The passing of 71 years hasn't softened the pain for Wayne Whipps.
His dad, Marcus, was one of three unarmed Minnesota conservation officers gunned down on the shore of Lake Sakatah in Waterville, Minn., by a commercial fisherman whose license they were checking. It remains one of the worst tragedies in state law enforcement history.
"It ruined our family, it did,'' said Wayne Whipps, 80, of Owatonna, who was 9 when his dad was gunned down.
But now, all these years later, the Department of Natural Resources is honoring the fallen men with a memorial outside its offices in New Ulm. The state Conservation Officers Association and DNR enforcement supervisors and managers chipped in $6,000 for the memorial. Wayne Whipps and his family will be at the dedication June 13.
"I'm happy to see it, but I'm sorry something wasn't done sooner,'' Whipps said.
Jim Konrad, DNR enforcement chief and a field officer for 22 years, is among those who pushed for the memorial.
"I thought it was something we should do,'' he said. The triple slaying prompted the state to give officers uniforms and revolvers. Today, conservation officers are full-fledged peace officers.
Said conservation officer Mike Scott of Duluth, who also spearheaded the memorial effort: "This was a critical turning point for the department, and it made us who we are today.''
Not only were the murders a sad chapter in state history, Scott said, but so too was the lack of recognition over the decades for men who died protecting the state's natural resources.
"I think we forgot about them, and it's sad,'' he said.
Marcus Whipps, 45, A. Melvin Holt, 55, of Worthington and Dudley Brady, 50, of Windom were murdered on July 12, 1940, with single 12-gauge shotgun blasts after asking to see the commercial fishing license of Bryant Baumgartner, 54. After felling the three officers, Baumgartner then turned his shotgun on himself. At least five people were nearby cleaning fish.
Only one other time in state history have three Minnesota law officers been killed in a single incident. The three wardens are among five Minnesota conservation officers murdered in the line of duty. One was stabbed in 1897 and another was shot in 1930.
While Wayne Whipps is grateful his dad and the other two officers will be honored with a memorial, he remains bitter, saying the tragedy could have been avoided. Though newspaper accounts suggest the officers never expected the confrontation with Baumgartner, Wayne Whipps said everyone knew trouble was brewing.
It was a different era, when game wardens didn't wear uniforms and generally only carried weapons at night, and the nation was still struggling through a depression. At the time, bullheads were netted and sold for food. But in 1939, the Conservation Department (predecessor to the DNR) restricted possession and transportation of bullheads to no more than 50 per day -- a move resented by some.
"It was the Depression, and people were hard up," Whipps said. "They figured they had a right to seine fish illegally and ship them out."
Shots had been fired elsewhere at game wardens, and Whipps said state officials expected trouble at Baumgartner's. "He kept talking in town that he was going to shoot every game warden and every sheriff that came,'' Whipps said. But Whipps said state officials wouldn't allow the officers to be armed when they confronted Baumgartner.
"I always felt the state was just as guilty of pulling the trigger as this guy was," he said.
While newspaper accounts say the officers were unarmed, Whipps believes his dad was packing a small pistol in his back pocket, one he wasn't able to use to defend himself.
And he said not everyone was aghast at the murders.
"When they drove us over to the morgue, an hour after the shooting, there were 1,000 people downtown. And some of the thugs spit on our cars as we went by and they hollered at us as we got out, 'They got what they deserved.'''
The emotions from those days remain raw.
Whipps said he would have preferred the memorial be placed in nearby Le Center, where his dad was born and where he is buried. He didn't want it in Waterville. Konrad had suggested the memorial be placed on a state trail at Waterville near the shootings.
"I want nothing to do with that town," Whipps said. "There's still too much animosity there.''
His mother died in 1980. Wayne Whipps is the last of her three children still alive. She never remarried. "We barely made it,'' Whipps said.
Konrad said the DNR doesn't know if any family members of Brady and Holt are alive. Scott said an unknown number of conservation and other law enforcement officers will attend the memorial ceremony, along with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
Meanwhile, Wayne Whipps still tends to his father's grave at the small, well-manicured cemetery surrounded by farm fields near Le Center.
"I keep it up,'' he said.