Ken Rex McElroy’s Lost Son
The figure sitting across from me at the small table only barely resembled the young man I had met almost twenty years ago. That fellow had blonde hair and was buffed out. This guy had dark hair, and a small paunch. As we spoke, he dropped his chin and looked at me. I was startled. How many times had I heard that look described by the residents of Skidmore? “Cold.” “Hard.” “Scary.” The face beneath the eyes was smiling and friendly.
This was Jeffrey. The lost son of Ken Rex McElroy. Now 47, he is the same age McELroy was when he was shot to death on the main street of Skidmore Missouri. Jeffrey was 22 and a college graduate when he discovered who his father was. Before then he just knew he had been adopted.
In 1990 he read my recently released book “In Broad Daylight,” about the killing of Ken Rex McElroy, and certain things began to click in place. The book told the story of “Sally,” who at fourteen began having children by Ken. She finally gave all four of them up for adoption. I noted that one of the boys had had a hernia. Jeff had had a hernia. Jeffrey and his sister found a pile of magazines with stories about the 1981 killing of Ken Rex McElroy in a drawer in their adoptive parents house. The few legal papers they located mentioned McElroy’s name.
Now intrigued, Jeffrey managed to locate the medical papers from a surgery he had had as child to repair the hernia. There, in black and white, were the names of his parents: Ken Rex McElroy and Sally. . . .His father was indeed the legendary terrorist of Nodaway County, the man who raped and shot and assaulted and stole and burned almost at will for over twenty years, and who, until the very end, was never prosecuted. The man law enforcement was scared of, who could clear out the bar in Skidmore just by sitting at the counter. Jeffrey knew the story. He had read the book. Now he had to deal with the truth.
A few weeks after Jeffrey called me, I had received a phone call in the middle of the night from “Sally,” Jeffrey’s biological mother. She was drunk and angry. She insisted that I hadn’t told the whole story about McElroy: he was much worse than portrayed, than anybody could imagine, and it had been harder than people would ever realize for her to give up her four children. She had been just a girl, and McElroy was a monster. She had missed her children every day of her life. I told her I had spoken with her son a few days earlier. She begged to talk to him. I told her I would check with Jeffrey.
Jeffrey traveled to California to meet his mother. Eventually, he moved to her town and lived there for two years in an attempt to help her overcome her severe alcohol problems. He threw in the towel sixteen years ago, and hasn’t spoken to her since.
Ken McElroy was a functional illiterate. He had no social security number and never filed a tax return. He had no use for the successful or the educated. He had no respect for the law or those who enforced it. He picked on the weak. He was an outlaw. One can only wonder what he would think if he knew that one of his sons not only made it through high school and graduated from college, but had a successful career working with special education children. In the nature versus nurture debate, this story fits on the nurture side of the spectrum.
Jeffrey is a softspoken man. He has not the slightest feel of violence about him. His friends say he is kind and gentle and wouldn’t hurt a fly. Working with kids with emotional disabilities requires limitless patience and understanding. One can’t imagine a man more the opposite of Ken McElroy.
Jeffrey thinks a lot about what it means to be Ken McElroy’s son. He hasn’t married or had any children, and he wonders if one of the reasons might be that he might be worried about passing along McElroy’s genes. When I met him 22 years ago, we toured the Skidmore area, and I showed him his father’s house and where he had been sitting when he was shot. Jeffrey seemed curious, but was not interested in meeting any of many siblings living in the area.
During our conversation at the airport, I become unnerved by the resemblance between Jeffrey and his father. I, of course, never met McElroy, but I’ve heard the descriptions and I’ve seen the pictures. In one, he is holding his daughter in his lap and looking into the camera. When Jeffrey turns his head that way, in his eyes is a streak of coldness that is remarkable in its intensity. I find myself momentarily intimidated, in spite of what he’s saying, in spite of all the good I know about him.
Jeffrey hopes that some good will come out of all this, but he’s not sure what it might be. Neither am I. It certainly must be a burden knowing your father was Ken McElroy, but he’s certainly entitled to be proud of what he’s done with his life.