Remembering former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, 20 years after his sudden death

Former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash on Oct. 16, 2000.

Today many young people are casting their first votes with no living memory of Missouri’s 2000 general election. But it’s worth remembering for an outcome unprecedented in American history: A deceased man was elected United States senator.

More importantly, though, it’s worth remembering because of the man elected that night back in November 2000: two-term Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who passed away tragically just 22 days before he unseated Republican Sen. John Ashcroft by a margin of 48,960 votes.

Carnahan, 66, his eldest son Roger “Randy” Carnahan, 44, and campaign adviser and close family friend Chris Sifford, 37, were killed the night of Monday, Oct. 16, 2000, when their twin-engine Cessna 335 crashed in rainy weather in Jefferson County, about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis.

They took off just before 7 p.m. from St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill., bound for New Madrid, Mo., and a banquet organized by Black ministers. Several hundred people were assembled and waiting at the banquet hall.

St. Louis Police Detective Tom Malacek was the last living person to see the three men. He helped close the airplane door from the outside, after driving the governor to Cahokia from a campaign event. Randy Carnahan and Chris Sifford left the event early with Malacek’s police protective detail partner to get the plane ready and check the weather and flight plans.

“It was dark out and it was misting a little bit and I said to the Governor, ‘Are we able to fly out?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think so…’” Malacek recalled when we sat down recently for an oral history interview about the campaign, which I covered as Missouri statehouse correspondent for The Associated Press.

The veteran cop’s conversation with Carnahan then turned to something that seems quaint, 20 years on.

“Gov. Carnahan was very proud of this rain coat he had just purchased,” he said. “And he’s proud of it because it was a purchase that he made online and back then, online purchasing was just kind of coming onto the scene.”

At the airport, Malacek reached for a golf umbrella.  “And the governor said, ‘I have the rain coat on. You take the umbrella, I’m OK.’”

That anecdote and others about the personal side of Mel Carnahan kept emerging during my interviews – a decent man, thinking of others, quoting Adlai Stevenson about the importance of public service. When Mel Carnahan died, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan wrote: “He was a dignified man in an undignified profession.”

Former House Speaker Steve Gaw was fighting a bad cold when he joined Carnahan on an outdoor platform in winter to dedicate a statue in his district. To make things worse, Gaw forgot his overcoat. “I’m sitting there shivering and suddenly Mel took his coat and put it around my shoulders. He really cared about people in a way that was clear into his soul.”

Phyllis Pence Allsbury, an administrative assistant who worked more than 20 years for Carnahan, remembers a group of Cub Scouts stepping into the reception area during a Capitol tour. The big double doors to the governor’s inner office were open, so she invited them to peek inside. And there was Carnahan. “He said, ‘Come on in, I’ll show you around.’ He just talked to them like he had known them forever, like he was their teacher or dad or grandfather.”

Rob Crouse recalls his first day as Carnahan’s speech writer – he arrived extra early, found his cubbyhole and started to work. “Good morning, Rob.’ He turned and it was Carnahan. “He said, ‘I know it’s your first day and just wanted to make sure you have everything you need.’ He really cared about us.”

That’s the Mel Carnahan that Tom Malacek remembers.

As they stood at the plane, “The governor asked me, ‘Are you getting tired of this?’ I said, ‘No, no, governor, we’re fine.’ Truth be told, we were exhausted, and we were putting in a lot of long hours. And he said, ‘OK — I’m going to see you tomorrow morning and we’re going to do it again.’ And I said, ‘OK, great! We’re looking forward to it.’ And I closed the door on the plane.”

After takeoff, Malacek followed protocol and phoned the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which had an officer waiting with the governor’s ride at New Madrid’s little airport. Malacek said: “We have wheels up out of St. Louis and he’s on your way. The governor’s on his way.”

Then Malacek and his partner swung back across the Mississippi River to grab supper at a restaurant in south St. Louis. During the meal, Malacek got a call from the Governor’s Mansion security office. He stepped outside to an alley to talk. “They said, ‘Tom, where’s the governor?’ and I remember saying ‘What are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘Tom, they called me, and he has not landed yet.’”

Then the Mansion security officer said there was a crawl across the bottom of his TV screen about a plane crash in the St. Louis area. Malacek said he would call back.

Pacing the alley and calling other police agencies, he was finally connected to a Jefferson County dispatcher.

“And I said, ‘All I’m asking for is a simple yes or no. If I give you the tail number to the plane, just say yes or no.’”

“‘And I did, and he said, ‘Yes, that is the plane’”