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TORN BY A TRAGIC MEMORY
WITH A HEAVY HEART, FATHER OF OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBER MARKS EMOTIONAL MILESTONE

Bill McVeigh will try to live today as if it were just another day.

It won't be easy.

He might spend some time logging onto the Internet and playing a favorite card game -- hearts -- with people who have no idea that he is the father of America's worst homegrown terrorist.

Today marks the 10th anniversary since his son, Timothy J. McVeigh, embraced infamy and became the Oklahoma City bomber.

Bill McVeigh has carried this burden every day since then.

"I still don't approve of anything he did," he said in condemning his son's crime and distancing himself from it.

And a decade later, the father who proudly flies the American flag in the front yard of his Niagara County home also doesn't comprehend why his son felt driven to attack the U.S. government.

"I just don't understand it," he said in a recent interview. "I have nothing against the government. We have our problems, but it is the best country in the world. I don't think like Timmy, and I hope people realize that."

The older McVeigh remains the same quiet, reticent man the world first saw on April 21, 1995, as FBI agents escorted him from his modest ranch house in Pendleton two days after the bombing.

That day, the world also caught its first look at Timothy McVeigh, who glared at an angry crowd as he was taken out of Noble County Courthouse shackled and wearing a bright orange jumpsuit.

When Bill McVeigh watched those images on television, he found himself looking into the face of a young man who was not the same Tim McVeigh he had reared.

"I think about Tim all the time," Bill McVeigh said, but his thoughts focus on the son he knew before the bombing, before his anger at the government over Ruby Ridge and Waco turned him into a terrorist.

Bill McVeigh chooses to remember the young man who was always willing to help him with home repairs or invite all the neighborhood kids over for a swim in the backyard pool when the McVeigh family was still together and lived on Meyer Road.

It's as if, in Bill McVeigh's mind, the caring "Timmy" he knew as a boy lives on.

"The other day, I was thinking he's going to be 37 years old soon," he said of his son's birthday, April 23.

Feels no bitterness

But Bill McVeigh also knows the reality of what his son became and said it numbs him to think that his own flesh and blood could turn so fanatical that he would be driven to kill innocent people.

McVeigh said he can scarcely bring himself to talk about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which killed 168 people and injured hundreds.

"I wish it never happened," the 65-year-old father said, his voice trailing off as he sat in his living room.

He built the house years ago, after the breakup of his marriage to the former Mildred "Mickey" Hill, so that his son could continue at Starpoint High School.

McVeigh and his wife divorced in 1986, after splitting up years earlier when Tim was a teenager. Hill, who has suffered three nervous breakdowns since the bombing, has lived in Florida for years.

Timothy McVeigh's younger sister, Jennifer, works as a teacher in North Carolina and avoids the spotlight. His older sister, Patricia, has lived in the South since before the bombing and has never spoken publicly about the crime.

On June 11, 2001, 14 hours after the government executed his then 33-year-old son, Bill McVeigh told The Buffalo News that he felt no bitterness toward the government. Although opposed to the death penalty, the grieving father said he understood that the government did what it felt was necessary.

And when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, three months after his son's execution by lethal injection, Bill McVeigh said he was "hurt and angry. I'm an American."

His son, in interviews for the book "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing," in which he detailed how he carried out the attack, said he had contemplated the aftermath of the bombing and how it would affect his father.

Bill McVeigh, his son predicted, would survive because of a strong support network. The prediction proved true. But Bill McVeigh's life, not unlike the lives of the thousands of people in Oklahoma City, was irrevocably changed.

The father does not even know where his son's ashes were spread after he was cremated, following the execution at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Timothy McVeigh's final wish was that his attorneys secretly dispose of his ashes to avoid desecration of the site.

"People ask me, but I don't know," Bill McVeigh said. "I wish I knew."

Thinks about victims

If anything, Bill McVeigh has more deeply committed himself to the service of others. The hulking 6-foot, 2-inch man, who walks with a halting gait, helps run two golf leagues and assists in running a bowling league.

He also attends weekly Mass at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, where he helps with bingo.

"Bill doesn't get discouraged, never discouraged," said his pastor, Monsignor Paul J. Belzer. "He knows what he has to do, and he does it with a smile."

On his front lawn, Bill McVeigh proudly flies an American flag in the warmer months.

"I'll probably start flying the flag around May 1st, when it gets nice out. I go through two flags a year. The wind whips the heck out of them," he said, his mop of reddish brown hair itself appearing windblown.

But it is his backyard vegetable garden that he looks forward to the most in the spring and summer.

"I can't wait to get out there. I've already got seeds and I might be able to plant my peas and onions by the end of April," he said of the 50-by-70-foot plot of land that he has scaled back in recent years because of back problems.

When the garden is in full bloom, Bill McVeigh harvests every two days and makes his rounds delivering fresh produce to his neighbors and friends.

"I have some new people on my list," he said. "I hate to see the vegetables go to waste."

There is, however, something Bill McVeigh relishes even more than his lifelong devotion to gardening -- his privacy. That has been slow to return.

Some of his happiest times occur when he meets people who have no idea who he is. That happens when he goes out of town on an occasional vacation down south or to Las Vegas. Or when he plays card games over the Internet on a home computer he bought two years ago.

"I play hearts all the time with people all over the world, and no one knows who I am," he said. "It's great, and I'm not going to tell them who I am. It's the only way to have it."

In Oklahoma City, Bud Welch, whose daughter perished in the bombing, said he understands Bill McVeigh's need for anonymity.

"I look at this man Bill McVeigh and I see a man who is more of a victim than even I am," Welch said. "When I go out to talk to people, I can tell them how proud I am of my Julie-Marie. Poor Bill probably doesn't even tell people he had a son."

Several survivors of the bombing interviewed last week said they have nothing but compassion for Bill McVeigh and others in the McVeigh family.

Back in the Lockport area, Bill McVeigh said that people still recognize him as the father of the bomber and that he takes it in stride.

"Everybody knows me here, but you have to understand that I knew half of Pendleton and Lockport before it happened," he said.

Even though it is something he would rather not discuss, Bill McVeigh said, he often thinks about the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"I think about them. I feel deep sympathy for them," he said, adding that he also realizes that there is nothing he can do to make things different.

So today, Bill McVeigh intends to keep a doctor's appointment he made months ago, unaware that it was the 10th anniversary of the bombing.

He said he will live today as if it were any other day, "doing the same old stuff."

But in his heart, Bill McVeigh said, he knows that no day has or ever will be the same since his son drove up in front of the Murrah Building and detonated a 7,000-pound truck bomb that ripped apart so many lives.

His only hope, he said, is that he can be left alone to live a quiet, peaceful life.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com and dherbeck@buffnews.com

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