Thursday, November 30, 2017

Recalling the "End of Watch" for a Lee Rebel Hero

A recent, unexpected convergence led me to research and write this post. At the conclusion of the annual meeting of the Lee High School Hall of Fame selection committee in early November, Mr. Tom Thompson mentioned the name of an alumnus we might want to consider for future induction. The name sounded familiar but didn't register with me right at the moment. Several days later I was surprised to receive a message from Tom Maas, a member of the Wyoming Historical Commission, with an attached article from an edition of the Wyoming Alliance nearly fifty-one years ago. It was a front page photo from the funeral held a couple days earlier for Grand Rapids Police Sergeant Stanley VanTuinen, coincidentally the same Lee grad mentioned by Coach Thompson.

Since I was only 11 years old at the time, I was hooked on learning more.

Stanley VanTuinen, 1949
Stanley - or Stan as he was known to his fellow officers and likely his classmates - was born May 7, 1931 to Ralph and Cora VanTuinen. Like many in the Godfrey-Lee community at that time, Ralph and Cora whose maiden name was Afman, were from families of Dutch immigrants. Ralph, the second oldest of six children, was born in Friesland, Netherlands at the close of the 19th century, and arrived in the U.S. as a child in the year 1901. Cora's parents were both from Holland as well as two of her eleven brothers and sisters. The others including Cora were born in America.

Ralph's younger brother Peter was born in Michigan in 1903. Peter and his wife Alice (DeVries) had six children, the third eldest being Alvin who married Dolores Groendyke on December 3, 1948. Alvin and Dolores were the parents of Lee High School retired football coach Bernie VanTuinen, and the grandparents of Lee Middle School science teacher Troy VanTuinen. Bernie is Stanley's first cousin one-time-removed and Troy is a first cousin two-times-removed. They share common ancestors in the likes of Simon K. and Ida (Bylsma) VanTuinen, both immigrants from Holland who arrived here in 1901.

Ralph and Cora were married in October 1921 and eventually took up residence in Wyoming, Michigan. By the time young Stan, the fifth-born of six children, had been enrolled at Godfrey School for kindergarten, the family was residing in a home on Johanna Avenue south of Burton Street. At some point later on while Stan was still in school, they moved to Cleveland Avenue, just a couple houses down from today's Wyoming Veterans Memorial Garden.

1947 Lee Echo Yearbook
Stan attended Godfrey-Lee schools for all thirteen years, graduating on June 17, 1949. A four-year band student in high school he was also a member of the Bible Club for three years, pitched for the baseball team his sophomore and junior years, and was a member of the L-Club (Varsity Club) during his senior year.

A slightly tall student in comparison to most of his classmates, he played the big base horn. Stan must of enjoyed his time with the band because its what came to mind when asked to write a line for the traditional yearbook Senior Class Will:  "I, Stanley Van Tuinen, do hereby bequeath my ability to make music on the base horn to Gary Vander Scheer."

Stan's younger sister, Shirley was also a student at Lee at the time and was a member of the junior class during his senior year.

Senior Band 1948-49. VanTuinen is second row center.
Stan and Miss Esther Joan Key, a graduate of Godwin High School, were married on December 14, 1951. Thirteen months later he joined the Grand Rapids police force where he served in the patrol division until mid-1965. At that time he was transferred to the accident bureau and a year later promoted to the rank of sergeant, whereupon he returned to the patrol division. During his shortened career VanTuinen received two commendations: one for bravery in the summer of 1960 for a daring, but unsuccessful attempt to save a man who jumped or fell in the Grand River, and a second for "alertness and response to duty" in April 1962 for his arrest of two men wanted in an armed robbery.

LimeLite Room Bar, 725 S. Division Avenue, c.1963
Photo from the GRPL Local History Collections
On a cold Saturday, December 3, 1966, two Grand Rapids officers responded to a call regarding an incident at the LimeLite Room bar on South Division Avenue near Franklin Street. According to the report and subsequent testimony in a preliminary exam, an individual had been firing a gun in the bar in a threatening manner. When the officers arrived, the alleged perpetrator had already fled the scene and witnesses described the event as an effort to intimidate another individual in the bar. This included firing at least one shot into the floor of the bar. They identified the shooter as Robert C. Woods, a 45-year old man who lived on Madison Avenue near the Catholic Cemetery and across the street from then-Madison Public School.

Residence of Robert C. Woods, 854 Madison Ave SE
The front and rear doors are directly opposite each other.
Photo from the GRPL Local History Collections
One of the witnesses accompanied the officers to the house where they met up with Sergeant VanTuinen, who along with one of the officers, remained at the front of the house while the other officer went around to the rear. The officer with VanTuinen joined the one at the back and both described later that they could see into the house and that Woods had a gun. They called for him to put it down and come out but he refused. The officers told him he was under arrest for felonious assault but Woods claimed he didn't do anything. More officers arrived at the house and a verbal threat was made to break in the front door. According to the officers' reports, Woods said he'd come out but he wasn't going to put down his gun. Moments later, before the officers could act, a "blast of a shotgun could be heard" and one of the officers yelled, "He got Stan!" The blast had hit VanTuinen in the face at close range. The other officers opened fire wounding the assailant before apprehending him and taking him into custody.

