One Sunday more than 20 years ago, Steve Fry and a friend went on a morning bike ride. Through neighborhoods in Topeka, Kan., they pedaled toward the home of The Topeka Capital-Journal’s publisher. There, on that early, sleepy Sunday, stood a crowd of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church. The Rev. Fred Phelps led the way, holding a bull horn and cursing them to hell.
“This was when those kinds of things shocked me,” said Fry, a reporter with the Capital-Journal in a phone interview with Poynter.
But after more than 20 years covering Phelps and Westboro and the angry picketing, that’s worn off.
“They’ve kind of become the landscape,” Fry said. “They’re just the shrubs and the trees.”
Last weekend, on another sleepy Sunday, Fry heard of Phelps again. This time, though, it wasn’t through a bull horn, but a message on Facebook from one of Phelps’ children who left the church and the family.
Phelps was near death.
Fry headed into the newsroom and met his colleague Jan Biles, and together the two began reporting on the end of a story that’s kept them both busy for years. Maybe it’s not the story’s end, but the central character’s, at least, who had continually angered people, waged court cases and made headlines.
For Biles and Fry, though, Fred Phelps was part of their beat.
The grandpa and the pastor
Biles first met Phelps in the late 1980s or early 1990s when she worked as a reporter for The Hutchinson (Kan.) News. Phelps was running for governor.
“I will be honest,” she said in a phone interview with Poynter. “I was kind of miffed because I wanted to follow one of the viable candidates.”
Then, she got to know him. Part of Phelps’ campaign involved bicycling across Kansas, and one day, Biles followed him along on his route. She later interviewed him at his home and remembers sitting in his office, with Phelps on the other side of a very large desk.
Fry started covering Phelps in the summer of 1991, when the church first began their picketing. Fry’s interviewed him half a dozen or so times, he said, once for about three hours in that same office with the large desk. Phelps became part of the beat for Fry, who covers the courts. Phelps was a lawyer and had more than 400 cases in court over the years.
But the angry, shouting old man isn’t the one he or Biles spoke with. Phelps was always cordial, Fry said, and would say hello to Fry if he saw him passing while picketing.
People who knew Phelps personally described the man as a loving grandfather who shared ice cream shakes with his grandkids for their birthdays.
“I think that Fred the person was different than Fred the public figure,” Biles said, though she never saw the personal side of him at all.
How did they reconcile that, the loving grandpa and the angry man yelling “old whore” at a woman in her 80s who just crossed the picket lines? Or the man who picketed all those funerals? The man who did what he’s known for over and over and over?
“I don’t know,” Fry said. “I don’t know how to reconcile that. I cover courts. I cover some people who are convicted of extremely cruel crimes, and yet some of them are family people.”
His job, Fry said, and Biles agreed, was to remain objective and fair, to remove the emotion and report.
“You just have to detach,” he said. “That’s what we all do as journalists.”
That first protest that Fry covered was the start of something that’s been non-stop since. But from the beginning, Fry said, editors at the Capital-Journal made a decision.
They weren’t going to cover everything Phelps did.
Phelps and his church wanted attention, and the newspaper didn’t want to be used. But if something big happened, an explosion at the home of a family member, for instance, they’d cover it.
Readers didn’t always like that. Some wanted the coverage to stop completely. Reactions varied.
On Friday, Biles got a phone call from a woman thanking Biles for the story she wrote about Phelps and his life.
“She thought it was well-done,” Biles said. “And that it needed to be done, and it was fair.”
Newspapers cover what’s happening in their community, Biles said. And for more than 20 years now in Topeka, part of that has been Fred Phelps.
Every now and then for the last few years, when a rumor would surface or someone would call the newsroom and say that Phelps was dead, Fry made a call.
He’d chat with one of Phelps’ children for a few minutes, and then he’d ask if they could put their dad on the phone.
They would, and Phelps would always laugh a bit.
“He kind of enjoyed it, I think.”
In the last few weeks, though, Fry knew something had changed. Calls to the church and home went to voicemail. A church that always answered stopped. The daughter who always answered was replaced with a spokesman. The Capital-Journal has adapted social media into how they’ve covered Phelps, watching Twitter and Facebook and developing source relationships with family members that left the church. And that’s how they got the news.
As they reported on Sunday and throughout the week on Phelps and his death Wednesday night, Fry and Biles said people from around the newsroom have joined in, working to report the story that’s become part of their community.
In 1994, Fry and Joe Taschler wrote a special section on Fred Phelps for the Topeka Capital-Journal. The second section, on the second page, featured the beginning of Phelps’ life: “Fred Waldron Phelps was born Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss. He had a typical Southern upbringing in a highly respected family.”
Searches of historic records and interviews with Mississippi residents who either knew young Fred Phelps and his family — or just knew of them — provide a fascinating account of his early days.
On Thursday, Fry wrote Phelps’ obituary. It began with the end of Phelps’ life:
The late Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps Sr., the vitriolic, outspoken and reviled former face of Westboro Baptist Church who died this week, won’t be memorialized by family members. There will be no funeral.