Black Arm Bands For Christmas


It would be an oversimplification to say that Professor Wren A. Stone ruined Christmas in 1935.

His actions on December 24th of that year most likely left a sorrow that would linger for years to come; as anyone who has lost a loved one on or around a specific holiday can attest.

For me, Easter Sunday is when my maternal grandmother died. Thanksgiving is the last time I spoke to my Aunt Tish before she died. Etc, etc. Most of us have a similar sadness.

In 1935, Wren Stone let his anger, bitterness and hatred for one man get the better of him and on Christmas Eve, he exacted his revenge. 

On that day, Stone shot Floyd Oakes two times, killing him instantly and shortly afterwards Stone took his own life with the same gun.

El Paso-Herald Post photo  

As Hugh M. Gardner, someone familiar with the situation, would observe, “The full story will
never be told. Both men are dead. Mr. Stone must have been crazy to do
such a thing.”


Who was Oakes to Stone?

Wren Stone, aged 43, was an assistant mathematics professor at New Mexico A&M State College (an agricultural college), located in Las Cruces, NM. He’d been on staff since 1929.

Floyd Oakes, aged 46, while not a member of the college staff, headed up New Mexico’s Feed and Fertilizer Control Department and he, upon his 1930 appointment to that position, had been given an office on the New Mexico A&M campus.

Another connection between the two men was that until recently Wren’s wife Vae Stone was employed as a stenographer in Oakes’s office. When Vae started working for Oakes is uncertain but it’s widely accepted to be at the root of the trouble.

Vae quit her job in September of 1935 after Floyd objected to the long hours she was working. 

In fact, when Vae was required to work one Saturday in the summer of 1935, things got especially heated between the two men and there was a reported “physical altercation” between Stone and Oakes in the latter’s office.

One would think that when Vae stopped working for Oakes the tension would ease but this wasn’t the case. 

Whether real or imagined, Wren Stone believed Floyd Oakes was spreading rumors about him around town. Newspaper accounts following the murder-suicide make vague references to stories concerning Wren’s “conduct while on a trip in northern New Mexico.”

On December 23, 1935, Wren Stone sat down and typed two letters – an act which shows definite premeditation on Stone’s part.

The first letter was addressed to Professor J.W. Branson, head of the Mathematics Dept., and Dr. G.N. Strom, attached to the College’s Agronomy Dept. 

It was essentially a resignation letter in which Stone said “Gentlemen: You will find my grade book in my desk, all up to date. My insurance papers are in my safety box. …. Thanks for your kindness in the past.”

The second letter, addressed to “whom it may concern,” revealed Stone’s reasons for killing Oakes. We will never know the full content of this letter as the District Attorney chose to keep it from the public eye. 

D.A. Martin A. Threet said “This is over. I do not see anything to be gained from publishing the letters, I owe it to both families to keep them private.”

However, portions of the second letter did make into various newspapers, perhaps via the college’s acting President Hugh M. Gardner who wished to insure that this tragedy wouldn’t be a reflection on the college and who was quick to make mention of “petty differences” between the two men and to stipulate that Mr. Oakes was not a college employee.

“I have stood it as long as I am going to – this is the last time,” Stone’s second letter said. Also, “Both families would have had a happier Christmas, had not lies been told about me.”

The morning after typing these letters, Wren Stone drove to the campus and at 8:30 AM on Christmas Eve, he shot Floyd Oakes as Oakes was exiting his car, parked just outside of the music hall building. 

According to his death certificate, Floyd Oakes died from “Gun shot wounds of bridge of nose, entering through the brain, one through the right anterior clavicle region and one on the back of the left hand.”

There were no witnesses to the actual shooting but upon hearing the gunshot, people in the nearby buildings looked out of their windows just in time to see Oakes fall to the ground and Stone speed away in his car.

Stone didn’t go far. He drove to Professor Branson’s home to hand deliver the first letter. He said little until Branson asked him “if there is anything wrong?”

