Former county sheriff turns 90

John Pence Former Sheriff

Photo by Rick Nichols A surprise party honoring John Pence on his 90th birthday brought members of his family and a number of longtime friends and acquaintances to Rose’s Cafe in Oskaloosa March 15 for an early lunch. Pictured here flanking the former Jefferson County sheriff are the current sheriff, Jeff Herrig, right, and Second Judicial District Magistrate Judge Dennis Reiling. Other guests included Reiling’s wife, Linda, Debbie Scrivner, Gene and Shirley Kerr, Chuck and Jo Miller, Allen Wise, Andy Conser, Dave Taylor, Kim Griffitts, Candace Braksick, and Martha Norman. There was an arrangement consisting of six balloons at one end of the table occupied by the party-goers, and at one point the group sang “Happy Birthday” to Pence. For dessert, Rose Summerville, the restaurant’s owner, baked a large “Funfetti” cake.


by Rick Nichols
More than 55 years removed from his brush with death during what soon became known as the Meriden Tornado, former Jefferson County Sheriff John Pence reached a milestone only the blessed, the lucky or some combination of the two ever arrive at when he turned 90 years old a week ago Tuesday.
Born a mile or so southwest of Dunavant March 15, 1926, Pence was only 34 and in the final year of his final two-year term as sheriff when he climbed into the county’s brand new 1960 Ford patrol car the evening of May 19, 1960, and headed west from Oskaloosa in the direction of Ozawkie to monitor the progress of a powerful storm that had developed southeast of Manhattan during the late afternoon hours, threatening everything in its path. As he proceeded along K-92, he eventually encountered an eastbound patrol car driven by his undersheriff, Walt Turner, who reportedly told him at the time, “I’m not going into that black cloud,” then continued on his way back toward Oskaloosa.
In retrospect, Turner was “the smart one” that day, Pence told me the afternoon of March 11 during an interview in his Bluefield Place apartment on the west side of Oskaloosa. Referring to himself, he said he “didn’t have that much smarts” and instead chose to go where the undersheriff didn’t want to be – directly in harm’s way – in serving the citizens of his native county.
In due time Pence reached the Ozawkie Cemetery, whose elevated position normally would have afforded him an excellent view of the countryside off to the west, and parked the patrol car there, remaining in his seat to survey the situation. “I just met that black cloud and I didn’t see nothing,” he said matter-of-factly, leaving no doubt whatsoever as to precisely what he had to contend with that fateful evening.
The next thing Pence knew, the rush of a mighty wind picked up the car and flipped it over as if it were a mere toy, causing the lower back part of his head to strike the underside of the roof in the process. The vehicle came to rest right side up, partway on the ground and partway suspended from a nearby tree. “It sounded like a thousand hammers hitting that car,” he told me, recounting the experience.
When I asked him if he thought he was going to die then and there, Pence quickly replied, “Oh, yeah,” then hastened to add, “It’ll (my death) happen, but I’m not the One who knows when it’s going to happen … I’ve been very, very lucky … I don’t know why I’m still here.”
“I thought it was all over,” Pence reiterated a few minutes later, the frightening ordeal ever so clear in his still keen memory.
Pence told me that after the car quit moving, he could hear the sound of wind coming through the windshield, which was broken. He said he then managed to crawl out of the car despite the pain he was feeling and began walking toward the highway in search of aid.
Here are the first four paragraphs from this paper’s account of the historic 1960 tornado and Pence’s injury (The Oskaloosa Independent, May 26, 1960):


