Painful Parallels Between Mass Shootings at Navy Yard and Standard Gravure in Louisville

The tragic shootings in Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday were for some of us a searing reminder of another mass murder, nearly a quarter century ago this month, at Louisville’s Standard Gravure printing company. On the morning of Sept. 14, 1989, an alienated Standard printer, Joseph Wesbecker, 47, entered the plant at 8:30, carrying a veritable arsenal of weapons—a semi-automatic AK-47 derivative made in China, a 9-mm pistol, and a duffel bag containing three more guns, a bayonet and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

The building was a part of The Courier-Journal complex on Broadway at Sixth Street. Wesbecker rode an elevator to the third floor executive office suite, where he opened fire on receptionists and began a rampage in the building that would leave eight people dead and twelve others injured before he killed himself. If anyone saw him come in, they probably didn’t think much about him because he was a familiar figure in our part of town.

I remember Wesbecker, who was known by colleagues as “Rocky,” from seeing him hang around the snack bar at the rear of The Courier-Journal building. In the years before 1986, employees at The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, Standard Gravure and WHAS all generally knew one another. It was a small city, with over 3,000 employees, a 24-hour cafeteria, a day-care center for employees’ children, a full-service health club and many other amenities. Then, in January 1986, to resolve a family dispute, Barry Bingham Sr. put all of his family’s holdings on the market, a step that would, by year’s end, break up a local media empire. It was also the beginning of the end of a wonderful community that was dedicated to excellent journalism and printing.

Wesbecker, who suffered from depression, was disgruntled because he had been given an assignment in the press room that he disliked. He was on disability leave for mental illness at the time. His own family members were aware of his anger at the new executives of Standard Gravure, who, he felt, were far less sympathetic employers than the Binghams and their executives had been.

On the day of the shooting I was far away in St. Paul, Minn., attending an editors’ convention. I had gone back to my room to give my brother a call, to wish him a happy birthday. Before I could dial the number, my mother came on the line (this was some years before cell phones made out-of-town contact a simpler matter) and told me to turn on CNN. There had been a shooting at The Courier-Journal building, she said.

I have rarely been more shocked in my life, and in the minutes that followed, I sat frozen to the screen, waiting for more news about what was happening back in Louisville in the complex where I had worked for more than 20 years. At first, the news was sketchy. The employees had been evacuated from the building, but it was unclear exactly where Wesbecker’s journey through the connected structures took him. Later it would become evident that before he shot himself, he was heading toward the executive offices on the third floor of The Courier-Journal. My own office was there, off the lobby directly across from the bank of elevators. My close friends and colleagues were all around. They were next on Wesbecker’s deranged list.

There had been many other mass-slayings in America before Sept. 14, 1989, but none had the immediacy that the Standard Gravure shootings did for so many of us. And in the next 23 years that I continued to work at The Courier-Journal, rarely a month passed without wondering how secure we were at our desks and in our offices. Even as the company beefed up security, required first photo IDs, then hand scanners and other devices, there never again was the complete security we once felt in a workplace that operated literally 24 hours a day.

In the last few years I worked at The Courier-Journal, I often came into the office on weekends to get ahead for the following week, and generally my office was the only one that was open. Many of the offices were vacant, the result of the wave of layoffs and retirements that reduced the editorial staff from 12 in 1989 to only three by 2012. Occasionally a security guard would walk down the hall on patrol, but as the size of the workforce was reduced again and again, there were moments when I did not feel safe. In time, there was just one guard for the entire building on weekends. Looking back, I had every reason to be scared. Some of us even wondered if the third floor were haunted – one Sunday afternoon I am certain I heard a typewriter clacking away, even though there were no more typewriters in the surrounding offices.  

The Washington Navy Yard is filled with employees. Indeed, the atrium where the slain workers, most of them in their 50s or older, were gathered for breakfast, must have seemed so peaceful on Monday morning. No doubt people were slowly gearing up for the new week with an extra cup of coffee, some scrambled eggs and bacon or yogurt. The time of the shootings was almost identical to those that began in Louisville a quarter century earlier. The victims were no doubt just as surprised, and the ones who were not injured were certainly equally traumatized. Indeed, the parallels are too vivid to ignore. And the question we must ask is how many more must die in this way before something breaks in the American people? A victim’s widow lamented: “I can’t believe this is happening again.”

Just in the last year, shootings in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school resulted in unspeakable tragedies. A dozen innocent moviegoers, taking in a new “Batman” film, shot to death in the darkened theater. Twenty little children and six of their teachers gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. And just seven years ago the tragedy at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were slain. The list goes on and on. And the perpetrators provide evidence that mass murder is a crime committed by all kinds of people, regardless of race, creed or color.

Gun control legislation is only one solution. A broader question, I think, is whether Americans really need all of these guns. The lobby that protects them cites the Second Amendment as a defense, even against bloody slaughters like the one on Monday. There are no easy answers, but I believe the poisonous climate for civil dialogue in our nation today makes it all the more difficult and less likely that any kind of substantive change will occur. Meanwhile, none of us can feel safe—anywhere—knowing that a troubled person with a backpack filled with guns will fire at his demons, but the targets will be innocent people, just trying to go about their daily business. Is this the climate we want to live in?

A footnote: The rotogravure business, which used high quality color presses and slick paper, fell apart in the 1990s. In 1992, Standard Gravure shut down for good. Subsequently, The Courier-Journal tore down the building and it is now a parking lot. But though the site of the mass murders is gone, the incident remains one of the most tragic in our city’s history.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. 

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