By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Although her time in Joplin was just a few hours in early February of 1996, Margaret Thatcher made a lasting impression on those she met.
Thatcher, who died Monday at 87, accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the Freeman Quality in Medicine Award ceremony at the Holiday Inn Convention Center. More than 1,000 people attended the invitation-only dinner to listen to Thatcher talk about the state of the world and her enduring relationship with former President Ronald Reagan.
“It was very exciting for me to hear her,” said Paula Baker, president of Freeman Health System. “She had a very compelling presence. Her talk was just phenomenal.
“I was very easy to talk with her. She was very gracious. She had a great deal of charisma and many exceptional leadership skills.”
At the time, Baker was in charge of Ozark Center, the behavioral health arm of Freeman Health System. Baker was impressed with the resolve of Thatcher, the first woman to head a European government.
“One of the things that strikes me about her was that she paved the path for women to become leaders across the world in both government and business,” she said. “Her courage and resolve were things that I respected.”
Thatcher was escorted the night of the dinner by Kelby Krabbenhoft, former president of Freeman Health System, who is now with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“That was one of the more lasting and impressive engagements in my life,” Krabbenhoft said in an email interview. “She told me, ‘Consensus, Kelby, is the absence of leadership.’ I never forgot it.”
After observing the members of Thatcher’s security detail, Krabbenhoft noted that they stood behind her.
“I said to a security guy, ‘It was obvious who had her back, but who had her front?’” he recalled. “He said to me, ‘The Lady has her front!’ Never forgot that either.”
Thatcher said she decided to accept the invitation to speak because of her background in medical research. She said small towns, like Joplin, “offer the greatest sense of community and the greatest sense of service.”
While at Oxford University, Thatcher studied under Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, a British chemist and Nobel laureate who unveiled the structure of penicillin and advanced on a massive scale the use of antibiotics.
Gary Duncan, who became president of Freeman Health System after Krabbenhoft, said he found Thatcher to “be fairly formal in a British sort of way, but very kind. She obviously enjoyed doing what she was doing.
“During the dinner, it was very interesting to listen to her talk about herself and Ronald Reagan, and the relationship they had. It was a very interesting speech.”
Paul Zagorski, a professor of political science and international relations at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, said Thatcher and her relationship with Reagan would ultimately make the world a safer place.
“Dealing with both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, she dealt with one of the most serious issues of the 1980s — what would become of the Soviet Union,” he said. “There were those who feared that the Soviet Union would collapse and possibly start World War III to save itself.
“Thatcher convinced Reagan that Gorbachev was somebody the West could deal with. What we take for granted now was a much different world in the 1980s. That all came to a peaceful end, and she played a role in that process. She contributed to making the world a safer place.”
Jim Hounschell, now a security officer with the Joplin School District, was working the security detail with the Joplin Police Department the night of Thatcher’s visit. Hounschell, wearing a black tuxedo, was photographed with Thatcher and Krabbenhoft. The photo appeared the next day on the front page of The Joplin Globe.
“She was the most famous person I have been photographed with,” Hounschell said. “All I really remember about it is that we tried to provide her with really good security while she was in town.”
Hounschell said the department worked with Scotland Yard to make sure her visit to Joplin would be without incident.
“I remember riding down the elevator with her,” he said. “She didn’t talk to me or her two security people that were with her. She did not say anything. She commanded such respect, I would have not felt comfortable chit-chatting about something with her.”
Hounschell said Thatcher went from her room at the Holiday Inn to a banquet room to be photographed with the people who had put the event together. After that, she went back to her room for a spell before attending the dinner. After the dinner and spending about six hours in Joplin, she was off to Atlanta, Ga.
PETE HALL, manager of Joplin’s Residence Inn, said a suite at the Holiday Inn was named after Margaret Thatcher. He said employees at the Holiday Inn at the time of her 1996 visit told him: “She commanded a presence — no question about it.”