This past August I drove to Coudersport, Pennsylvania, and spent a few days with my sister Lisa who has lived there for over twenty years. I'm very fond of that town. It is picturesque and charming, nestled in the surrounding forest-covered hills. We have been sitting in Lisa's living room and watched deer trail up through the trees across the street and, on several occasions, she has pulled back the curtains to her back lawn to find a black bear or two roaming around. Coudersport has a “Mayberry”-like quality to it – it is one of the settings in my The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, the town Oliver lives in when Sam and Ben come into his life. Lisa teaches in the elementary school there, is active in her church, and belongs to sewing and quilting groups. She is always telling me about plays and concerts and church bazaars and pot luck dinners. It is the kind of town that many people dream of for raising kids and living quietly among good neighbors.
Yesterday things changed. Gregory Eldred, a popular teacher from the same school Lisa teaches in, and the man who taught her son, Cal, to play the trumpet, walked into the 180-year old Presbyterian church with a gun, and shot his ex-wife Darlene, the church's organist and choir director, in front of the congregation. He was over-powered by some of the congregation and held until the police arrived. He is now in jail. His ex-wife is dead. (News Report)
I talked to Lisa last night and both of us were shaking. “I can't believe this,” Lisa said. “He was a wonderful teacher. We had playground monitor duties together. I always enjoyed talking to him.” Prior to teaching at Coudersport Elementary a couple years ago, Lisa had taught at Northern Potter Children's School with Darlene. She told me that Darlene was one of the nicest people she knew. What the hell happened?
According to what she was told, Lisa said that Darlene had been telling people that she was scared. She said that she was afraid for her life. Why did this happen? How could it have? Why was nothing done? I was reading the online reports of the killing on a Coudersport web site where people left comments and I was struck by how many people wrote that they had Mr. Eldred as a teacher and what a wonderful, kind teacher he was. The sense of shock is palpable.
I'm having a hard time imagining all of this. It just doesn't seem that something like this could happen in a town where kids spend summer evenings toasting marshmallows over backyard fires and catching fireflies. Where there are Harvest Festivals on the courthouse lawn and spaghetti dinners to raise money for a family with a sick child. Where there are farms that raise sunflowers and Christmas trees, and where people with mountain water springs on their property build catch-pools so anyone can come and fill jugs full of fresh water.
Frankly, after I talked to Lisa I was so shaken up that I had a hard time sleeping and today I feel queasy and unsettled. I feel like something terrible has happened where it just shouldn't. These kinds of things should not happen, that is true, but it seems like an egregious offense in such a setting.
I know that Coudersport has its dark side like any town, drug use and domestic violence and all the other vicissitudes of contemporary life, but why a well-loved music teacher in a quiet little town would walk into a church with a gun is hard to fathom. I'm sure we'll learn more as time goes by but right now it seems like nothing will ever be the same again.
Thanks for reading.