“I’ve just killed Oakes,” Stone responded and then he drove away. But not very far.

One half mile away, Stone pulled the car over, put the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger. 

Police found him there, slumped over the steering wheel. His pockets held a bottle of poison and the “to whom it may concern” letter.

Both men left behind a widow and two children each.

Wren Stone in 1917

At the time of the double tragedy, Wren Stone and Vae Arnold had been married for 20 years. Their 21st wedding anniversary was less than a week away.

They had two children – their daughter Marybeth was 13 years old in 1935 and their son Troy was 10 years old.

At the time of his murder, Floyd Oakes had been married to Bernice Bridwell for 17 years. 

They likewise had two children, both girls – Eleanor, aged 13 and Marjorie, 11 years old. 

Christmas plans at the Oakes house carried on without a mention to either girl of their father’s death. 

Marjorie’s health was fragile. She had a weak heart and had been bedridden for some time but Marjorie had been looking forward to sharing Christmas dinner with the family. 

Fearful that the shock would be too great, relatives thought it best to keep the sad news from her. She would learn it eventually.

Floyd Oakes in 1920

The bodies of both men were shipped out of state for burial. 

Wren A. Stone is buried in Louisburg Cemetery in Louisburg, Kansas

Floyd E. Oakes is buried in Fairlawn Burial Park in Hutchinson, Kansas. 

Vae Stone never remarried. 

An October 31, 1951 newspaper article about Troy Stone being awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross medal for outstanding service in the Far East stated Vae was an employee of the Veteran’s Administration in Albuquerque, NM.

Vae died on February 3, 1988, six days shy of her 94th birthday. She died in San Diego but she’s buried beside Wren in Kansas.

The 1940 Census shows Bernice Oakes and her children living in Kansas with Bernice’s widowed mother Mary. 

Bernice married for a second time in 1964 when she was 67-years-old. 

Bernice’s new husband was William Porter Bixler, a 76-year old widower who’s first wife, Isabel, had died 4 months earlier in a traffic accident. 

Mr. Bixler died on October 16, 1973 and he was buried in El Paso, Texas, beside his first wife.

Bernice outlived her youngest daughter Marjorie who, according to an Ancestry family tree, died on May 31, 1958 from “heart trouble” at the age of 34 years.

Bernice Oakes Bixler died on December 14, 1987, she was 90-years-old. She shares the burial plot in Kansas with Floyd.

If anyone reading this is familiar with the New Mexico A&M College, the name J.W. Branson may ring a bell. Professor Branson became the College’s President in 1949 and several buildings on campus are named after him.

Portrait of J.W. Branson, painted by his sister-in-law Lona Wilson Branson


Here’s a story that I can’t personally substantiate but one that is of interest and it comes from an Ancestry member:

Per Rilla Oakes Arnold (sister of Floyd Oakes): We had gotten a message that he (Floyd) had been killed! His work at the college in New Mexico required him to take trips here and there. He came home from a trip the day before Christmas, I think it was 1935 or 1936. He had some work to do so he asked his secretary if she could meet him at the office Christmas morning and help him awhile. She said she would. He drove down to the college, parked his car, opened the door to get out and a man shot him three times. He fell out dead, never knew what hit him. The man handed another man a note and ran farther down the campus and shot himself. His mind was deranged and was insanely jealous of his wife. He had the idea that Floyd and his wife were having an affair. Floyd had had a talk with him six or eight months before and thought he had convinced him that he was happily married and had no design on his wife or anyone else’s. Before Christmas the man had sent poisoned candy to his family and Floyd’s family also in the mail. Bernice thought Floyd had sent the candy home so when one of her little girls asked if she could have some of it, she said yes but do not give any to Marjorie, her sister had a heart condition and could not have candy, but she could give the Mexican girl, who was working for them, some of it. She did give her some and in a minute she was on the floor in convulsions. Eleanor had put some in her mouth but had not eaten it yet. Bernice had both girls stomach pumped out immediately and they got alright.


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