Ahead Of OKC Bombing Anniversary, Author Discusses New Book And Finding Hope Through Reconciliation
This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the day the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was destroyed in a terroristic act. Author Jeanne Bishop’s new book Grace from the Rubble – Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation After the Oklahoma City Bombing explores the relationship that developed between Timothy McVeigh’s father Bill, and Bud Welch, the father of one of the bombing’s victims.
Despite the loss of his 23-year-old daughter Julie in the bombing, Bud forgave Timothy McVeigh and reached out to Bill with compassion and empathy. “I really wanted to tell that story,” Bishop says, “because I've also reached out to the young man who killed my family members to reconcile and it's been very healing.”
Bishop’s sister Nancy was pregnant when she and her husband Richard were murdered in their home thirty years ago.
Grace from the Rubble primarily focuses on Bud, Bill and the author's shared connection of having lost loved ones through tragic circumstances. But many other compelling moments in the book come when Bishop spotlights some of the bombing’s other victims.
“… you just want to tell all their stories because they're such amazing people … people that were so good and who should still be here.”
Twenty-five years after the bombing, Grace from the Rubble offers a reminder of how tragedy and crisis can unite people and bring out the best in them.
From the dentists who volunteered their time and skills to identify victims through dental records, to those who housed and fed first responders and volunteers for free, Bishop told KGOU, “ Oklahoma City showed the world how you respond to a calamity like this, and that is with absolute unity and love.”
Extended Interview Transcript:
Jeanne Bishop: I understand the pain of a sudden loss of someone that I love dearly. Thirty years ago, my younger sister Nancy and her husband Richard, who were in their 20s, were shot to death in their home. And the tragedy was compounded by the fact that Nancy was three months pregnant with what would have been their first child. And when the young man was arrested who did it—a 16-year-old boy who lived a few blocks away from them—it was so shocking because I just couldn't understand why. And I'm sure that the people of Oklahoma City felt that same sense of just disbelief when their city was attacked so cruelly by Timothy McVeigh.
I grew up in Oklahoma City and so that attack had always resonated with me—that this evil done to this place that is full of such good people and such goodness. And so when I learned this story about Bud forgiving Timothy McVeigh, reaching out to his father in compassion and empathy, father to father, I really wanted to tell that story because I've also reached out to the young man who killed my family members to reconcile and it's been very healing. And so, I wanted to tell this story as a way of showing how you can respond to evil—not with hatred and vengeance, but with redemption.
Richard Bassett: With such a heavy subject, I am curious how long it took you to write this book. Was it something you thought about for years before you could even get going with it, or how did that process unfold?
Bishop: You know, I always knew this story and I always thought it should be told to a broader audience because it gives us so much hope. And when the 25th anniversary of the bombing was approaching, I thought, you know, this would be a good moment where instead of talking about Timothy McVeigh and the evil he did, and his twisted reasons for doing it, you know, instead of paying attention to him, I really want to lift up these two men and their story. And that's what got me thinking about it. So, I first reached out to Bud since I knew him, got his permission, and then he introduced me remotely to Bill McVeigh. And he was kind and gracious enough to agree to let this story be told.
Bassett: What concerned you most about writing Grace from the Rubble?
Bishop: That's a great question. What really concerned me most is that I would get something wrong about one of the people who lost their lives that day. One of the things that my book, Grace From the Rubble does is it has an index at the end of every single person who lost their life, including the three little unborn children, because three of the women who died in the blast were pregnant with babies they had already named. And I was so afraid that I, you know, in that I would get the spelling wrong or when I described some of them in the book, you know, that I might have gotten some detail wrong because as a survivor of murder victims, I know how precious the memory of them is and I wanted to honor those memories and get it right to show the respect that they're due.
Bassett: Grace from the Rubble does focus on Bill McVeigh, Bud Welch and yourself—how you all share a connection, the experience of losing loved ones under tragic circumstances. But some of the most emotional moments in the book come when you spotlight those other victims and tell their stories. How did you decide whose stories to tell?
Bishop: You know it was this journey into learning about the 168 who lost their lives that day and just walking through the Memorial Museum and seeing their photos. The artifacts that their loved ones had chosen to remember them by were just, you know, each one of them touched my heart.
There aren't pages enough to write the stories of all these amazing people from the little children who died in the day care to the elderly couples who were in the Social Security Administration when they died, where Julie Marie Welch lost her life. She was an interpreter in the Social Security Administration on the first floor. Five married couples were killed. The oldest victim, Dr. Hurlburt … And the youngest victim was just a few months old. And he died there. And you just want to tell all their stories because they're such amazing people. They're just stories of people that were so good and who should still be here.
Bassett: Reading Grace from the Rubble sheltered at home during this COVID-19 pandemic, I was really struck by how the Oklahoma City community behaved after the bombing and rallied together during a crisis. For example, the Federal Employees Credit Union vault was blown apart in the explosion, sending money all over the streets. And you write, “people collected the money and returned it, adding up to a total greater than the amount lost.” After writing this book, do you have any thoughts on how tragedy and crisis can unite people and bring the best out of them?
Bishop: I think Oklahoma City showed the world how you respond to a calamity like this, and that is with absolute unity and love. I mean, I talk about this all the time now in the wake of the pandemic. You know, it wasn't just the returning the money. It was the people who were doctors and nurses flocking to the scene the minute they saw the catastrophic injuries that … people were walking out [with], you know, bleeding and suffering. I mean, one of the victims was a nurse who went there and died not from the blast, but from the debris that struck her in the head. And she ended up donating all of her organs to people who needed them. I mean, still giving even after her death. It's the dentist who volunteered to identify people by their dental records. All the people that housed and fed people who came in to help for free. One of the things I loved learning about in my research was this thing called the Oklahoma dollar. And that is if you were a firefighter come in from New York or California to help and you went to a restaurant to eat a meal, the paycheck never came. And when you tried to pay for it, no one would take your money. There are some beautiful editorials written around that time. And one of them said, thanking people who came in to help and saying that they were heroes in a city that has learned that it is full of heroes.
Bassett: Is there anything specific you hope readers take away from Grace from the Rubble?
Bishop: Yes, I hope that what people can take away is that you don't have to be stuck in these cycles of hatred and vengeance, that we can break free of that by reaching out across the divide to the other, to meet the way Bud and Bill did. Face to face, sitting down, talking together, finding out all they had in common. I mean, here are these two fathers linked by tragedy in history, finding out that they could almost have been identical twins. They both grew up in these big Irish Catholic families, grew up on farms. Bud in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and Bill in Lockport, New York. You know, both had three children and they found, not just that, but the common ground of fathers who love their children unconditionally, no matter what they've done.