High school sweetheart recalls the day his life changed forever

Bob Rupp maintains resilient spirit through years of living with memories

Gently, without words, he props the picture frames on the kitchen countertop, so close they’re touching. One contains a black-and-white photograph of a young man, with dark hair, a strong jaw and a full lower lip. The other photo shows a girl, smiling tentatively and brushing her smooth face with a white-gloved hand. It’s his junior college picture, his wife’s engagement portrait.

Standing at the counter, the man silently studies the photos as he sips water from a Dixie cup. The jaw is still strong, the lips still full. But he admits that 40 years have taken their toll. They’ve weakened his hearing, slowed his walk and loosened his face, creasing it with wrinkles.

Suddenly, Bob Rupp smiles.

“See? I used to have hair,” he jokes, rolling his eyes toward the thin, white patches that remain. He winks. From the kitchen table, his wife, Coleen, waves a dismissive hand. “Oh, Bob,” she says. Then she stands and walks to the counter. “Well! I used to be thin!”

The teenage sweethearts fill their small Holcomb kitchen with unspoken memories as they nudge their thumbs along the wooden frames and smile.

He pauses. Then, unprompted, he speaks.

“You know,” he says, slowly and quietly, “Nancy was really pretty.”

And she was. Brown hair, curled at the ends, sparkling eyes, a wide, girlish smile. She had an easy laugh, and there wasn’t a mean bone in her body. She was in 4-H, went to church every Sunday and made top grades. Until her murder at age 16, Nancy Clutter was everyone’s friend.

And she was Bob Rupp’s first love. But the young couple’s romance ended in tragedy when Nancy, her parents and her 15-year-old brother were brutally murdered in their Holcomb farmhouse on Nov. 15, 1959. The murders are chronicled in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” in which Rupp — the last person to see the Clutter family alive — is cast as a heartbroken young man who, in his grief, closes himself to all but one or two confidantes.

In 45 years, Rupp, now 61, hasn’t publicly discussed the book or the murders, despite hundreds of interview requests from around the world. He wasn’t fond of Capote and gets irritated by reporters nosing into his private life. The past is the past, he says with quiet firmness.

But he’s never forgotten, he adds in a voice that’s a hint thicker — the girl he so loved, the family he so adored. And now, Bob Rupp — husband, father of four, grandfather, Holcomb farmer all his life — is, for the first time, ready to share his story.

“For a few years, I thought about it every day,” he says, seated with his wife at the kitchen table on an October evening. “It’s not like that anymore.

“But it was a tough time. Really tough. Me and Nancy, we thought we had a whole year before we’d go on to college. But the Lord had other plans.”

His strong jaw tightens.

“Well. No. I guess it wasn’t the Lord on this one.”

Their first relationship

They’d met years earlier, but it wasn’t until they were 16 that they started making eyes at each other across the high school dance floor. They became better acquainted through 4-H, and soon, Bobby and Nancy started going steady.

And, oh, how they loved each other. There was just something about her, Rupp remembers — the way she smiled, the way she seemed to always have time for everyone. The two liked to meet in the evening and cruise around “the square,” a hangout spot just outside Holcomb. After all, there wasn’t much else to do in tiny Holcomb, a rural town in southwest Kansas whose population at the time was just 270. Bowling or movies in Garden City, seven miles away, and that was about it.

When he speaks of Nancy, Rupp looks straight ahead, staring, it seems, at a place beyond his kitchen wall. A small, private smile pulls at his lips. He says he could go on “for hours and hours” about Nancy — what she was like, the things they liked to do together — but he volunteers little, and even when he’s prompted, he doesn’t give away much.

Back then, too, Bobby kept his romance private even to those closest to him. Not even his brother Larry, younger by just a year and his closest confidante, could glean details. He knew they were serious, but Bobby didn’t offer much more, so Larry didn’t ask.

