An 8-year-old child in Broomall, Pa., in 1975 rarely needed to be brave. Generally, their routine never necessitated that they stray far from the family home. School, church, activities, and social events generally all took place within a few square miles.
Most families who took vacations piled the family into the station wagon for a week at the shore every summer. Some lucky ones splurged on the occasional trip to Disney World. Visiting relatives usually involved a car ride of less than 10 miles. We lived in suburban Philadelphia, but for most of us, the city was the place where our dads went to work, or we occasionally went to see the Phillies at Veteran’s Stadium. That insular environment provided safety and security, so confronting danger was a foreign concept.
To the extent danger existed, it happened in other places. The news was available on television….channels three, six or 10 on for an hour around dinner time and then another hour, well after we went to bed. Because most families did not permit television viewing during dinner, 8-year-olds rarely even watched the local news. We had two major newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Evening Bulletin. But at age eight, we only looked at our parents’ newspaper to read the funnies (our word for what the rest of the world called the comics page).
Children mostly learned about the news from overhearing their parents’ conversations. Most families had a phone in the kitchen and maybe the den. We would hear our parents on the telephone because the phone was attached to the wall; there was no privacy. We also overheard gossip standing outside our church on Sunday mornings, wanting desperately to get to the car but standing patiently in scratchy church clothes while the parents gossiped and chatted.
The sudden, unexplained disappearance of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington in August 1975 from Lawrence Road in Broomall seemed unreal to most people. The story – and the lack of details – spread quickly. I attended St. Plus X Grade School, located on Lawrence Road, near where Gretchen was last seen. I rode a yellow school bus because my family lived about two miles away. However, many of my classmates walked to school every day from first through eighth grade as Lawrence Road and many parish families populated the several streets adjacent to it.
Gretchen attended a different school, so I did not know her. But we all knew she had disappeared…and we knew it happened in broad daylight just down the street from our school, on a road most of us walked up and down more times than we could count.
How could a girl disappear without a trace from a road that was so safe that children traversed it daily to and from school? These were the days before minivans and car lines. If the bus did not deposit you at school, you walked. We heard our parents discuss the crime in worried tones. Families reminded the children, “Do not talk to strangers. Never go near someone else’s car.” No one knew what happened to Gretchen.
I never forgot about Gretchen, and I imagine the same is true for my former St. Plus X Grade School classmates. Most times I was on or near Lawrence Road over the years, I would think about her. The rest of us grew older, but her life abruptly ended, and no one knew why. I am sure I speak for most of my classmates that we never forgot about her.
Last year, some former residents of the area wrote a book about the mystery of Gretchen’s disappearance, still unsolved. While interested in the subject, I could never bring myself to read the book. I did not want to relive the terror of her disappearance or the unsettled feeling of not knowing who was responsible.
The recent announcement that police arrested a suspect in the case and that suspect confessed when confronted brought all of the memories of the summer of 1975 flooding to the forefront. We now had an answer. The perpetrator was not an outsider passing through our town who committed a crime of opportunity. A sociopathic monster lived among us – a local pastor known and trusted by Gretchen and her family. At the time, this monster called the police, involved himself in the search, and remained friends with Gretchen’s family.
This week, investigators revealed that the suspect admitted that he picked up Gretchen in his station wagon and took her to a nearby wooded area. There, he asked her to take off her clothes. And this is where Gretchen’s bravery came into play. She defied him. She knew it was wrong. She said no. He then admitted that he punched her so hard that she bled and left her for dead.
Law enforcement authorities announced they are now investigating whether this suspect abused other children. They are tracing his whereabouts throughout the years, along with other cold cases. Police reported the witness who ultimately led them to this suspect told police this year that when she was a young child, this suspect molested her when she was visiting his home about a week before Gretchen went missing. Imagine more victims will now come forward.
I have wondered about Gretchen and what happened to her all these years. Now I know that in her last moments, she exhibited bravery well beyond both her experience and her years. Growing up in an insulated small town where she was used to constantly being surrounded by those she knew and trusted, this little girl recognized evil instantly. She looked the Devil in the eye and said no. Gretchen died a hero.
This little girl leaves behind two important legacies. The first is the benefit of vigorous law enforcement. Despite the drumbeat from liberal activists to defund our police, Gretchen’s case demonstrates the benefits of a dedicated, effective police force prioritizing the rights of the victim over the criminal in pursuing justice, no matter how long it takes. The second is more personal. At the age of eight, Gretchen recognized evil and resisted. We should all be so brave.
As satisfying as it may be that Gretchen’s killer now faces justice, nothing replaces the loss of her life. The other 8-year-old children from my hometown grew up and continue to experience all life has to offer. Gretchen’s life abruptly ended that summer day, so she is forever frozen in time as an 8-year-old girl. Each day, all day, every one of us faces choices between right and wrong, between good and evil. We cannot bring Gretchen back, but we can honor her memory by following her lead. Be brave and do the right thing, whatever the cost. What an amazing legacy for an 8-year-old, small-town girl.