Paid work has prevented me from doing any volunteer work in Joplin, Mo., the site of a killer EF-5 tornado May 22, 2011, over the past seven years or so, but I was able to return to “the city that jack built” on May 22 for a special ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the twister that claimed the lives of 161 people and wiped out a third of the city.
Like others in the relatively small but focused crowd that had converged on Cunningham Park for the occasion, I was in “J-Town” May 22, 2011. Just a day after saying “Good-bye” to my father, a longtime newspaperman, at Bruce Funeral Home in Gardner, Kan., I had come to southwest Missouri with my mother to see her granddaughter, my niece, graduate from Joplin High School. Afterward, the entire party – and there were nine of us – headed for the IHOP at 2117 S. Range Line Road to celebrate the honoree’s achievement. That is where I was, having placed my order maybe five minutes earlier, when “all hell broke loose,” to borrow a favorite line of my late father.
The keynote speaker for the 10-year remembrance was former Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who concluded his inspiring remarks with this familiar passage from Joshua 1:9 (NIV) – “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Nixon told his listeners at one point, “You (the citizens and leaders of Joplin) took the righteous path” in rebuilding the city, which had seen about 14,000 people suddenly become homeless within a span of 19 minutes. He also told them, “The people of Joplin are the toughest people on God’s green earth,” a comment that drew a hearty round of applause.
READ: Former Kansan forever changed by tornado
According to Nixon, a Democrat, toughness was the second of four factors that had enabled Joplin to bounce back from one of the deadliest and most destructive storms in U.S. history, loyalty to the city itself being the first, faith the third and thankfulness for the assistance received from others the fourth. On the subject of faith, he remarked, “The faith of Joplin gave it the courage to succeed,” and on the subject of thankfulness, he observed, “You drew out the best in everyone who came here.”
Nixon, who as the Show Me State’s chief executive had been instrumental in directing available resources in Jefferson City Joplin’s way, was impressed by the proud city he encountered the day of the observance and the huge strides it had taken in the previous decade. “Joplin is better and stronger than it was before the tornado struck,” he declared, later adding, “Joplin is better than it was 10 years ago.”
The former two-term governor was followed to the lectern on the decorated stage by U.S.
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), who represents Joplin and the rest of Missouri’s Seventh Congressional District on Capitol Hill. He credited the commitments made early on by the City of Joplin, the Joplin school system and St. John’s Regional Medical Center (now Mercy Hospital Joplin), which was hammered by the twister, for the turnaround the city had experienced. He also took note of the cooperation that had been exhibited by those on opposite sides of the aisle in helping Joplin get back on its ‘feet’ in the aftermath of the storm. “There’s never been a better example of Democrats and Republicans working together,” he said.
Long held up Joplin as a model other cities across America could and should look to should they ever find themselves in a position similar to the one Joplin unexpectedly found itself in the evening of May 22, 2011 – needing to rebuild after taking a serious hit from Mother Nature. “When you want it done right, call Joplin,” he suggested, a line he later repeated after telling his immediate listeners and listeners by extension, “God bless you all.”
Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley mentioned the city’s other hospital, Freeman Hospital, and Mercy as well in his remarks, which included a salute to the city motto of In Omnia Paratus, which basically means “Together we are ready for anything.” He also pointed out that Joplin is now known to many as “a model of community resiliency and recovery.”
“We are blessed to live, work and play in this city,” Stanley said.
The benediction was delivered by City Councilman and former Mayor Gary Shaw. “I’m really thankful for the future,” he told those seated before him in the west-side-of-town park. “Joplin’s greatest days are ahead.”
A moment of silence was observed at 5:41 p.m., the time the tornado reared its ugly ‘head’ in Joplin. Beforehand, a prerecorded tape of men and women reading the names of the 161 victims was played over the loudspeaker system. Afterward, a lone bagpipes player from Tulsa, Okla., performed “Amazing Grace.”
Aaron Brown, longtime pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin, was recognized on stage during the evening for the spiritual and emotional support he had given to the community over the previous 10 years. Located along 26th Street, the building that housed St. Paul’s UMC in 2011 was just one of the many structures that were lost to the powerful tornado of May 22.
Brown is headed for Woods Chapel UMC in Lee’s Summit, Mo., where he will assume the duties of lead pastor later this summer.
–By Rick Nichols | Rick Nichols lives in Leavenworth, Kan., and is the editor of The Oskaloosa Independent, the third oldest newspaper in Kansas.