Headline of Sunday, December 4, 1966
Sergeant VanTuinen, 35 years old with a wife and six children, was declared dead on arrival at St. Mary's Hospital, but the police superintendent said he believed Stan was killed instantly. The ambulance taking him there became involved in an accident near the hospital so the attendants were forced to use a stretcher to complete the final block. Later on during the murder trial, Patrolman Alfred Yentsch tearfully described a few moments when he was alone with the mortally wounded VanTuinen: "I took his pulse," he said. "It was very weak. He was breathing a little . . . hemorrhaging pretty badly, and when he breathed the blood came out." Yentsch said that he was alive maybe for another minute ". . . and then passed away." Yentsch could not go on and Judge Letts called a short "recess to permit him to regain his composure." (GRP 5/18/67 p. 29)

Stanley VanTuinen Family
The Grand Rapids Press, December 5, 1966
Services were held on December 6th at the Wyoming Park Baptist Church on Porter Street with internment at Kentwood's Pine Hill Cemetery near VanTuinen's home. Officiated by Rev. Wendell Babcock, over 700 mourners, including more than 200 fellow officers attended the funeral and graveside ceremony despite poor weather. The church was filled and a couple hundred more mourners had to be seated in the basement. The procession to the cemetery stretched nearly three miles down 28th Street, with Wyoming Police officers posted at every intersection along the way.

At the gravesite, Grand Rapids Police Captain Francis Pierce, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, commanded the police firing detail that rang out three volleys over the grave. Taps was played as a final tribute to a Lee Rebel's "end of watch." As the Press noted, "Soft sobbing was heard as the notes hung in the air. The widow and children left the grave, crying softly and quietly. Supt. of Police William A. Johnson said, 'We are all grievously shocked. Stan was a fine gentleman and we'll miss him. I think the turnout today was a fine tribute to him and his family.'" (GRP 5/7/67)

In addition to his wife, Esther, and six children (ages) - Gary (14), Gayle (11), Carol (9), Marcia (6), Nancy (4) and Marilyn (2) - he was survived by his parents and five siblings. At the time of his death, VanTuinen's brother William was also a member of the Grand Rapids police force and would serve 38 years before his retirement. He passed away in 1995.

Wyoming Alliance edition of December 8, 1966
VanTuinen's murder shocked the city and surrounding area. A fund was started to help out the family and nearly $10,000 had been raised to help them in just a couple of days following Stan's death. The Grand Rapids Press Editorial railed at the lack of insurance protection for police officers' families. Future President Gerald R. Ford, a member of Congress and House Republican Leader at the time, put out a press notice that he was appalled by the low pay and insufficient financial support available to surviving families of police officers who die in the line of duty. It was his intention to submit a bill to correct that.



Prior to VanTuinen's murder, only three Grand Rapids officers had been fatally wounded in the line of duty: Detective George Powers was shot by a train bandit in 1895; Officers Samuel Slater and George Brandsma were gunned down in 1921 trying to apprehend a bank robber.

A preliminary hearing was held the week of Christmas 1966 before Police Court Judge Roman Snow. The accounts of the attending police officers as well as witnesses, both from the LimeLite Room incident and the murder of VanTuinen, were provided in detail over two days to determine if enough evidence existed to charge Woods. Judge Snow determined there was and the following month, Woods stood mute in Circuit Court so the judge entered a plea of innocence on his behalf. The case was remanded to Circuit Court Judge John T. Letts. A venue change was immediately requested by Woods' public defender but after consideration, it was denied. A jury was soon selected and the case went to trial in May.

During the trial, an attempt was made by Woods' defense counsel and his wife, also named Esther, to connect the shooting with his military service during World War II, where she claimed part of his duties included the morbid collection and burial of dead soldiers. Subsequent expert testimony by a psychologist and two psychiatrists ultimately refuted that contention and on Friday evening, May 26, 1967, after deliberating for less than three hours, the jury found Robert C. Woods guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of Sergeant VanTuinen. The verdict carried a mandatory life sentence without parole and Woods eventually died in prison on July 30, 1988.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association posthumously honored Sergeant Stanley VanTuinen with the 1967 Liberty Bell Award, along with Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee who had died in the Apollo 1 fire in January of that year.

During the annual Police Memorial Day Service in May, VanTuinen is honored along with other officers who lost their lives in the line of duty.  His name is inscribed at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Judiciary Square, Washington, DC.

The Thin Blue Line
Postscripts:

Stan's son, Gary VanTuinen told The Grand Rapids Press in December 1966 that he wanted to become a police officer. He joined the Kent County Sheriff's Department in 1976 and was recognized for 30 years of service by the Board of Commissioners in December 2006. He's now retired.

Stan's second youngest daughter, Nancy VanTuinen Niewiadomski passed away in April 2017. She was 55.

Update:  Today was December 3, 2017, fifty-one years to the day that Sergeant VanTuinen was gunned down in a senseless act. Although I never knew him personally, I now feel somewhat close having spent the last month researching his life and death. It was a beautiful sunny day in contrast to the day he lost his life. I stopped by Pine Hill Cemetery in Kentwood to pay my respects to a fellow Rebel.




Sources:

Ancestry.com

Lee High School Echo Yearbooks 1947 and 1949, Wyoming, Michigan

Multiple editions of The Grand Rapids Press from 12/4/66 to 6/9/67, Grand Rapids Public Library Local History Collections

Grand Rapids Bar Association website http://www.grbar.org/?72 retrieved 11/7/17

Betty Gibout Real Estate Listing Cards, Grand Rapids Public Library Local History Collections

Facebook messages with Bernie VanTuinen 11/5-6/17

Wyoming Alliance, 12/8/66, p. 1 courtesy Tom Maas, Wyoming Historical Commission

Officer Down Memorial Page, www.odmp.org, retrieved 11/7/17

Ford Press Releases - Fifth District, 1966-1968, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/document/0054/4525538.pdf, retrieved 11/7/17

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial website: http://www.nleomf.org/memorial/, retrieved 11/29/17