After tragedy, mother aims to bring positive change to the world

From left, Reat Underwood, Mindy Corporon, her husband Len Losen and their son, Lukas Losen, in a family portrait. 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

STILWELL, Kansas — The last words she heard him say: “I love you, too.”

That was a year ago, moments before 14-year-old Reat Griffin Underwood left his suburban Kansas City home with his grandfather, Dr. William “Bill” Corporon, 69, for an audition at the Jewish Community Center in nearby Overland Park, Kansas. Reat planned to sing “On the Street Where You Live,” from “My Fair Lady,” and, if asked to perform a second song, “You’re Going to Miss Me When I’m Gone,” (better known as the “Cups” song from the movie “Pitch Perfect”).  He had performed both for his mother, Mindy Corporon, right before he left the house.

Corporon tears up a little as she recalls the events and aftermath of April 13, 2014, which left her father and her son, and a third victim, 53-year-old Terri LaManno, dead. Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, a lifelong anti-Semite, is accused of murdering all three. The thing is, neither Bill Corporon nor Reat nor LaManno was Jewish. But that’s beside the point. 

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Change from tragedy

It’s Sunday and Mindy Corporon’s home is buzzing with people and activity. The next day marks the year anniversary of the three deaths, and there are last-minute preparations for the Peace Walk from the JCC Overland campus to Church of the Resurrection, where Corporon and her family are members. The three-mile walk will signify the culmination of “SevenDays: Make a Ripple, Change the World,” a weeklong challenge to the local community aimed at promoting kindness and overcoming hate. The effort is being championed by the Corporon family charitable foundation.

Relatives and friends from Texas, Oregon, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New York are there to take part in the walk, and to support Corporon and her family as well as Jim LaManno, Terri’s husband, and their two children. The two families have become close. Actually, one of the things that surprises Corporon, 46, who co-owns and is CEO of a financial planning firm, is that 3,000 people have registered for the walk. There probably would have been more but police kept it at 3,000 for security reasons.

Although she’s not quite sure why, Mindy Corporon has become the public face of last April’s tragedy. It’s not a role she necessarily wants, but when a vigil was held the night after the shooting Corporon knew she had to go and speak. The next day, the national media came knocking.

The world was wowed by her words and her grace. The truth is, she says, she went to the vigil for “selfish reasons.” She knew Reat’s classmates from Blue Valley High School would be there and she needed to tell them that while it was going to be very hard, life would go on. They would be OK. What happened was an act of hatred against the Jewish faith, and her dad and son got trapped in the crossfire.

Of course that knowledge hasn’t made the last year any easier. Corporon arrived at the JCC within minutes after her father and son had been shot, even before the police and ambulances got there. 

“My heart was torn out,” she says, seated at her kitchen table. “For several weeks (after the shooting), I literally felt dragged into heaven with them. And I was happy to be there. It was just so hard to be here and so painful.”

On Father’s Day, a couple of months after the shooting, Corporon remembers “getting dressed as if I was going to do something physical” and heading to the park with her husband, who likes to run. When she got there all she could do was sit on a bench and cry.

“I saw a young couple walking together and I thought, Reat is never going to have a girlfriend. He’ll never go to his prom. That just makes me sick to think about. I sat there thinking that he’ll never have a chance to realize all his dreams. I cried and cried. 

“Finally, I said, ‘Dad, what am I going to do?’ I heard his voice say to me, ‘You’ve got to keep moving.’ So the next morning I went to the gym and swam 10 or 15 lengths. Then I thought, I’m going to do a triathlon for my dad.”

At the end of last July, Mindy Corporon finished that triathlon.

Family and faith

When I ask Corporon at what point in the last year life got “more normal” she smiles and says, “I don’t know what normal means.”

Life will never be the same, she says. She cannot go a day without thinking about what happened. But she now can go several days without crying.

“I know there is life to be lived,” she says. “I have another child to take care of. I am a spouse and a daughter. I have to function.”

To see her in action, it seems as if she is functioning at the highest level. She’s a wisp of a woman, but seemingly mighty in her resilience, and filled with patience and kindness. Just being in her presence makes a stranger feel calm. 

