THE KANSAS CITY STAR MAGAZINE

Photographer’s work helps Joplin residents reconstruct their memories

Updated: 2013-05-22T17:05:37Z

Story by SARAH GISH, photos by JILL TOYOSHIBA

The Kansas City Star

— After the hospital but before the high school and Home Depot, the tornado swirled above a vacant limestone bungalow at 25th and Main streets.

Around 1970, Joplin photographer Murwin Mosler had converted the house into a photo studio by reconfiguring its walls to form a reception area, a darkroom, a break room with a kitchen table and a photo studio with a dressing room, mirror, and rolls of blue and gray background paper suspended from one wall.

From the 1930s to the ’80s, Joplin residents relied on Mosler to capture and immortalize their happiest moments. He photographed babies, weddings, graduating seniors and proud soldiers heading off to war. He developed the film and printed the photos. The process fascinated his daughter, Marcia Long. When she was little, she watched him shine light through negatives onto white photo paper. He dipped the paper in a tray of chemicals, and a photo appeared before her eyes.

“I thought it was magic,” she says.

Mosler kept all his negatives in a storage room, sealed in carefully ordered and labeled manila envelopes nestled into boxes on a shelf. By the end of Mosler’s 50-year career, there were around 30,000 envelopes.

When the photographer died in 2003, his daughter was his sole heir. She couldn’t bring herself to let go of the studio or its contents. She recycled the darkroom chemicals and photography magazines and took home family photos and a few cameras. After that, the bungalow became a time capsule. Then came the tornado.

The twisting column of chaos raked across the intersection of 25th and Main on May 22, 2011, turning the studio’s limestone walls into gravel and lifting heavy printers and projectors to the sky like loose photographs.

When the storm passed, only a few walls remained standing. One of them shielded the envelopes.

Two days later, Marcia Long stood in the rubble. She had always told herself that some day she would decide what to do with all the envelopes. The decision couldn’t wait any longer.

The room was exposed on three sides and knee-deep with soggy, splintered shards of wood and furniture. But the envelopes were still snug in their boxes, and many weren’t even wet. Long took that as a sign from God.

“The Lord showed me in a mighty way that this stuff wasn’t to be thrown away,” Long says.

She knew exactly who to call.

Long had known Brad Belk since they were students at Joplin High School. Belk, a local historian, always admired Murwin Mosler’s work. After the photographer died, Long gave Belk a collection of her father’s early photos, and Belk published them in a book called “Murwin Mosler’s Gift to Joplin.” The historian has written seven books, but he considers the Mosler book his greatest accomplishment. So when he found out that Mosler’s envelopes had survived the storm, he didn’t hesitate for a second.

“We gotta get those photos,” Belk told Long.

Within a few hours, Belk and a family of four volunteers showed up with an SUV at the destroyed studio. Wearing work boots to protect their feet from broken glass and exposed nails, they filled trash bag after trash bag with thousands of manila envelopes. Most of them were still on the shelf, but many were scattered in the muddy debris.

Some negatives and photographs had gotten loose and looked melted by the 100-degree heat. Others stuck together like they’d been glued. All of them went into the bags.

When they had recovered all the photos they could find, the team of volunteers loaded their bags into the SUV and drove to the Joplin Museum Complex, a small museum in Schifferdecker Park that’s home to rare minerals, circus memorabilia, a room full of cookie cutters and a locally famous gray cat named Percy.

Belk, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary as director of the museum, helped volunteers spread the envelopes to dry on 40 tables in the museum’s multipurpose room. Long looked across the room and saw her father’s life’s work, possibly ruined.

“It was almost like seeing my dad’s casket,” she says. “It was such a part of him.”

Belk was overwhelmed, too.

“For a historian to find something like that intact … the volume, the magnitude, the years,” he says. “It’s just insane. Unbelievable.”

The museum director didn’t know at first what he’d do with all the negatives and photos inside the envelopes. There was no room in the museum to display them, and most of them were portraits that didn’t hold any historical significance. But he knew each image held deep meaning for someone. And he couldn’t throw that away.

Like Mosler, Belk is a meticulous record-keeper whose life revolves around his work. Belk works at the museum six or seven days a week and writes down everything he accomplishes in a daily journal. He can tell you exactly how many birdies has made in golf (4,504) and how many miles he ran on his 58th birthday. (Sixteen from the Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage to his home in Joplin).

“One of the best birthdays I ever had,” Belk says.

Before the tornado, Belk and his wife, Belinda, went to their neighbor’s basement, as they always do in bad storms. It was obvious this one was different.

“It’s impossible to describe the debris hitting the house,” Belk says. “It wasn’t like bullets … but it was harder than anything else. Like nuclear hail. When we came out of that thing, our yard was littered with little bitty pieces of people’s lives. Their homes, their clothing, photographs.”

Panic. Sirens. Belk says he felt like he was living in a sci-fi movie: “Things were just nuts, OK?”

Belk’s home and the museum sustained minor damage, but the museum’s curator, Chris Wiseman, lost his house.

A few days after the storm, Belk went running to clear his head. Somewhere along those five miles, he started thinking about the time his mother-in-law’s house burned down. He vividly remembers her standing in the ashes, completely distraught. She didn’t care about the house. She wanted her photos.

Suddenly, Belk knew what to do with Mosler’s photos.

In the weeks and months after the tornado, thousands of volunteers flooded Joplin to help with recovery efforts.

Many of those who couldn’t work in 100-degree heat ended up at the air-conditioned museum, cleaning and sorting the envelopes.

Sheryl Colson, a longtime Joplinite, showed up almost every day.

“Like it was a real job,” she says. Colson was amazed by what she found inside the envelopes.

