Summer Shipp was so much more than a murder victim

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How do you re-create the story of someone who died much too suddenly, leaving a grieving family and friends . . . especially someone who disappeared and was apparently murdered?

Consider the case of Summer Shipp.

I joined her family and friends this week in listening to testimony in the murder trial of Jeffrey Sauerbry, accused killer of Summer. It was a high profile case, even though it had almost been lost in the cold case files of the Independence Police Department since Summer disappeared while doing door to door market research back in December of 2004.

Summer’s daughter, Brandy Shipp Rogge, kept the case alive by seeking the help of such national notables as Nancy Grace and Montel Williams in the search for clues to her mysterious disappearance. She quit her jobs and spent most of her savings in undertaking a full time search for her dear mother.

The search ended in 2007 when two fishermen on the Little Blue River, only a 13 minute drive from where Summer was last seen, found parts of her body and items presumed to be hers. Summer was no longer missing. But the mystery was by no means solved.

And, despite testimony this week from a man who claimed to have listened to Jeffrey Sauerbry confess to her brutal murder, an Independence jury found the accused man (who is already serving a life sentence without chance of parole in another murder case) not guilty of Summer’s murder. There was not enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed the heinous crime.

So the challenge now becomes how to fashion a fitting memorial to Summer’s memory as some form of consolation to her family and friends.

The only way to do this monumental but crucial task is through the stories her friends and family will tell of her. Summer Shipp’s contagious smile lit up the billboards plastered all over Kansas City back in 2004 and 2005 in an attempt to find her. She was that full of magnetism and a joy of life.

As I attempt to do justice to Summer’s memory in the next few months of writing her memoir, the stories her friends and family retell make me feel like I missed a lot in not knowing her in life. Her friend Brian told me over a lunch break during Wednesday’s trial how she almost exasperated her friends by always insisting they notice a beautiful sunset. Her daughter even got a little tired of her mother literally making her stop to smell the roses in her front yard every time she came to her house.

Brian told another story about how Summer loved going to movies with her friends, even after she no longer owned the Bijou Theater in Westport.

“She would pop a bunch of popcorn, put it down her shirt and pretend to be pregnant and then share the popcorn with all of us during the movie.”

What a fun-loving woman! What a joy it will be to discover her life and stories in writing her memoir.

Summer Shipp was so much more than a murder victim. Even now she will live on in the memories. And that’s why it is so crucial for each one of us to record our stanzas as we live them. We don’t know when we will no longer be alive to sing them.

 

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July 4 is all about family reunions and storytelling

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If you are not attending a family picnic on July 4, you run the risk of being labeled un-American. For some of us, the holiday is a perfect time to attend or organize a family reunion.

A chapter of my book, “Letters from Home: Adventures with Mad Mother, Lemonade Man and the Kid,” (the book launch is set for Aug. 7) contains an entire chapter devoted to the need for all of us to record our family stories before it’s too late. The following is excerpted from two columns in the book and documents some of my experiences with summer family reunions.

A column writer much wiser and wittier than I once wrote that we’re losing our collective culture because we don’t hand down our family stories anymore. That may be true for some Americans, but not for anyone who’s ever attended a family reunion. I went to another one in Topeka Sunday and was privileged to hear some of those family sagas.

The relatives gathered around a huge hay wagon (the modern equivalent of a campfire?) that had been pulled inside a machinery shed out of the rain on the old Garrett homeplace. The wagon was spread with a plastic tarp and covered with food of every description. While the kids played in a paddle boat and fished on the farm pond, the adults stuffed their faces and looked at photo albums.

For most young adults, the extended family is never too important when we are busy raising our own kids and making our marks on the world. But something happens in mid-life. All of a sudden, family trees and roots take on new importance. The family reunion brings this together in a social setting that can leave you alternately dazed and elated.

How do you respond to the cousin who reveals that you used to walk in your sleep or to the uncle who wants you to take off your glasses so he can see your dad’s eyes? Do you eat Aunt Neva’s chocolate chip cookie bars and risk offending Aunt Gene, who baked the lemon cake? (The correct response is to take a sample of each dessert.)

How long can you look at photos of second and third cousins you didn’t know existed without yawning at least once? What do you say when three different aunts brag about the family having a helicopter pilot, a newspaper publisher, an engineer, a vet and a builder but no attorney and give you an accusing look for having split up with the latter? When an aunt makes an extremely prejudiced remark that you find highly offensive, do you ignore it, pretending it wasn’t spoken, or do you have the courage of your convictions?

At this reunion I was surprised to learn that my grandfather was in World War I, played a mean trombone and rode a fancy motorcycle. The aunts circulated a letter he’d written from a foxhole in France. It could have been a propaganda piece for the War Department, full of praise for “our boys” and contempt for those who didn’t serve their country. Back home on the farm he soon became a slave driver to his nine children, getting them up at 4 a.m. to do chores, especially when they’d sneaked out for dates the previous night.

Some of the family photos passed around at the reunion looked like they were taken straight from a Grapes of Wrath scene. Poverty and hardship were written all over the faces. An early 1950s photo caught my attention. It was one of the extended family I’d never seen. I was in it, looking up at my parents and baby brother. My mother looked like a model and my dad like a handsome gangster.