Tornadoes struck through the heart of Jefferson County last Thursday night sweeping a path that ranged in width from three miles wide to a half mile at its narrowest point; thus, recording the date of May 19, 1960 in the annals of history and engraving upon the minds of all who witnessed their passing images never to be forgotten.
Entering this county just west of Meriden, Kansas, these roaring, digging, grotesque monsters of the sky, swept down upon the residents of Meriden and left their town a mass of rubble. In their wake were many injured and one dead.
Passing out of Meriden they swept a path across many of the finest farms in central Jefferson County on a path northeasterly to the village of Ozawkie. After damaging many homes and destroying much of the town’s sheltering trees, their paths crossed the hill just east of the village on which lie the ancestors of many of the families of this area. Their resting places were strewn with torn and twisted trees and monuments erected to them by their survivors were hurled about.
Here on this high hill overlooking the Delaware Valley, Jefferson County sheriff, John Pence, was seriously injured while attempting to chart and report the approach of this dreadnought of nature. His patrol car was overturned and came to rest hanging from a tree. Although he was seriously injured, John managed to escape the car and make his way down the hill to the highway where he was picked up and taken into Ozawkie and from there to Lawrence Memorial Hospital where he is resting fairly comfortably, although suffering a fractured vertebra.

The information above appeared under a front page headline that read “Tornadoes Rip Across County – Meriden Nearly Destroyed” and two large photographs. The photo on the left was of the badly damaged county courthouse, the oldest one in Kansas still in operation, and the one on the right showed Pence’s patrol car after the tornado had had its way with it.
Pence told me a man by the name of Charlie Ledke (spelling uncertain) gave him the ride on into Ozawkie, a distance of about a quarter of a mile, and that a man by the name of Johnny Krumly (again, spelling uncertain) was the one who transported him to Lawrence. He said Krumly originally wanted to take him to a hospital in Topeka for care but that when the two of them reached the Meriden area, all of the major roads were impassable due to the damage generated by the tornado and they turned around and went all the way east to Oskaloosa before turning south. He said he spotted Oskaloosa’s city marshal when they rolled into town and made him aware of what was going on. It was at this same time that he also got his first look at what the twister had done to the courthouse. “You could see right into the courtroom,” he related.
Pence told me the 1960 tornado wasn’t the first tornado he had ever been in. He said that when he was four years old, a twister made its way through the Dunavant area, damaging a barn and a machine shed on the farm where he and his parents, Howard and Caroline Pence, and their other two children, daughters Dorothy and Erma, lived. He said he remembers trying to help his mother hold the door to the house shut so it wouldn’t blow away.
Nor was it the first truly dangerous situation he had ever been in. In March of 1944, he entered the Navy, and by the time November rolled around, he found himself aboard the U.S.S. Hyde, an amphibious attack ship assigned to patrol the waters of the Pacific Ocean during World War II. At that point the Japanese still controlled the island of Iwo Jima, but that would change early the following year during the course of the celebrated Battle of Iwo Jima, when American troops were able to take this highly coveted piece of real estate away from the Japs.
But the victory proved to be a costly one. “They (the Japanese) were killing a couple hundred (soldiers) every day,” Pence related.
Marines ferried to the shore of the island by the U.S.S. Hyde were involved in the fighting. Later, the entire crew of the ship received a Battle Star for their service to the nation during the war.
When Pence enlisted in the Navy, he had yet to complete his formal education. He should’ve graduated from Oskaloosa High School with the Class of 1944, but as it turned out, it’d be another 10 years before he was awarded a high school diploma. He said he was able to make up the classwork he had missed by taking some classes through the University of Kansas.
After Pence was discharged from the service in May of 1946, he was, at one time or another, a truck driver, a school bus driver (one year) and the operator of a rural milk route before he suddenly found himself trying to make a living by serving and protecting the public.
Well, back to that tornado. Pence told me he spent several days in the Lawrence hospital before he was dismissed, then stayed with his older sister (that would be Dorothy) for a while at her home in Ozawkie while he continued to recuperate from his injury. Pence’s father also was living in Ozawkie at the time, having moved there from the farm. By then, his mother had been dead for more than two and a half years.