“All I know is, they were together all the time,” says Larry Rupp, a 60-year-old mechanic living in Garden City who still joins his big brother for holiday dinners and summer fishing trips.

“You saw one, you saw the other.”

The week before she was killed, Nancy and Bobby made plans for the upcoming Saturday night to see a midnight film. But, he recalls in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, Herb and Bonnie Clutter advised the couple to catch the Friday showing instead. The teens obliged.

Had they kept their original plans, Nancy probably wouldn’t have been in the sprawling Clutter farmhouse when two recently released felons drove up the lane and eased through the unlocked doors in search of a rumored safe containing Herb Clutter’s fortune. When Richard Hickock and Perry Smith couldn’t find what they were looking for, they shot each Clutter family member in the head, then fled with only a pair of binoculars, a transistor radio and about $40. More than six weeks passed before they were caught.

Instead, on that Saturday night, Bobby visited Nancy at home. Herb greeted him warmly, then retreated to his desk, where he spent most of the evening catching up on paperwork. Nancy greeted Bobby wearing the I.D. bracelet he had given her and the couple’s ring, which she’d taken off the week before because of a quibble.

While Bonnie rested in her bedroom, Bobby, Nancy and her 15-year-old brother, Kenyon, watched television and relaxed. After the 10 o’clock news, Bobby stood up to leave. He remembers standing on the porch of the brick, two-story Clutter farmhouse with Nancy and telling her he’d pick her up after church the next day so they could spend the afternoon cruising Garden City. And then he drove home. Hours later, Hickock and Smith pulled up.

‘This can’t be happening’

The next day, the Rupp family was heading home from church when they spotted ambulances speeding down the street. “Man, there must’ve been a terrible accident,” Rupp remembers his father saying. Rupp says he thought little of it as the family arrived home and ate lunch.

Later that afternoon, Larry Rupp remembers, Bobby and Larry headed out to their family’s bunkhouse, a small building near the Rupp home where the boys slept and showered. Bobby sat on his bed cleaning his father’s gun, a .22-caliber Browning he and his father used for rabbit hunting. Larry sat next to him.

Larry recalls hearing a knock at the bedroom door. His father, flanked by Clarence Ewalt, a family friend and the father of one of Nancy’s best friends, appeared in the doorframe. Larry could see tears on both men’s cheeks.

“There’s been a tragedy,” both Rupp brothers remember Ewalt saying. “They’re dead. The Clutters are dead. We found them…”

“No. No. This can’t happen,” Bob Rupp remembers thinking frantically. “You read about this stuff. It doesn’t happen here. Not in Holcomb.”

As Larry Rupp remembers that day, his older brother — never one for outbursts –threw the Browning on the floor. Bob has never touched a gun since.

The boys were in shock. The elder vowed to drive to the Clutter farm right then and there. Ewalt advised against it, saying, “They’re not alive anymore, Bobby.” He offered nothing else. Didn’t say anything about the gruesome scene he, his daughter and another girl had discovered that morning. Didn’t say how each of the Clutters had been shot at point-blank range — Herb first, then Kenyon, Nancy and Bonnie. Didn’t say what nobody yet knew — that before Nancy was shot, she’d said, “Please don’t,” then turned to the wall when she realized what was about to happen.

Bobby drove anyway, Larry accompanying — even though “In Cold Blood” says the boys ran the three miles to the Clutter farm. It’s a discrepancy that still stands out to those close to Rupp: family friends, Coleen, even Larry, who hasn’t read the book but knows where Capote erred.

When the boys pulled up, though, they couldn’t get close; emergency vehicles surrounded the farmhouse. So Bobby called Sue Kidwell, a classmate and Nancy’s best friend. Sue and Nancy were planning to be roommates at Kansas State University the next year and study art. If something had happened, Bobby thought, Sue would know.

Her mother answered. She was sobbing. It was true.

