I could just imagine the gleam in Fred Phelps’ eye when he heard that I was hoping to have one of his picket signs for a souvenir. The one that said "The Fag Rag" in very large, hand painted letters.
Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., had brought his traveling circus of hate to Salina, Kan., where he was picketing, among other things, the newspaper I was then the editor of. We were on his list of targets — and had earned that special title — because our editorial policy was not only in favor of gay rights, we had even published one of the first same-sex wedding announcements ever to appear in a mainstream American newspaper.
I had mentioned to the reporter who was going to be covering the Phelps barnstorming that I wished he would give us that sign. Fearless journalist that she was, she actually asked him. Savvy media hound that Phelps was, he actually gave it to her.
But not before he, like a proud author autographing a book, added a hand-written dedication: "To a fellow supporter of the First Amendment. - Fred"
Dirty SOB. He had me there. I couldn’t deny that I, like him, owed my life’s calling to that part of the Constitution of the United States that assures everyone the right to speak their piece.
I had crossed paths with Phelps many times over the years. Before he became a globally known nutcase, he was a fairly well-regarded, if eccentric, civil rights lawyer, known for sticking up for the little guy. He had also run for office a few times. He ran as a Democrat, though his platform was more anti-tax populist, not unlike the 21st century tea party.
In the early 1990s, it all turned to the horrid gay-bashing, the picketing of funerals, the faxed newsletters featuring a rather amusing caricature of a certain newspaper editor, portrayed as a Rocky Horror Picture Show-style cross-dresser.
Fred always claimed First Amendment protection for everything he did. In 2011, many years after I left our mutual home state, the U.S. Supreme Court even agreed with him. Much as it pained many people to see.
Fred Phelps died early Thursday, at the age of 84. From the sketchy news reports of his last years, with little information coming out of the tight-knit circle of his extended family, he lost not only his vigor and the spotlight, but also control of the church that he founded and populated mostly with his children and grandchildren.
He also lost his lifetime’s battle against the widespread acceptance of gay and lesbians in American society.
His tireless efforts to condemn homosexuality in the nastiest terms imaginable, with signs that said, "God hates fags" and "God hates America," made Phelps the face of "traditional values" to a great many Americans, especially the younger ones. If that’s what old-time religion looked like, more and more people were having nothing to do with it. Those that stuck with their faith, in many cases, went out of their way to make sure that nobody would confuse Phelps’ idea of godliness with theirs.
America, to its great and eternal credit, did not make Fred Phelps shut up. It let him talk, long and loud, and do just what the basic principal of free speech assumes: The fools and idiots will be found out for what they are, and rejected in the marketplace of ideas.
Fred Phelps is survived by his wife of 62 years, 13 children, 54 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and, despite all he did over the years to try to poison it, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, was never able to work up the courage to kiss Fred Phelps full on the lips, just to drive him crazy, the way Bugs Bunny used to do to Elmer Fudd.
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