Joplin Tornado

Johnnie Richey, 52 | To the end, he was always giving

Updated: 2011-06-20T19:30:56Z

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star

JOPLIN, Mo. | The door to the Richey home sits open as stories of Johnnie Richey come spilling out.

His family is gathered in his mom’s living room, telling tales of a 52-year-old man who loved to tease and joke, but a man quick to apologize if a joke went too deep.

The photos on a table show his life: Johnnie the father so proud of his son, a Marine on his way to Afghanistan; Johnnie the grandfather cuddling his grandson; Johnnie the Elks volunteer delivering Christmas baskets to the poor, often adding dollars from his own pocket; Johnnie the doting son, one arm draped over his mother, the woman he took care of after a terrible car wreck that killed his grandmother.

Johnnie Richey had been an Elks member since age 19, like his father. It was an organization where he could help others. A place he went to laugh, to dance.

And the place where he died.

“He was the best one to calm others down,” said his sister, Kerri Simms, 46.

Her brother was an engineering inspector, a baseball fan and a skilled bowler. Two weeks ago, he was inducted into the Joplin Bowling Hall of Fame.

The entire family attended the ceremony. Laughed at the razzing. Beamed at the compliments. He could dance so well, too, that his family thinks he could have gone pro if he wanted to.

“His love of life was so special, and with that tender heart of his, he cried easily,” remembered his mom, Joyce Richey. “But he was still manly.”

Three years earlier, he’d stopped drinking and started attending church — a church that no longer stands.

On Saturday night, Richey attended the Royals-Cardinals game in Kansas City. He bought a Cardinals bat for his grandson and drove home.

Sunday night, Richey was at the Elks Club. Just moments before the storm hit, Kerri called him. Earlier he’d sent a text about trying to match his niece with a date.

But as they talked, they noticed the weather. She heard Johnnie try to stop a friend from leaving the Elks Club.

You shouldn’t drive home because you know you drank too much, he told him. Another Elks member volunteered to drive the man home. Johnny stayed. Before the call ended, his sister told him she loved him.

You’re a good man, she said.

The next day, Johnnie’s grieving family drove to the site where the Elks Club once stood. Picking through the rubble, they found his battered, crumpled truck.

There, still in the bed, sat the red baseball bat.

A last gift for his grandson.

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