That evening, Bobby, Larry and Sue went to Price & Sons Funeral Home in Garden City, where the Clutters’ bodies had been prepared for viewing. Bobby was to be a pallbearer for Nancy at the funeral, Larry for Kenyon. Larry remembers watching Bobby, wondering whether he would snap out of his daze and break down. He hadn’t seen him shed a tear yet, even when Larry had shared his own deepest fear: What would’ve happened if Bobby had still been in the house when Hickock and Smith arrived?

The three approached the caskets. When Bobby saw Nancy, lying so still and wearing the red velveteen dress she’d just finished sewing, he remembers feeling as though he’d been punched in the stomach. “This is real,” he thought. “Nancy’s gone.”

Recounting the day, Rupp is candid but solemn. He speaks deliberately, reflectively. He’s relaxed, hands loosely folded on the kitchen table, but his occasional pauses and slow exhalations expose a sadness that four and a half decades have not completely erased.

Rupp remembers cupping Nancy’s hand in his. With Sue and Larry at either side, he wept openly. The sobs shook his body. Larry says today that he couldn’t watch. He averted his eyes.

It was the only time anyone would ever see Bobby cry.

Boyfriend and suspect

The day after the murders, police officers drove up to the Rupp farm and ushered Bobby to their car. He and several classmates had stayed home from school that day, grieving.

“We heard you saw the family Saturday night, and we just want to ask you a few questions,” Rupp remembers the officers saying. He spent hours at the station, answering questions and taking a lie-detector test. He didn’t even own a shotgun, he kept saying.

He understands why he was questioned, he says with a slight shrug and with Coleen nodding in agreement. After all, he was the last to see the Clutters alive.

What he doesn’t understand is why, even after he passed the lie-detector test, police went to Holcomb High School the next day and cleaned out his locker — even took his tennis shoes. He doesn’t understand why people around town started giving him strange looks. Why even some of his best friends turned on him.

The isolation got so bad that Bobby decided to transfer to Garden City High School to finish his junior year. The kids were nicer there; they weren’t so close to the case. Still, because the transfer made him ineligible to play basketball or run track, he spent his days idly. Without question, he says, it was one of the most trying times of his life. He’s not sure how he would have made it through those months without Larry and his basketball coach.

“It’s something no child should ever have to go through,” he says, without offering much more. He looks down at his hands, still clasped on the kitchen table. “It was tough. Real tough.” Across from him, Coleen watches her husband and listens without interruption and without pushing him to keep talking. He’s shared these memories with her only a few times, and she, more than almost anyone else, knows that Bob won’t talk until he’s ready.

The next year, he says — his senior year — that same basketball coach convinced Bobby to come back to Holcomb. By then, Hickock and Smith had been convicted, and the rumors about his involvement in the case had fizzled. So Bobby returned. But another transfer made him ineligible for sports yet again. To give him something to do, the school superintendent hired him as a bus driver. Three times a day, Bobby picked up and dropped off children throughout the community.

“He trusted me to do that, trusted me with the kids … it felt good,” Rupp says, with a small, proud smile.

Life eased back to normal. The same students who had turned a cold shoulder to Bobby the year before elected him class president upon his return. He’s always taken it as an apology. He’s not mad at his classmates, he says. He understands the suspicion and the fear running through the community at the time.

He became eligible to play in the middle of the basketball season. When he suited up and ran onto the court for the first time that year, everyone in the gym stood. He’ll never forget the cheers that filled the room.

At the memory, his speech slows and his voice lowers. His fingers run along his navy plaid shirt and dark jeans. It seems he might cry. But he displays a small smile instead.

He doesn’t mince words.

“That felt pretty good. And it was a hell of a basketball season.”

Life goes on

Does time heal all wounds? Rupp says so. Time and faith have healed even this, the deepest of scars, he says.

Yet Bobby didn’t attend Hickock and Smith’s trial. He wanted nothing to do with them, he says now, in a flat, steady voice. He knew all along they’d be convicted. But he didn’t care to be a part of it.

