jurisdictions, a male politician who died in office was directly succeeded by his widow, either through election or direct appointment to the seat.”
“I understand the idea was to provide Mrs. Jennings with financial support due to the loss of her family’s primary income,” said Julia.
“Or, sometimes, to avoid the risk of a protracted fight for the nomination between elections,” added Houston. “But this was different, a new sheriff was going to be sworn in after Tom’s death, and the governor was not obligated to choose a person of the same party as the winner of the fall election.
“Especially at the state level, Republicans take care of Republicans, Democrats take care of Democrats. Remember, Reno County voters elected Tom Jennings over Scott Sprout; they didn’t choose Don Jennings for any office. He was merely a deputy sheriff serving at the pleasure of his father.”
“I understand,” concluded Julia, “when the governor appointed Scott Sprout as sheriff, it wasn’t about experience or sympathy, it was about politics.”
Reverend J. W. Able of the First Methodist Church was the final speaker at the funeral services of Sheriff Tom Jennings and his daughter, Mary.
“Sheriff Jennings was a stalwart citizen, courageous in the face of danger or wherever danger called. Here we have evidence of the immortality of the soul. Man is too big for this life. Sheriff Jennings’ plans were not consummated in the dark of night when his spirit took its flight. And the life plans for little Mary were not finished.
Reverend Able concluded, “There is no death. What seems so is a transition of the soul.”
“Julia,” said Houston, “Tom Jennings was the first Reno County sheriff to die in office. I just hope he’s the last.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.