The halls of Bethel Baptist Church rang with the laughter of graduating preschoolers on Thursday, shortly after a jury handed down guilty verdicts in the case of one of the Columbia church’s benefactors, Kenneth Lay.
Church members Jim and Joy Cretcher were in the basement folding church newsletters and had not heard the news.
“I sure feel sorry for him,” Jim Cretcher said.
Though Lay was not a personal acquaintance, Jim Cretcher said he had come to know Lay’s parents through his involvement in the church where Lay’s father, Omer Lay, had been a lay minister and Sunday School instructor. Kenneth Lay and his family have been involved with Bethel Baptist for years, and the church still sends family members a biweekly newsletter via e-mail.
A placard on the left door of the church sanctuary bears the names of Lay’s parents, Omer and Ruth, who are buried in the cemetery outside. “In memory of Ruth Lay, In Honor of Omer Lay, from the Lay children,” reads the engraving that marks the 1995 renovation of the sanctuary.
Another plaque on a wall inside the front door notes the donation of a keyboard in the name of the Lay grandchildren the same year.
Cretcher also said members of the church who knew Lay personally had told him they did not think the former Columbia resident would ever attempt to defraud people intentionally.
After moving to Columbia from Rush Hill in 1958, a 16-year-old Kenneth Lay entered his junior year at Hickman High School.
“He was a nice guy,” said Robert Black, who graduated from Hickman with Lay. Black, who was Columbia’s assistant city manager from 1973 to 1987, said he remembered the Lay family as “good people,” and that the Lay he reads about today does not seem to be the same person he knew in high school.
Lay was found guilty of conspiracy and wire fraud related to the collapse of the energy corporation Enron, which cost many employees their life savings.
“There was certainly no hint of that in his youth that I know of,” Black said. “I am disappointed in him.”
Another of Lay’s classmates from Hickman, Bruce Cornett, said he couldn’t say a bad thing about Lay. “I always thought a lot of him. I am surprised that this would be the result of his career,” he said.
Columbia physician Bernie Esser came to know Lay while studying economics and business at MU. “Kenny Lay, in my idea, was a gracious, kind, effervescent personality,” Esser said.
Esser and Lay came together at MU under well-known economist and then MU professor Pinkney Walker. Esser recalled Lay as an enterprising youth “with no indicia of wealth,” who would “go out and hustle up jobs and then call friends.”
Lay was the type of person who would involve his friends in his work, Esser said. “Kenny had a proclivity and a propensity to put things together, and people were better off for it,” he said.
A number of years after graduation, Esser said that he went to central Florida to visit Lay who, at the time, was working with Florida Gas Company. There was an opportunity for him to work with the company, he said, but he chose not to pursue it in part because he didn’t think Lay would be with the company much longer.
Esser said he and Lay had fallen out of touch, and that he can’t speak to Lay’s actions over the past few years. He also said he had not kept up with the case due to a busy work and travel schedule, but heard the verdict this morning shortly after it was announced.
“I am profoundly saddened by what happened,” he said.