In school, Bobby and his friends stopped playing pranks. The boys used to be so ornery — they’d lock teachers out of classrooms, among other jokes Rupp declines to describe. But after the murders, there were no more pranks. And students buckled down: Instead of scraping by with C’s, they were all making A’s and B’s, he remembers. The turnaround was so striking the superintendent mentioned it in his keynote speech at graduation that year.

“[Hickock and Smith] took everything from us,” Rupp says, a thin hint of anger lining his usually gentle voice. “You didn’t want to hurt anybody. You weren’t 17, 18-year-old kids anymore. You were, but you weren’t.

“Life just turned to the serious. The reality of what the world is really like set in.”

He didn’t return to the Clutter home for decades — and even then, when he and Coleen went together for the first and only time, he stuck to the living room. Refused to go upstairs, where Nancy and Bonnie were shot in their beds, or downstairs, where Kenyon was shot in one room and where Herb’s throat was slit and he was shot in the next room.

And then there were the nightmares. Almost every night for two years, Bobby says, he woke up in a cold sweat, heart pounding. He’d get up, look outside to make sure nobody was there, and eventually fall asleep, trembling.

“Coleen stopped those,” he says quietly, looking across the table at his wife of 41 years. The two met during Rupp’s first year of college, when Coleen was still a senior at Garden City High School. Less than a year later, they married.

How would his life have been different if none of it had happened? Would he be less reserved? Less matter-of-fact? Rupp doesn’t care to speculate. You can’t change the past. He is who he is.

That doesn’t mean the memories have faded completely. He takes flowers to Nancy’s grave every year; Coleen goes if he’s busy in the fields. And sometimes, he wonders. Why did such a cruel thing happen to such a wonderful family? What might Nancy have accomplished?

“She was a very, very special young girl,” he says heavily. “You can’t help but think…” He trails off, rubbing his forehead.

Rupp hasn’t read “In Cold Blood,” and he doesn’t ever intend to, although Coleen has read a few chapters. He met Capote only a few times, but he wasn’t too impressed by the small, flamboyant man with the high-pitched voice. And Capote never stopped asking questions. Rupp initially refused an interview with Capote but relented after KBI agent Alvin Dewey Jr. told him it was a good idea.

Rupp doesn’t talk about Nancy, or the murders, with many people. Other than the interview requests that still pour in, people don’t ask him about it. They won’t, even his best friends. And even his children rarely ask questions. Coleen remembers, years ago, one of the kids coming home from elementary school in tears. Classmates had teased him. They’d said, “People died here, and your dad was watching through the window!” That night, Bob and Coleen sat the family around the dinner table and told the truth. It’s never come up with the family again.

Bob coached his kids’ sports teams and joined Holcomb’s community center board of directors. He insisted his children get involved in 4-H and took them to the state fair for vacation. As they grew older, Rupp was a strict parent: Robert Jr., Rick, Brian and Sonya had to finish their chores before going out. They couldn’t date until they were 16. When they broke the rules, they got grounded.

He hopes he’s taught them the values important to him: integrity, honesty, dedication.

All of this, he says, has made him a happy man. He believes he has been blessed with much good fortune: He loves his wife. He loves his children. He loves working in the alfalfa fields.

The what-ifs exist, but he’s unyielding about what’s important to him now.

Coleen nods as her husband talks about his role as a husband, a father and a member of the community. Silence falls for a moment.

Suddenly, she says, “You know, I never thought about it ’til just now, but Bob, you’re kind of like Herb Clutter.”

“Huh,” he says. “Hm.”

Then, the small, proud little smile surfaces again.

“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe in some ways.”

And the smile widens. Just slightly. But there it is, and it’s a little broader still — why, him, like Herb, his second father — well, maybe — and then he chuckles. And then, for just a second, Bobby Rupp laughs outright.