Long-time Gardner city prosecutor Chuck Lay died last week. He practiced law in Gardner for more than 45 years.
Chuck started his law career in the U.S. Navy. He first moved to Gardner in 1958 at the behest of his friend, Karl Lehman. Chuck graduated from law school that year. Karl was a banker in town, and believed the community could use a good lawyer.
“Carl said he’d give me six months free rent, and I’d get a little bank business,” Chuck told The Gardner News in 2010. “I thought I might as well try it. In fact, I lived with him for awhile.”
Chuck set up shop at the bank, located where the Dolphin Song building is today on the southwest corner of Main and Elm Streets.
“I had an office upstairs, which wasn’t too smart,” Chuck said. He quickly learned that older clients couldn’t make it up the stairs and moved his business.
He expected building a business in Gardner would be challenging. Only 1,000 or so people called Gardner home, and Chuck’s law professors told law school students that a town with 5,000 people or more would need an attorney.
“When I came here you could walk across the street with your eyes shut and never see a car,” Chuck said. “But I took a chance and it paid off.”
During his legal career, Lay served as chairman of the Kansas Bar Insurance Committee. He also served on a four-member committee assigned to study the possibility of forming a malpractice protection insurance company owned by lawyers. He helped launch the Attorney Liability Protection Society with about $2.5 million in collateral. Since its inceptions, ALPS has grown to serve 28 states and Guam and Puerto Rico. According to his obituary, Lay considered it one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.
However, that’s not what many in the Gardner community will remember Lay for. Council member Kristina Harrison said she first met Chuck when she joined the American Legion.
“I can’t remember being at a legion sponsored event that he was not a part of,” Harrison said during a presentation honoring Lay’s memory during the Feb. 17 city council meeting.
Notably, Chuck started an annual tradition serving free breakfast to veterans on Memorial Day.
The tradition, Chuck said, started in 1960.
Chuck said legion members, who are also veterans, would return to the legion hall tired and hungry after Memorial Day ceremonies in the cemetery.
“They come in. They’re tired and they’re hot. I just wanted to give them something to eat. It was just a little effort at first,” Chuck said.
In 1960, Chuck served donuts and coffee.
The tradition has grown now to include waffles, eggs, ham, sausage, coffee, juices and biscuits and gravy.
“Usually, I make the gravy. It’s wonderful gravy,” Chuck told The Gardner News in 2010. “I make it from scratch. I just concocted it myself. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a matter of cooking the sausage and putting the right amount of milk and the right amount of flour and stirring the heck out of it.”
In addition to serving as the American Legion Post Commander, Chuck was also instrumental in seeing that Veteran’s Park in Gardner was constructed and in the formation of the Gardner Historical Museum.
He also served on the First Presbyterian Church Board of Directors, and formed the Gardner Medical Center, Inc., a for-profit hospital that eventually sold to Research Medical Center. Chuck and four other citizens donated their stock from the project to form Memorial Foundation, Inc., a non-profit corporation that provides low-interest student loans to needy college students.
Mayor Chris Morrow issued a proclamation of sympathy from the city after Chuck’s death. The proclamation reads, “Charles Franklin Lay left a lasting legacy to the city of Gardner both in the courtroom and in the community as a whole, and for these contributions we are grateful.”
Morrow said, “(The proclamation) doesn’t come anywhere close to shining a light on all of his accomplishments.”
Today, the breakfast is a group effort that includes American Legion members and Sons of the American Legion members. The event is a fundraiser serving more than 200 meals annually. Chuck ran the Memorial Day breakfast until 2010.
“He comes down here and he cooks eggs and that kind of thing. Chuck is the brainchild of it,” Claud Hobby, Sons of the American Legion member, said in 2010.
For years, Chuck kept the breakfast to-do and shopping lists in his head.
“It was up there for dozens of years,” Hobby said. “But we got him to write it down a few years ago.”
Chuck last ran the breakfast in 2010.
However, it is a tradition that will continue.
“These guys have worked with me for years and they know what they’re doing,” Chuck told The Gardner News in 2010. “They don’t need me. They’ll still have it every year.”
He was preceded in death by his children: Elizabeth and Todd Lay.
He is survived by son Douglas Lay, Prairie Village; and siblings Judith Phipps, Olathe; Jean Ruppert, Butte, Mont.; Becky White, Colby, Kan.; and Berta Luehrs, Hickory, N.C.
His funeral and visitation occurred after press time. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Sons of the American Legion.