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Hundreds attend memorial service for slain abortion doctor Tiller

A guest who attended the service calls George Tiller, 67, 'the best of Wichita and the best of Kansas.' About a dozen antiabortion activists are kept away from the church in Wichita.

June 07, 2009|Robin Abcarian

WICHITA, KAN. — It was a peaceful postscript to a violent end: Hundreds of mourners gathered Saturday at a memorial for George Tiller, the Kansas physician who was at the center of the abortion debate until he was assassinated at his church last Sunday, allegedly by an antiabortion extremist.

The 90-minute ceremony came to a powerful culmination when Tiller's wife of almost 45 years, Jeanne, stood alone on the altar beside her husband's casket and sang "The Lord's Prayer." Many in the crowd wept as the song filled College Hill United Methodist Church.

To the public, Tiller, 67, was known as one of the few late-term abortion providers in the country. He was targeted repeatedly by abortion opponents who tried to drive him out of business using legal tactics -- and by fanatical foes who embraced violence.

In 1986, his clinic was bombed; in 1993, he was shot in both arms and returned to work the next day.

Those who addressed the crowd, which was estimated at close to 1,000, steered clear of the controversy. They recalled a beloved husband, father and friend.

The only allusion to the political climate came from Larry Borcherding, Tiller's friend of 50 years and fraternity brother from the University of Kansas. "George's constant challenges over these last decades have been exemplary of his brave, courageous, passionate and dedicated attitude . . . which the common man can't even comprehend," he said.

Tiller attended college on a swimming scholarship, and for that was nicknamed "Tuna," Borcherding said. He said Tiller, a Wichita native whose parents, sister and brother-in-law died in a plane crash in 1970, loved traveling, skiing and visiting Colorado, where he had a second home.

A photo of a smiling Tiller stood on the altar next to a large wreath with the words "Trust Women," a favorite Tiller saying. His love of axioms was a leitmotif of the service, and ushers handed out a sheet of 21 "Dr. Tillerisms," such as: "A life of reaction is a life of spiritual and emotional slavery."

He was eulogized by his four adult children. To them, and his 10 grandchildren, he was known as "Papa."

Tiller's youngest daughter, Krista, said her father loved "exercise, reading, art, James Bond films, coffee, Elvis and Johnny Cash."

His daughter Rebecca recalled that her father once bought her a poster of "Star Trek" quotes. "If you read these every day," he told her, "you will be successful in life." Among the "Star Trexioms," she said, were: "Enemies are often invisible. Like Klingons, they can be cloaked."

The man charged with first-degree murder in Tiller's death, Scott Roeder, attended some services at Tiller's church before allegedly gunning him down last week, according to the Associated Press.

The Wichita Police Department is leading the murder investigation. On Friday, the Justice Department announced that it had opened a civil rights investigation into the slaying.

Although security was tight during the service, with uniformed and plainclothes law enforcement officers in abundance, mourners entered the church freely, and police reported no disruptive incidents.

Warren Hern, 70, one of the few other physicians in the country who provide late-term abortions, served as a pallbearer. He is under the protection of U.S. marshals. At the Denver airport Friday, he said he was shaken by Tiller's death, but when asked whether he would consider retiring, his response was terse: "Never."

On Saturday, the crowd filled the sanctuary and the church's gymnasium-sized multipurpose room. Shortly before the 10 a.m. service began, the Rev. John Martin, the senior pastor, announced the locations of three exits in the overflow room, in case mourners should need to evacuate.

Lining the curb in front of the church, about 50 people from the Kansas National Organization for Women wore blue T-shirts that said, "Attitude is Everything," one of Tiller's favorite slogans.

Dozens of members of the Patriot Guard Riders -- veterans on motorcycles -- came to honor Tiller, a Navy veteran and former flight surgeon who trained as a resident at Camp Pendleton.

A dozen or so abortion foes with "God sent the shooter" posters were held at bay; Kansas law requires protests to stay 150 feet from a funeral.

Marla Flentje, a mourner at the service, said that she had served as an escort to patients during the 1991 "Summer of Mercy," when abortion foes flooded Wichita to blockade Tiller's clinic.

"I thought the service today painted the portrait of the compassionate, caring, Christian man he was," Flentje said. "It exploded the caricature his detractors have tried to paint. He is the best of Wichita and the best of Kansas."

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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