Cathy Yost didn't know the woman, but the story told by the stranger after the rededication of the Kirkwood, Mo., city council chambers was like so many others of her husband of 40 years, Ken.

The stranger told the story of a rose garden planted in memory of her daughter, who died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 19. After a fierce winter storm, a public works plow broke a piece of the curb near the garden. The woman notified Ken Yost, who told her, “I promise you on the next warm day we'll get that fixed.” Assuming he meant some time in the spring, she was surprised when—just a few weeks later—several trucks and 10 men were on the scene to repair the curb fronting the rose garden memorial.

Humble and dedicated, Kirkwood's public works director was the everyman of civil service:

Yost worked closely with the design team that reconstructed the city's James P. Kirkwood Bridge spanning the Union Pacific Railroad downtown. The project received a national award from the American Society of Civil Engineers and was 2001 American Public Works Association project of the year.

Yost wrote grants that funded renovations and expansions of the city's recycling depository, one of the longest-running recycling drop-off programs in Missouri.

He helped craft ordinances to maintain the city's quality of life, most recently one that provides guidelines for new construction in existing neighborhoods.

He even volunteered every spring to teach local middle-school students about the basics of bridge design and construction and spoke to children at his church, First Presbyterian, about landfills and recycling.

Now he was being remembered in the wake of a shooting rampage by a local contractor who killed five people during a city council meeting just a few months earlier.

During his 35-year tenure with the Kirkwood Public Works Department, Ken Yost had grown familiar with the rhythm of city government, and he knew an uneventful meeting when he saw one. After dinner the night of Feb. 7, he put on a black suit, smiled, and told his wife, “I don't see this being a complicated meeting. I'll see you by nine.” From there he made the short drive to city hall down the cozy tree-lined streets of the thriving middle-class St. Louis suburb for the last time.

“He changed lives,” his wife says of the man who in 1973 left his job as a structural engineer in bridge design with St. Louis consulting firm Sverdrup Corp. to be a part of the “big picture”—city government.

When a friend told Cathy Yost in the chaotic aftermath that Charles “Cookie” Thornton was the shooter, it all became obvious. “Of course,” She thought to herself. “How did I not see it?” Another friend later asked why the Yosts hadn't filed a restraining order against Thornton. “I didn't think I needed one,” she responded.

She knew little about the depth of Thornton's rage against her husband. After all, she had never met the man personally, and her husband refrained from sharing Thornton's odd behavior at council meetings: Thornton once set up a poster of a donkey and called the council and staff jackasses; he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct—his second arrest for disorderly conduct that month.

In 2004, when the couple moved out of Kirkwood to a nearby suburb, Ken Yost never told his wife that part of his motivation was to feel safer. It was one of several choices he made to avoid further conflict with Thornton. His wife recalls a trip to a local shoe store that was cut short when, upon approaching the parking lot, her husband spotted something. “That's Cookie's van there,” he told her as they turned around and drove away.

Emiro Gonzalez's wife, on the other hand, knew full well of the threat posed to her husband by a local contractor whose ties to Montgomery County, Md., ran deep.