The New Fred

Shirley Phelps-Roper is just like her notorious father — except in one crucial way.

There would be no shotgun wedding. The child's biological father wasn't accepted into Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper, however, found forgiveness through repentance.

"I remember him being truly hurt," Nate says of his father's reaction to Phelps-Roper having succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh. "Not so much angry but hurt that she'd done it."

"She was young. She made a mistake," says Phelps-Roper's sister Margie.

Paulette Phelps (Fred Phelps' daughter- in-law) defies Patriot Guard riders at a picket organized by Shirley Phelps-Roper.
photo: Jay Soldner
Paulette Phelps (Fred Phelps' daughter- in-law) defies Patriot Guard riders at a picket organized by Shirley Phelps-Roper.


Editor's note: This article appeared originally in The Pitch, our sister paper in Kansas City, Missouri.

Margie's words fly off her tongue like daggers. "She was extremely remorseful. The Lord have mercy on her because she was remorseful . . . a kind of remorse that most Earth dwellers don't have the first clue about."

Phelps-Roper doesn't deny that her son Sam was born out of wedlock. She refuses to reveal the name of the biological father.

"His father is the father who raised him," she tells the Pitch, referring to her husband, Brent Roper, who adopted Sam after marrying Shirley.

When she talks about Sam, her voice softens. She's warm. She's proud.

"Sam is a very good kid," she says. "I don't know how in this world I ended up with a child of the quality of a person that child is. While I probably wouldn't say it to his face, it's just the truth."

Shirley Phelps married Brent Roper on November 25, 1983, at the Westboro Baptist Church. Four-year-old Sam was the ring bearer.

Roper had been a family friend. Growing up, he'd been an altar boy at St. David's Episcopal Church; later, he was a high school buddy of Shirley's brother Tim.

"One day he came to church and he never looked back," Phelps-Roper says of Brent. "He was like a sponge."

When Roper's mother planned to leave Topeka and Roper didn't want to go, he and Tim moved in together.

"I always liked him," Phelps-Roper tells the Pitch. "He's a very nice guy. He was very loyal. He was a good friend."

Phelps family members call him "The Novelist" — not because he has written textbooks on law-office management and how to use computers in legal offices (which he has) but because of his wordy picket signs. In the beginning, Shirley would tell him that no one would ever be able to read all of his words. Roper would explain that his sign was meant to be read by motorists stopped at traffic lights. People just didn't know scripture, he argued. If they knew, they'd change their ways.

Their relationship blossomed when he started college. Roper now works as a director of human resources with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

"We never had a dating relationship," Phelps-Roper says. "I'm going to tell you straight up, the issue about having a spouse is not an issue that I ever gave any worry to or concern to. You understand? I didn't worry about it."

She was focused on other things.

At 14, she had gone to work for the family law firm.

"I made myself useful," she says with a laugh. She answered phones, filed papers and memorized the phone numbers of all of her dad's clients as well as those of the courts, judges and lawyers. "I would rather have done that than go to high school. You understand? I liked it. But of course, you're going to have to go to school if you're going to be a lawyer, so I had to do that."

Phelps-Roper followed her older brothers and sisters to Washburn University in Topeka. She graduated in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. In 1981, she earned her law degree.

She is now Phelps-Chartered's office manager, handling administrative and accounting work but still covering tax-law cases and estate planning. Citing attorney-client privilege, she declined to say who the firm represents.

Shirley Phelps was born on Halloween — October 31, 1957 — two years after the inception of the Westboro Baptist Church. Shirl, as her brothers and sisters call her, was the fifth of 13 children. She's never known a life outside the church. She's never wanted one.

"She was just a spunky little kid," Margie says. "My mom always used to say, 'Margie is the dreamer. Shirley is the realist.' Shirl was never one that could spin some pie-in-the-sky imaginary thing. She was very practical."

"She was daddy's little girl," Nate says. "She was bossy and pushy and insisted on getting her own way. She manipulated situations to ensure that no one would take her authority away, her power away. But the power flows ultimately from my dad."

According to Nate and his brother Mark, power wasn't the only thing that flowed from their father. In the mid-'90s, the brothers went public with their claims that Fred Phelps had been an abusive father with an explosive temper; they recalled violent beatings that sometimes lasted for hours. The elder Phelps has denied his sons' claims.

Of Fred Phelps' children, Phelps-Roper has the largest family. Her brother Tim is next with nine children. Her sister Kathy has seven children. Rachel has six children with a seventh on the way in January. Fred Jr., Becky and Jonathan each have four children. Altogether, Fred Phelps has 54 grandchildren.

Nine of Phelps-Roper's 11 children still live with her and Roper inside a massive beige two-story home on Southwest Churchill Road, a tree-lined street in West Topeka. Phelps-Roper says the family has built additions to the home as the family has grown; she and Roper also own a one-story ranch home a few doors down the street. The larger Phelps family owns all but two homes on the block.

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