COLUMBIA — About 30 people gathered together in MU's McAlester Hall on Tuesday evening, waiting with anxious intensity for the candlelight vigil to begin to honor slain abortion doctor George Tiller.
Members of Planned Parenthood, activist groups and community members joined political figures to remember Tiller for his contribution to abortion rights efforts. Tiller was shot in his church in Wichita, Kan., on Sunday. As those who knew Tiller shared stories of their encounters with him, others reflected on the example of activism he provided.
“During this time of tragedy, it’s important to grieve, but it’s also important to stand up for what we believe in,” said Michelle Trupiano*, lobbyist and mid-Missouri spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood.
Trupiano* coordinated the vigil, and her opening remarks set the stage for the rest of the speakers. After a moment of silence, former Planned Parenthood executive director Diane Booth shared her experience with abortion before the Roe v. Wade ruling, praising Tiller for his practice and encouraging those in attendance to continue to advocate for abortion rights.
“He was obviously a man I admired,” Booth said. “He literally put his life on the line every day to provide very needed health care for women.”
Other speakers who had encounters with Tiller remembered his happy and energetic personality, in addition to his medical career. MU psychology professor Phillip Wood met Tiller when his wife had complications during a pregnancy and remarked that he was a “loud, energetic man who told really corny jokes.”
Others told similarly amusing stories, such as singing a high school fight song together at a Planned Parenthood conference in Chicago. There was a lively retelling of the time Tiller was shot in both arms outside his clinic. Most of all, people remembered him as a compassionate, driven man.
“I always felt fortunate to spend time with him,” said Sean Spence, who ran for state representative in 2008. “He felt it in his heart in a way that is incomprehensible. I think he should be an example to all of us.”
Despite rain, which forced the vigil to be moved from Peace Park to McAlester Hall, many community members were in attendance who had never had contact with Tiller. Instead, they identified themselves with his practices and came to support the cause he stood for.
“Most of us didn’t know Dr. Tiller,” former state Rep. Vicky Wilson said. “We came not just to pay honor to Dr. Tiller. We came with a renewed fervor. We came because we need a protective place to have our voices heard.”
Community members agreed the vigil provided a way to support abortion rights organizations in the area and further their efforts.
“I’m here because it’s important for women and men and people of faith to stand up for the wrongs of this world,” Columbia resident June Deweese said.
Reactions also reflected a certain amount of fear that Tiller’s slaying could hinder progress for abortion rights. Columbia resident Heather Mulikey expressed concern that women might be afraid to get abortions at the clinic in Wichita, one of the few places that provide late-term abortions.
Wilson, on the other hand, said she believes now is the time to take a stand instead of being afraid.
“We’ve cloaked ourselves in fear when we talk about how we really feel about these key issues too often,” Wilson said.
The theme of the evening tended to be that talking about the issue of abortion in any format is a step toward reaching goals.
“We can honor Dr. Tiller by reshaping the debate about abortion,” said Helen Anthony, former member of the board of directors for Planned Parenthood of Kansas City and Mid-Missouri. “Let’s not let Dr. Tiller’s death be in vain.”
Zack Aldrich and Mallory Redinger contributed reporting to this article.