Daddy was a family favorite, partly because of his untimely death in 1954 and partly because of his perpetually cheerful outlook on life. Uncle Jerry, the youngest boy, idolized him and followed him around the farm like a faithful pup. One day they went into town together and brought back two kegs of nails for a farm project. The nails bounced off the truck and spilled all over the road.  Uncle Jerry picked up every single nail, but only because my dad had strategically placed coins among the scattered nails.

Later I wondered why I didn’t repeat those family stories to my own son on the spot, or at least on our drive home. He had been too busy with kid things, like finding snake skins and goose eggs, to get to know his great aunts and uncles and to listen to the stories. I guess his day will come, like mine did. I just hope his generation learns to sit still long enough to absorb the family culture. Maybe someone will figure out a way to put family history on a Super Nintendo game.

Family reunions remind us that we are part of something bigger . . .something with history and traditions and stories that will be passed along for another generation after my son’s. They are rich social events and brief encounters with wonderful people we don’t have to live with every day. They are replete with smiles and hugs and promises to write and get together again soon–promises that we really hope to keep.

A memoir that refuses to be a murder mystery

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The past few times I had met some high school friends for lunch, former classmate Becca had told a brief tale of a cousin who had just finished writing and publishing a book. When Becca related at the holiday luncheon last December that her cousin had just brokered a movie deal on the book, my reporter/writer instincts took over. I had to know the rest of the story.

And Cindy Zimmerman has quite a tale to relate. She does it in a unique memoir, “A Woman of Interest.” The book details a family tragedy, told somewhat reluctantly in the form of a series of letters to a friend of hers, Ken Rotcop. Rotcop is the former creative head of Embassy Pictures and an award-winning author. He is a prime example of the notables that Zimmerman has cultivated in her life’s passion of promoting the vanishing art of hand-written notes.

“A Woman of Interest,” while serving as a method of healing through writing after the brutal murder of Cindy’s husband, serves as one huge, hand-written thank you note to the people who helped her through the tough times.

Now Zimmerman has brokered a development deal with producer/director David Mackay of Los Angeles and Vancouver-based Battle Ground Productions to produce a film based on the book.

If you’re looking for a sensational murder mystery, you won’t get it here. Instead, you have a novel form of a memoir. It’s obvious that Zimmerman has a tough time talking about her husband’s murder, discovered ironically on the day her divorce became final. And to add insult to injury, her brother-in-law, who was the personal representative of the estate, refused to cooperate in releasing funds to allow Cindy and her family to pay expenses.

So, Zimmerman only alludes to the more salacious issues of the murder through use of official police interviews and recorded transcripts of a probate court hearing that seeks dismissal of her brother-in-law as personal representative of the estate. Instead, we learn of a life full of jet-setting and trend-setting by Cindy and her husband. Cindy was and is a perfect example of a woman who defies the odds . . . first by making her mark in the once male-only stronghold of medical sales, then by her unique passion for promoting quality, hand-written communication in a world of digital anonymity.

Through it all, her love of her children and her desire to protect them from life’s ugliness shines through, as does the warmth of her personality.

If you’re looking for a sensational murder mystery, don’t pick this book up. You might want to wait for the movie. But, knowing Cindy Zimmerman like you come to do in her memoir, you won’t find it there either. She has a more compelling story to tell.

 

Zero to Hero Day 1: My blog title says it all

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New Tricks for Old Dogs summarizes what the heck I’m doing here . . . a longtime print publisher in the gray old world of newspapers, trying to muddle through a new-world way of communicating and keeping in writing shape.

I retired in October after 30+ years as a small town weekly newspaper editor and publisher. I was extremely fortunate to have an audience for my writing all those years, while being unfortunate to ever have an editor. Being a one-woman show for the length of one career makes me pretty unemployable for a second one. I know, since I’ve tried.

Companies looking for writers and editors these days want young, slim, hungry folks who are “team players” and instinctively know how to be project managers and troubleshoot hardware and software problems, along with knowing how to use InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Excel and PowerPoint in their sleep.

Resigned to try to enjoy my retirement by continuing a one-woman show, here I am blogging. And trying to finish a memoir that includes a collection of the humor columns written as the editor/publisher. Also trying to start a business of helping other authors get their work in shape for electronic or print publishing.

This blog is aimed at helping other baby boomers navigate the treacherous waters of retirement and repurposing ourselves. We have a lot of wisdom and experience to share, at least with each other, even if Generation XYZers are not yet ready for it.

I do keep a daily journal, a spiritual one, and realized through my morning musings that we are given blessings and talents so we can share them. This blog is one way of doing that.

In retirement, we can easily succumb to being isolated. Our work-world circle of acquaintances–employees, clients and related friends–are no longer available. If this blog is successful, by the end of 2014, I will have built a new circle of acquaintances online. If successful, someone will start liking this thing and posting comments.

The idea of writing a blog never appealed to me before retirement. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read the thing. But now I view it as a continuation of my newspaper column with a more focused audience of other bloggers and some of my Facebook and twitter friends.