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City of West has courage to overcome loss

Concern for neighbors a trait shared by many in region devastated by blast

Dodgers pitcher Shawn Tolleson is like countless of other Texans who have traveled the stretch of I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth through the years. He thinks the city of West is a special place.

"Kolaches," he said.

Yes, West is famous for the small Czech pastries filled with fruit or sausage. Sells thousands of them a year.

"Cinnamon rolls, too," he added.

Tolleson got to know West during drives from his home in the Dallas suburbs to Baylor University, where he played baseball. So did Mariners catcher Kelly Shoppach, a Fort Worth native who also made West a stopping point on his drives back to Waco.

"You've got to stop in there and buy kolaches from the Czech Stop," Shoppach said.

West is also known for its steaks and restaurants. It's not just about food, either. It's an attitude. To generations of Texans, West is a warm, friendly place. It's not exactly a destination, more of a destination on the way to a destination. That changes every Labor Day when Westfest turns the place into a street party that attracts people from hundreds of miles away.

West has produced one Major League Baseball player, outfielder Scott Podsednik, who has pieced together a nice 11-year career with seven different franchises. For many others, including students at nearby Baylor University, West is a place of good memories.

Like millions of other Americans, Tolleson and Shoppach were horrified Wednesday when they watched replays of a fertilizer plant exploding and the accompanying descriptions of the loss of life and property.

"It shocked me and scared me," Tolleson said. "Obviously, I was concerned for everyone around there. It just hits close to home. It's a place where you don't think anything can go wrong. They're just good people, and this happens with no warning. I know if I were still at Baylor I'd be trying to help."

He'd be proud of his alma mater. Students, including several Baylor student athletes, and head football coach Art Briles, lined up Wednesday to donate blood and offer assistance. In addition, a previously scheduled campus concert featuring Five For Fighting became a fundraising effort for West.

"I hate that innocent people lost their lives," Shoppach said. "West is a place close to a lot of us. People know what kind of town it is. I don't have a personal relationship, but have been there so many times, you feel part of it. But we'll come together, and West will still be West."

Another former Baylor player, Red Sox infielder Drew Sutton, was also impacted by the news. Before transferring to Baylor, he played games at junior college diamonds around the area. Upon hearing of the disaster, he was struck by the number of people who rushed to help their neighbors.

"We talk about people being heroes," he said. "But any time your mind tells you to run away and you run toward something, that's heroic. You had people just hanging out with their families, doing normal things, and when they saw people in need, they didn't hesitate. It puts a lot of things into perspective. It's a harsh reality. To see people going through things like that ...

"There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that are tough to take."

Likewise, another former Baylor star, Kip Wells, a 12-year Major League veteran who is in extended spring camp with the Angels, has a personal connection to West. One of his former Baylor teammates, Dr. Marty Crawford, is the superintendent of the West Independent School District.

"I was like anybody else when I saw the video," Wells said. "For lack of a better word, you're an observer trying to take in the visual part of it and the intensity of it. You feel for the people."

Wells was in New York as a member of the White Sox on Sept. 11, 2001, and understands the feeling of wanting to help and yet not knowing how to.

"I think the people need a little bit of space," Wells said, "but they also want to feel the support of the community and of their family and friends. It gives you a warm feeling to know you're not alone."

The White Sox eventually made their way from New York to Chicago by bus after 9/11 and were working out at U.S. Cellular Field a few days later when Wells was reminded how much life had changed.

"I looked up and there was a plane flying over," he said. "It was a normal activity, but it was also eerie. That's how quickly things had changed."

West has changed, too, at least for a little while. But its heart and soul remain unchanged.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.