You see them at virtually every grocery store you walk into. The friendly, smiling person who's there to greet you when you walk in the door. When you smile and shake hands with Fred Mares at the Hy-Vee in Maryville, Mo., you're not just shaking hands with a grocery store greeter. He's also a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Many grocery stores across the country promise good prices, large varieties and quality customer service. But Maryville's Hy-Vee has something that no other grocery store in the country can lay a claim to.
The Maryville Hy-Vee has Fred Mares. Odds are, if you spend any time in the community, you'll get to Mares and he'll get to know you. Mares, a greeter at Hy-Vee, works hard to recognize customers, greeting them by name and taking a genuine interest in how their day is going. Hy-Vee's lead greeter, an unassuming man of 48 who is easily identified by his ever-present smile, is different than store greeters for other businesses.
Oh, you could probably find someone else who has won employee of the month at their place of employment or had their face on a poster for for a national ad campaign, like Mares; but you'd be hard-pressed to find another grocery store greeter who has won a Pulitzer Prize.
On July 17, 1981, the country was in shock watching breaking news unfold about a disaster in Kansas City, Mo. Due to a structural design flaw, two suspended walkways collapsed on top of each other at the Hyatt Regency hotel, plummeting crowds of gathered people to the floor below. All told, 114 people died and more than 200 others were injured.
While Americans were gathered around their television sets that evening, trying to make sense of the horrible catastrophe, Mares was doing the same thing at the hotel. Mares was a bureau reporter for the Kansas City Times; he covered and wrote stories out of northwest Missouri, St. Joseph and even Maryville.
By chance, Mares was in the city when the Hyatt Regency walkway collapsed. Knowing this, his editors quickly called on him to cover the tragedy.
"It just so happened that I was in Kansas City when this all happened," Mares said. "I was a regional corresponder and happened to be in the city, and they called everyone in."
At the time, the skyway collapse was one of the worst disasters in American history. This was a world before 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, Mares said. The incident made international headlines for weeks. After getting the call, Mares said he jumped in his car and headed to the accident scene.
"I felt like, back then, that it was my responsibility to jump right into the action and do whatever I could," he said.
And once he arrived, it became apparent that the rumors of the severity of the incident were not exaggerated.
"It turned out to be an all night situation," Mares said. "It was very tragic. "I remember walking around the perimeter of the building that night. It was quite a scene ... it was one floor on top of the other with the skywalks ... and the memory stays with me even after all these years."
Mares' job that first night was to interview taxi drivers who were ferrying blood to the scene to help emergency workers provide on-site medical attention to the more than 200 men and women who were injured.
"They dispatched all the taxi drivers to dispatch blood," Mares said.
The drivers were told to turn off their radios. The only fares they transported that night were blood donations from area hospitals and blood banks.
"My job on that first night was to just get the essentials of what was going on minutes after this thing happened," Mares said. "After that, I went back to the newsroom and was just on call while I watched editors run around and piece together information for the morning newspaper."
As the days and weeks progressed, the Kansas City Star (the evening paper) and the Kansas City Times (the morning paper) would piece together the events that happened that dark July evening. Eager to get to the bottom of the catastrophe, the Star and Times even hired independent engineers to research the accident.
"We hired our own architects and pieced together the entire story of how those skywalks were built and came up with the information long before the review board revealed their final report," Mares said.
The papers' investigative work would earn their staffs, and Mares, the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Local Spot News Reporting. While Mares is humble about his involvement in the newspapers' coverage of the '81 tragedy, he is quick to compliment the hard work of his fellow staff writers, photographers and editors.
"(I had) a very minor role in the whole process, but I still have the (Pulitzer Prize) medallion," Mares said. "I'm very proud of all my colleagues back then."
It's been 26 years since the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse disaster, but Mares can still remember it like it was yesterday. And while Mares remembers his days in the newsroom's bullpen with fondness, it's Maryville where he has made his home.
"It was really fun, and I still have all my clips," he said. "I really enjoy this area. It's a wonderful place to live and it's a wonderful place to write."
And writing is what Mares knows. Since coming to Maryville, Mares has written the book "Dear Coach" for Northwest Missouri State University, chronicling the life and times of Northwest's legendary football coach, Ryland Milner.
Mares has been taking classes on and off again at Northwest, working toward obtaining a Master of Arts in English degree. Acting as his "family's archivist," Mares has also been researching information to write a book about his mother — a woman who achieved a degree in history at 69 years of age — and her life.
While you may not guess it with a quick handshake and a hello when you walk into your local Hy-Vee, Mares helped to document and chronicle one of the worst disasters in Missouri's history.
"By day I'm a greeter and by night I'm a writer," Mares said. "You just never know where fate will take you."
Maryville (Mo.) Daily Forum