Luby's Cafeteria serves up message of hope, renewal

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

April 22, 1992|By Daniel Cattau | Daniel Cattau,Dallas Morning News

KILLEEN, Texas -- Signs of new life abound in the central Texas countryside this time of year. Newborn lambs lie peacefully beside their mothers, calves take their first unsteady steps on the dark brown soil and bluebonnets congregate along highways.

Approaching this military-dominated city on U.S. 190, there are other signs of renewal, sometimes in mundane things -- people are once again heading into Luby's Cafeteria to have lunch and meet friends. For many residents of Killeen and surrounding towns, Easter's message of new life, hope and renewal was more than the belief that Jesus rose from the dead.

"We certainly can take the tragedy of this community and compare it to what happened to Jesus," said Linda L. Pulscher, 41, director of Home and Hope, a homeless shelter here.

"What has come through is a risen community and a changed community."

She and others said Killeen and the surrounding towns have become closer, more resilient and more caring in the six months since Oct. 16, when 25 people, including gunman George Hennard of nearby Belton, died in a shooting rampage at the cafeteria.

"A possible benefit of this shocking event may be the increase of our personal endurance and strength, as well as faith and love for each other," said Larry D. Robinson of Belton in an Oct. 27 letter to the Killeen Daily Herald.

But not every survivor or member of a victim's family has experienced a spiritual awakening, let alone a healing.

"Some doubt that there's a life after Luby's," said the Rev. Jimmy Towers, 48, pastor of First Baptist Church. "Some doubt that there's life after death. That's a reality."

For many survivors and families of the victims, however, life has been a series of little resurrections since the tragedy.

Hazel M. Holley, 70, who escaped through a broken back window at Luby's -- breaking her left wrist and spraining her left ankle -- said an important step in the healing process was the opportunity for the victims to visit Luby's in December after it had been cleaned up.

"We mingled together and learned things we didn't know before," said Ms. Holley, who found out at the gathering the identity of a young man who had helped her escape. But she still had nightmares and sleepless nights until Luby's reopened March 12.

"Now I go to bed and I just sleep," she said.

Although some people interviewed said they haven't been back to the cafeteria for fear "it would bring back memories," others said the remodeled Luby's testifies to the power of life over death.

"By reopening, we showed the tragedy of death is not a tragedy. The tragedy is to let it get to you," said John A. Marr, 29, an assistant general manager at Luby's.

Others, such as the Rev. John R. Birkmeyer, 67, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church and Killeen Police Department chaplain, even consider Luby's to be a sacred place.

"For me, Luby's is a hallowed place. It was the last place that these people had their last meal and talked with friends," Father Birkmeyer said. "And it was their jumping off point into eternity."

He anointed the dead amid the carnage in the cafeteria about two hours after Hennard drove his pickup truck through a full-length window and began his attack. Hennard killed himself at the scene.

Some survivors have not come to terms with what they witnessed that day.

"I am seeing classic post-traumatic stress syndrome" among some survivors, said the Rev. Lanny Geib, rector of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church and a Vietnam veteran. "They question God -- why wasn't it them? -- and they're not willing to deal with their pain. They sit and cry, angry at God and the world."

But Mr. Marr, the Luby's manager who helped his staff escape at the time of the tragedy, draws strength by remembering what happened.

"Any time a day's going bad, I just rub my back pocket," Mr. Marr said. There, he keeps the brass tip of a bullet -- a police bullet that was found embedded in a post at Luby's.

"No matter how bad things get in my mind, I know it's not that bad," he said. "If I can handle that [the shooting], I can handle anything."

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