No question is off limits. But she is respectful of her family’s privacy – her husband, Len Losen, she explains, has been dealing with his grief quietly while their son, 13-year-old Lukas Losen, has dealt with his grief by getting angry, though that has been much better of late. 

“It’s particularly hard to parent a teenager and it’s particularly hard to parent a teenager who has gone through what Lukas went through, losing a sibling and a grandfather,” says Corporon. “He has been angry and I have been the target. It took us a while to figure that out but I understand and have also been able to separate myself, not take it personally.”

Counseling for all three has helped, as has time and adjusting to being a family unit of three instead of four.

“Reat was very talented and that will never change because he died that way,” she adds. “But we’re helping Lukas to figure out he is a great kid, too, and has his own skills and talents.”

The other factor that has played a major part in Corporon’s healing, and in her mother’s, has been their Christian faith. Her mother was so distraught after the shootings that for months Mindy and her younger brother, who also lives in the Kansas City area, took care of her. Melinda Gordy met Bill Corporon at age 16, when the two sang in the high school choir together. They had been married for 49 years.

Eventually, Mindy says she told her mother it’s OK to cry but she couldn’t let it continue to debilitate her.  Melinda began to heed the advice. Today, she sings in the church choir at Resurrection and has been an organizer of  SevenDays. 

“We go to church every week because for us that’s as close to Reat and my dad as we can be,” Mindy Corporon says. “I get my strength from my faith. I know they are in heaven and I know that they are in heaven together. I know they are with my grandmother and my granddad. And I know I am going to see them again. 

“The first night (after Reat was killed) I went to sleep in his bed because I could not sleep at all. As I was drifting off, I saw my friend Kyle who was killed at 16 with his arms around Reat. I knew he found him.

“I get messages. Songs come on at appropriate times. Butterflies show up . . . These messages tell me heaven is all around us.”

Corporon says she knew this the very first day, when she saw her dad lying on his shoulder in the JCC parking lot. “As I was running toward his truck yelling ‘What happened, what happened?’ I was stopped short, like I had hit a wall. I heard this voice say, ‘Your father’s in heaven. Go find Reat.’ It was if someone, God I believe, wrapped me in his arms.

“I’ve come to believe heaven is not someplace far away. The people gone from us have the ability in some form or fashion to have their spirits be near us and are here when we need them. That comforts me.”

 When I ask if she is angry at the shooter she says, “I feel sorry for him that he has never known the love that I have known and can’t find any peace.”

Faith Always Wins

Aptly, the Corporon charitable foundation is named Faith Always Wins. It contributed $10,000 to SevenDays and trademarked the name. The hope, Corporon says, is to keep SevenDays alive in her area for at least another year, if not annually, and spread the concept to other cities. 

 “There are a lot of communities across this country that are hurting and could use SevenDays,” she says. “Tragedy happens every day in all kinds of places. People need to be prepared to be able to help.”

Corporon graciously offers a tour upstairs to see the foundation office, which now occupies Reat’s old bedroom. “I needed to change his room because it was a reminder of all the dreams that wouldn’t happen,” she says. “It was a very painful reminder that he wouldn’t go to college because he had so many college things in it. He so wanted to go to University of Oklahoma, to be a Sooner. That’s where I went and where my dad went to medical school. 

“Although he loved singing and performing, Reat had a practical side and thought he might want to be a neurosurgeon.”

Throughout the house, family pictures adorn the walls, including a stunning black and white portrait of Mindy, Len, Reat and Lukas in the kitchen. A poem Reat wrote in March 2013, entitled “I Wish” shares a frame with a picture of him in his scouting uniform.

As she ushers us into the foundation office, Corporon explains that Lukas designed the room, from choosing the paint color — a heavenly blue — to picking out the furniture. There are plenty of pictures of Reat and other family members on the walls as well as awards and decorations reminiscent of a teenage boy, but there is also a sense of order, as if this is where important business takes place.

“I can feel Reat in here,” says Corporon. “We still have some of him from the past, but we also have a part of him that is going to help us do good work in the future.”