Two decades ago, Thomas McIlvane entered the with a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle and took the lives of four co-workers and wounded four more before killing himself and shaking up the community. Thursday, a tree was planted as a memorial to the victims – but not without some controversy.
McIlvane had been fired from his job at the post office for insubordination. Union steward Charlie Withers represented him on behalf of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 3126 in a grievance case that had gone to arbitration a few weeks prior to the shootings. McIlvane lost the arbitration effort.
Since the deadly incident, Withers has been constantly reminding fellow employees and management of the tragedy.
Withers wrote a book in 2008 on the postal shootings called The Tainted Eagle: The Truth Behind the Tragedy that includes documents on the volatile conditions inside the Royal Oak Post Office that took him years to get through the Freedom of Information Act. He is also the focus of a 2010 documentary called Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal, which followed Withers to Washington, DC, in his quest for answers.
"There was plenty of time, a lot of us feel, that the management team could have been removed and maybe the shootings would have never taken place," he said of the 1991 tragedy.
Withers and other postal employees collected donations to have a dwarf crab apple tree planted in front of the post office. On Monday, 20 years later, those who lost their lives will be honored beginning at 8:45 a.m.
"There's going to be a ceremony around the time of the shootings (8:48 a.m.) by those who survived the shooting and are still here," Withers said. "They can come out to the tree for a moment of silence."
The tree was planted by Royal Oak resident Kerry Lark, who owns a landscaping company and has a personal connection to the postal service.
"My father was a letter carrier for 37 years in Hamtramck and Detroit," Lark said. "My letter carrier, who's into gardening, mentioned the idea to me and then I met with Charlie. I'm in the landscape business so we're planting a tree to commemorate what happened 20 years ago."
The tree was chosen because of its heartiness and the fact that it won't grow very tall. It was planted Thursday morning by Lark and one of his crew members. "It will be here a long time," Lark said.
Plaque denied over message
Originally, Withers wanted to include a plaque along with the tree but that was denied by Post Office officials. Withers wanted the plaque to state, "In memory of those who lost their lives at the Royal Oak Post Office November 14, 1991 and those affected by this 'preventable' tragedy."
His requests were met with a flat "no" from postal officials.
"We've been in agreement that there will be a tree planting, which we find is a fitting and growing memorial to commemorate the 20th year of this," said Ed Moore, spokesman for the U.S. Postal in Detroit. "The decision was made among the local leadership here in the Detroit district. Many people have been consulted on this."
As for the plaque, Moore said "it was a joint decision of leadership" and the answer was no.
"We find what happens is many lives were touched in a variety of ways at the time of this incident, with everybody having their own perspective," Moore said. "Individually, when people visit what is now being called a living memorial, each person will be able to reflect privately in their own ways what they find comforting in remembering those who were lost."
On Nov. 14, 1991, 31-year-old McIlvane of Oak Park entered the Royal Oak post office with a gun after learning he had lost his arbitration fight. In the tirade, he used two clips of 50 bullets each.
Killed were Mary Benincasa of Clinton Township, Christopher Carlisle of Rochester, Keith Ciszewski of Livonia, and RoseMarie Proos of Sterling Heights. Injured were Allen Adams, Clark French, Sue Johnson and Joal Whyte.