By late August, Pence was feeling much better, thank you, so much so that he was able to stand for a spell as he read the official terms of the sale, then prepared to field bids on what amounted to the remains of the courthouse. But of the 175 or so people who showed up for the sale, the only one willing to pay anything for the fixtures, wood, bricks and other salvageable items was Les Shifflett of Atchison, who offered all of $50 to acquire what was left of a building that had cost $22,875 to build 93 years earlier.
Pence told me that when he was  young, the thought of becoming a law enforcement officer someday never crossed his mind. “I just never thought about getting into law enforcement at all,” he related.
But in the early 1950s, after Adair Edmonds, who had served under George Killinger, had been elected Jefferson County Sheriff, he asked Pence to be his Undersheriff. Pence said he accepted the job offer and worked under Edmonds for close to three years before he decided it was time for a change and quit.
Pence told me that when he made the decision to get out of law enforcement, he really didn’t understand what was happening to him at the time but that he eventually came to realize that he was experiencing a feeling many other cops have experienced at one point or another in their careers: burnout. In any event, he was relieved to be able to exchange his gun and his badge for the symbols of a less stressful occupation. “I didn’t have that load anymore,” he observed.
Pence operated a bulldozer for a while after he left the Sheriff’s Office, but somewhere along the line he had a change of heart and when it was time for Jefferson Countians to go to the polls in November of 1956 to elect a new sheriff, his name was on the Republican ballot.
Pence prevailed in the election and was re-elected two years later, but he was prevented by state law from seeking a third term in the fall of 1960.
Right about the time Pence’s second term came to an end — Jan. 14, 1961, to be exact — he married the former Anita Welter Worthington, who grew up in the Williamstown area and had a 13-year-old daughter, Mary Kay.
Pence landed a job with the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control after leaving the Sheriff’s Office and spent his first five or six years with the state agency working in the field as an undercover agent. He said the position required him to travel throughout Kansas buying liquor from eager sellers, some of whom were not licensed to sell the stuff and thus quickly found themselves in a heap of trouble.
Pence told me that he was subsequently able to secure a desk job at the ABC’s headquarters in Topeka and worked there for about 20 years before retiring. He said he was ready to retire when he did and that he has never regretted making that decision.
Just the same, he acknowledged that the office work was just what he needed after he had had his fill of adventure while basically working out of his car. “It (accepting the desk job) was a real good move as far as I was concerned,” he commented.
Looking back on his life with the clear view of things only hindsight can provide, Pence said he was glad that he made the career choice he did. “Law enforcement was good to me, real good to me,” he said. “I was really glad I got into it.”
The Pences lived near Perry during the first 10 or 11 years of their marriage, then moved to the Tecumseh area (i.e., “Shawnee Heights”) and spent about 18 years there. “That was a good place to live,” he said. “We had good neighbors and everything.”
By the time the Pences returned to the Perry area to live on the small farm they had purchased, Mrs. Pence had already retired from her job in Tecumseh with the DuPont company and its successor, Flexel Inc.
Pence told me that he had always wanted to have a place of his own with a herd of cattle but that when it finally hit him that running a ranch and doing a lot of traveling with his wife were incompatible, he dropped the idea of becoming a cattleman.
In 2000, Mrs. Pence suffered a stroke, and a second strike forced her to move into the F.W. Huston Senior Living Center in Winchester in the summer of 2007. Pence made it a point to drive from the Perry area to Winchester every other day to visit his wife, but by the summer of 2008 he was ready to move so he would be a little closer to her and that’s when he found the apartment at Bluefield Place. “It (the drive) was getting to be a little too much for me,” he said.
But on Jan. 29, 2009, the woman who had been Pence’s helpmate for 48 years, died. She was 84.
Fortunately for him, Pence still has his stepdaughter and her husband, Mary Kay and Don Hurd, to lean on, along with their three sons. The Hurds live in the Perry area and are the owners of Perry Feed Mill, which is where one of the boys works.
“They’re (the Hurds) awful good to me,” Pence told me, quickly adding, “I think an awful lot of them.”
The Hurds’ sons have gone on to be pretty productive, too, so Pence can rightfully claim to have six great-grandchildren. And that generation has been somewhat busy so far, providing the nonagenarian with two great-great-grandchildren.
Two other individuals who also play an important role in Pence’s life are his Oskaloosa relatives Ronnie and Cherrie Noll. Pence said Mrs. Noll regularly checks on him to make sure he is OK. “She has really been a terrific help,” he told me.

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