Family mystery cleared up after 39 years

Valarie Ellis, a 47-year-old Wichita middle school teacher, went through most of her life wondering about her father, how he died and why her mother and other family members kept her in the dark all these years.

Recently Ellis learned after seeking help from the Journal-World that in January 1964 her father, James L.C. Hamm, then 27, drowned in the Kansas River in Lawrence. His body was pulled from the water along with that of a woman, their arms wrapped around each other.

“I needed to know,” Ellis said. “I needed to bring some closure to this, and this will help me.”

Ellis was 7 years old when her father died. Her family lived in Lawrence in the 1800 block of Tennessee Street. On the afternoon of Jan. 24, 1964, Ellis remembers unexpectedly being sent home from school.

“I remember being happy about getting to go home early from school,” Ellis said. “Then I got home, and there were all these people there. My grandfather told me my daddy wasn’t coming home. He told me that my dad was dead.”

That was all the explanation Ellis ever received. Even now her mother, who was then Annette Hamm, refuses to talk to her about her dad and how he died, Ellis said. Most other family members who knew also continued to keep quiet.

“I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral,” Ellis said. “My grandfather said I couldn’t go.”

Accident or suicide?

“The two fully-clothed victims were clinging together as if in an embrace. They were pulled from the river together.” — The Lawrence Journal-World, Jan. 24, 1964.

John Kasberger, now 82, was assistant chief of the Lawrence Fire Department in 1964. Along with firefighter Larry Stemmerman and Police Chief Lt. Richard Stanwix, he was in a boat dragging the water when they found the bodies of Hamm and the woman, identified as Connie Smith, 22, also of Lawrence.

Kasberger still remembers the incident, primarily because of the way the bodies were found.

John Kasberger, Lawrence, a former assistant chief of the Lawrence Fire Department, stands by the Kansas River in Burcham Park. Kasberger retells the story of being called to the river in January 1964, to help recover two people who drowned in each other's arms.

“That was unusual,” said Kasberger, who retired as fire chief in 1978. “I suppose others have been found that way, but that’s the only time I saw anything like that.”

According to the Journal-World story and a follow-up story that appeared Jan. 25, 1964, investigators didn’t know why or how the couple drowned. It was not readily determined whether they were victims of an accident or a double suicide. Douglas County Coroner Jim Reed was quoted as saying that foul play had been ruled out.

Footprints and ice

The bodies were found in the river near the city water department intake at the end of Indiana Street, where Burcham Park is today. Hamm and Smith were seen in the area along the river two days earlier, on Jan. 22, 1964, the Journal-World story reported.

A police search was launched Jan. 23, 1964, after a car was found parked at the river unattended over those two days. The keys were still in the ignition and a woman’s purse, containing cigarettes and a lighter, were in the car, the Journal-World reported.

Police did not at first think anybody was in the river because ice along the bank appeared undisturbed. But Jan. 24, the fire department was called to assist, and dragging operations began. First, a sweater thought to have belonged to Smith was found. Then the bodies were located only about 25 feet from the bank, the Journal-World reported.

Kasberger recalled that footprints were found leading from the abandoned car to the river. Although there was some ice at the time the bodies were found, stories in previous days’ issues of the Journal-World indicated there had been unseasonably warm weather.

Kasberger said he didn’t think the couple committed suicide. He thought their deaths were accidental. He recalled that the water was shallow to about 15 feet from the bank, and then there was a drop off into about 12 feet of water.

“We thought they had been drinking a little and decided to walk into the water and have a little fun,” Kasberger said. “We thought that the woman got scared and grabbed onto the man, and he couldn’t swim.”

Bits and pieces

Ellis doesn’t remember much about her father. She thought he had been missing for about two weeks before he died. Now she thinks he had just left home and was having an affair with Smith. Over the years, she said, she only learned “bits and pieces” about her father’s death and thought he might have drowned in the river.

About five months after his death, Ellis’ mother moved her family to Topeka. She now lives in Colorado and is angry that Ellis has been trying to find out about James Hamm, Ellis said. Her younger brother and two younger sisters also were not told about their father, Ellis said.

Emotional visit

It wasn’t until this past year that Ellis decided it was time to make a concerted effort to find out about her father. In March she sent an e-mail to the Journal-World asking for information.

A year ago on Memorial Day, for the first time in more than 30 years, Ellis visited her father’s grave in Oak Hill Cemetery.

“It was very emotional,” she said. “I have a 12-year-old son, and he stayed in the car. It was pretty hard.”

Ellis, who is divorced, isn’t sure what to think about her father now.

“I guess I’m hurt,” she said. “My husband had a lot of affairs on me.”

She isn’t sure she will ever revisit her father’s grave.

“I don’t know that I will for a while,” she said. “I have to process this and think about it. That will take some time. He’s gone, and we can’t change anything.”