Paul Greenberg

Blessed is the man who has found his mission. We all know people like that. Their station in life, as the Victorians used to put it, doesn't matter. Whether rich or poor, professional or blue-collar, employer or employee, artist or laborer, they're right where they belong. How fortunate for the rest of us.

Kirby Martin, for example. He manages the building occupied by the Baptist State Convention on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. When an obviously disturbed man walked in around lunchtime one Wednesday, the receptionist could tell this was no ordinary caller. He was clearly distraught, disturbed, dangerous.

Using a special emergency code, she called Mr. Martin, who followed the man to the second floor, where he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. Kirby Martin yelled as loud as he could and retreated downstairs to tell the receptionist to call 911. Then he remembered: There was a banquet that day. The dining area upstairs would be full of people.

"Immediately," he would recall later, "I thought, 'All those people up there. I've got to get up there.' "

He did, the elevator door opened upstairs, and there was the armed man. Looking only at the intruder's face - not his weapon - Kirby Martin held the door open for him, and the two rode downstairs.

"In his face," Mr. Martin would remember, "I saw just a pale, lost-looking, desperate man. He was wearing khakis and a nice shirt. What came to my mind was that he was a pastor or staff member of a church that was in serious trouble."

Timothy Dale Johnson was no preacher, but he was in serious trouble, all right. A few minutes earlier, he'd shot and killed Bill Gwatney, chairman of the state's Democratic Party, at party headquarters seven blocks up the street.

Now he got into the elevator with Kirby Martin, and rode downstairs with him. "What is it?" Mr. Martin asked him. The intruder walked toward the building's front door. "I've lost my job," is all he said. By then he'd tucked the gun into the back of his pants, and was gone. He'd never fired a shot in a building full of people.

Less than an hour later, he would be dead, shot and killed when he was stopped and confronted by the police who'd picked up his trail and chased him 34 miles before the showdown. The reasons for his behavior that morning remain cloudy. There are the usual indications of a mental problem, the usual investigation is proceeding, and attention is being paid, as usual, too late.

But this much is clear: Kirby Martin did just what needed to be done, preventing who knows what might have happened.

To quote his boss, Dan Jordan, the Baptist Convention's business manager:


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.