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Reflecting on the murder of Mark Hummels

43 year old Mark Hummels was memorialized at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix on Tuesday.

43 year old Mark Hummels was memorialized at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix on Tuesday. He was gunned down after a business meeting in an office complex at the end of January. He’s survived by his wife and two young children. Erin Trapp is one of dozens of people who have been friends with Mark since childhood. She and some of Mark’s closest friends are looking for a way to express their loss and turn Mark’s death into positive change. This blog is part of that effort. Erin admits she’s going outside of her comfort zone for this:

On an exceptionally warm winter day in February, I have traveled to Phoenix to say goodbye to my friend Mark Hummels, murdered Jan. 30.

My attire is somewhat unconventional for a memorial service. I am wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Flusher Power” in large white letters.

I am carrying several car-window markers in orange and black I might use to decorate my rental car with messages and slogans more commonly observed in the parking lot of the local high school during a Homecoming celebration.

To create such a spectacle at the solemn occasion pushes me outside my comfort zone, but it feels important that the world know the person we are burying—beyond the polished suit and the grown-up glasses of his lawyer’s existence and news photograph.

As the number of victims of senseless gun violence increases, and we cross one after another unthinkable Rubicon of innocent victims, we seem dangerously close to becoming inured to the intimate toll that this violence is taking on real people, like the two young children Mark left behind.

My memories of the real Mark Hummels go back to third grade at Jackson Elementary School in Greeley, Colorado, where Mark was the leader of a band of boys he dubbed “the Flushers.” They wrecked pleasant havoc on our quiet middle-class neighborhood by climbing trees, decorating the branches with garlands of toilet paper and dropping chocolate cherries on passing cars, leaving bewildered drivers scratching their heads. Not to be outdone, I started a rival band of girls; our primary mission was to chase the Flushers around the playground in a game we called “kissing tag.”

This was an era when the women’s movement had taken hold and all of the children in our world were brought up to believe that we were special and could do anything in the world with our lives.  As we aged, it became clear to just about everyone in town that while many of us thought we were special, Mark actually was.

Mark was always the best in everything. The top student. Top athlete. Eagle Scout. Student Council president. But that wasn’t what made Mark special. Mark was the kind of person everyone wanted to be around–he had a goofy lightness and a remarkable humor about him, accompanied by an easy, omnipresent grin that belied the unbelievable wealth of talent and discipline that he possessed. Most importantly, Mark found a way to connect with people from all walks of life in a way that went far beyond typical civility.

In the parlance of the times, Mark befriended the jocks, stoners, band geeks, debate nerds, outcasts and everyone in between. This was not just a friendly how-ya-doing in the halls of the high school, however. He was the anti-bully, with a generosity of spirit that made room for all comers while watching out for folks in danger of being left behind. One classmate remembers how, although they weren’t particular friends, he noticed that she was out sick for several days and visited her home to insist that getting out in the fresh Colorado air would help her feel better. It did.

Several classmates reflecting on Mark described frustration at the fact that he was always better than the rest of us at school or sports or pretty much anything he tried, but also how he always looked back to extend a helping hand or just a silly grin that said “don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Later in life, after Mark had gone on to become a reporter, clerk for an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, then enter private legal practice, he continued to impress people with his remarkable combination of intelligence, kindness and joie de vivre.

Mark was described by the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, for whom he clerked, in the same words as principals and parents had always characterized Mark--the smartest person in any room, and also the most decent, with that permanent grin and impish spirit.

The same day he was gunned down in Phoenix, the national news reported the death of a teenager caught in the crossfire in Chicago, the targeted murder of a prosecutor in Texas, and a shooting in a middle school in Atlanta. These were just the killings that made headlines.

On my drive home from work, I aimlessly listened to a radio account of former Rep. Gabriel Giffords, imploring her former colleagues in Congress to act to curb the kind of gun violence that robbed her of her career.  The news also reported yet another shooting, this time in an office park in Phoenix. Until later that evening, I did not connect those reports with my friend.

While I’ve known Mark for the better part of three decades, I have been at something of a loss to describe why the death of an old friend I don’t see much anymore is so devastating. The world always felt like it held a little more promise and kindness when Mark was around, and there was

always a higher standard to achieve.

News of this shooting was the first proof I had ever had that Mark was not invincible. As news trickled in about the shooting, old friends gathered to remember him, sharing stories and comforting each other through tears.

At 8:30 p.m. Arizona Standard Time on Jan. 31, we held hands and wished Godspeed to our friend as his family made the agonizing choice to remove him from life support.

Mark was ambushed in the lobby of a Phoenix office building. In the words of his brother David, “Mark was a big strong man, a college athlete. And trust me: from growing up with him, he could fight. But he was shot in the back from ambush.”

During the night after the shooting, while we waited for news of Mark’s condition, I heard again the words of former Representative Giffords--her halting yet passionate speech--I wondered if the vibrant, impish, unicycle-riding Mark we knew would be permanently disabled. When we learned that far worse, Mark would not survive his injuries, anger was the only emotion that made any sense.  Still, anger seemed incongruous with who Mark was.

As the reality of Mark’s death sank in, the only choice that felt rational was to attempt to channel that anger into something productive. The fact of Mark’s brutal murder made this so personal that I felt obligated to engage fully in the difficult issues surrounding the issue of gun violence which include but aren’t limited to how to make guns safer for everyone, how to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people, how to engage in a more civil dialogue, and, perhaps more importantly, how to restore some civility and community.

I’m also somewhat ashamed when I consider that communities across the United States have been torn apart by gun violence for decades, disproportionately affecting African-Americans and the poor while I stood by. Where was my outrage then?  And why did it take the death of one of the brightest lights I have ever known to make me pay attention?  Too commonly today, we shake our heads, hug our children a little tighter, and secretly give thanks for our own good fortune and while hoping the violence doesn’t appear at our door.

And so we turn to the social media tools of the day to put the word out to our classmates--some of the most talented, creative, and resourceful people I’ve ever known—to help change this dynamic. Among us we have vowed to make positive change in the world in honor of Mark. I have made a personal vow that we do so in a way that honors the spirit he embodied, that promises to never take ourselves to seriously, making sure to care for families and friends while looking outward with that same nurturing spirit, and taking every opportunity to make the world a more entertaining place while spreading the kind of brightness that Mark did.

In the end, I realized that I didn't need to create a spectacle of t-shirts and decorated cars at the memorial Tuesday. Mark was always Mark, and his spirit was always evident. The trick for those of us who knew him won't be to remember his unique gift for standing apart without standing above. It will be to convince ourselves that he couldn't outrun an assassin and that he is really gone.

In the quiet moments, the echo of Mark’s teasing voice will bring out the best in our own encounters. That will be Mark's legacy, the best one I can imagine. We are all Mark Hummels.