“Splinters, glass, shingles. All the stuff it takes to build a house, in little bitty crumbs,” she says. But the envelopes survived.

“How can a house explode and an envelope be

untouched?”

Colson also found photos of herself, her sister and other people she knows. But her favorites are the loose photos no one can identify. Many are of teenage soldiers who posed for portraits at Fort Crowder, south of Neosho, Mo., before fighting in World War II.

“They were probably going through training, getting photos taken for their parents or sweetheart,” Colson says. “They just look like darling children.”

She and the other volunteers wiped the mud and dirt from the photos. They put the unidentified images together in boxes and sorted the labeled envelopes in alphabetical order. Then they entered the data on each label in a computer program built by Missouri Southern State University’s IT department.

Because there were so many envelopes — Belk estimates around 20,000 — that took 13 months.

Last summer, the photo database went live at moslerfamilyphotos.org. Visitors to the site can search for their family name and, if anything comes up, claim their envelopes from the museum. In most cases, the contents of each envelope remain a mystery until it’s opened.

The day the site went live, Belk and his two-person staff, Wiseman and administrative assistant Dina Taylor, braced themselves for a flood of phone calls and visitors to the museum. But what came was more of a steady trickle.

“Nothing fabulous,” Belk says. “It seemed to be a word-of-mouth thing.”

Maybe because, during a time when Joplinites were still working to rebuild their homes and lives, old photographs didn’t register as a top priority.

But to some, particularly those who lost everything in the tornado, finding lost images of their loved ones at the museum was a bright spot in an immensely dark time.

The tornado destroyed Jo Ann and Larry Six’s home and most of their photos.

The Sixes, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, married in 1962 at Harmony Heights Baptist Church across from Joplin High.

“You should see the dress,” Jo Ann Six says. “Chantilly lace over satin. I had a 211/2-inch waist. It looked like a Barbie doll dress.”

The bridesmaids in the “rainbow wedding” wore pastel dresses — blue, green, lavender, pink — with hats and shoes dyed to match. But you couldn’t tell that from the wedding photos Mosler took, which were printed in black and white.

Jo Ann Six hoped that the museum would have at least one of those images on file. When she opened her envelope, she saw her wedding day again in full color. Mosler had printed some copies in color and used them as advertisements. This is what your wedding pictures could look like.

“I was so excited,” Six says, “because otherwise they would be lost to me completely.”

Pamala Carrier of Redings Mill, Mo., found senior pictures Mosler took of her brothers Roy and Mike Thorn.

“My parents lost everything in the tornado,” Carrier says. “All the pictures were gone. I was able to bring those (photos) to my mom.”

She cries when she remembers how her mom, Marjorie, hugged the photos.

Peggy Messer found photos she never knew existed. The envelope with her parents’ name contained images of the couple as young newlyweds, right before Messer’s father was drafted for World War II. It also contained a “rush order” receipt that totaled $8.

Messer’s father is deceased, “and my mother doesn’t remember having them taken.” The photo is a sweet memento of a marriage that lasted more than 60 years.

Not everyone in Joplin could afford to buy professional wedding photos. When Mary Anne and Dennis Neil of Carthage married in 1968, their parents invited Mosler, a family friend, to be a guest. The photographer never went anywhere without his camera, so he snapped a few photos of the wedding party. The Neils couldn’t afford to pay Mosler to process the photos, so the negatives went into an envelope and stayed there until the Neils retrieved it from the museum last year.

This time, they can afford to develop them.

Before Polaroids and one-hour processing and smartphones, photographs were expensive and much more precious. Now anyone can snap a photo on an iPhone and post it to Facebook for free, in seconds.

Mosler couldn’t use Photoshop or Instagram to make the people in his photos look good. He was patient and careful with lighting, Colson says. He had a way of seeing the best in people — that’s why every bride wanted him to photograph her wedding.

“He took pictures that made you look prettier than you really were,” Colson says.

Mosler had a knack for capturing people at their best, but early in his career, he saw them at their worst. He photographed car accidents and mine cave-ins for the Joplin Globe. One of his more gruesome assignments was the 1950 slaying of a family of five driving from Illinois to New Mexico. The killer, a Joplin native named Billy Cook, posed as a hitchhiker before shooting the parents, their three children and their dog. Cook dumped the family in a mine shaft outside of Joplin. Mosler took photos as police brought up the bodies.

As a freelancer for the Globe, Mosler also took slice-of-life photos that resembled Norman Rockwell paintings. A kid showing off his new motorcycle. A visit from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A postman who carried candy for kids and whistled as he delivered mail.

“You want to know what Midwest America is? You just need to look at this,” Belk says as he leafs through “Murwin Mosler’s Gift to Joplin.”

“It’s not what I wrote, it’s what he did. This is Joplin. At its worst, at its best.”

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Mosler homed in on portraits — mostly wedding and yearbook photos. He and his wife, Bonnie, had two kids — Marcia and her older brother, Chuck — and studio photography was steady.

Mosler worked most nights and weekends. His assistant, Mary Ford, helped organize the negatives, which Mosler guarded fiercely. He never gave them away, even to paying customers. Something drove Mosler to document everything.

In 1975, Chuck, a private plane pilot, went missing during a flight to Kansas City. The plane his friend was piloting ran into a thunderstorm and crashed about 40 miles north of Joplin, near Mulberry, Kan.

Mosler and his wife drove to Mulberry. Bonnie stayed in the car as Mosler walked to the crash site with his camera. He watched through the lens as his son’s body was pulled from the wreckage.

Long says taking photos was her father’s way of digesting the horrible thing that had happened.

“It might have been some form of therapy,” Long says.

Even in the darkest times, Mosler focused on the bright side.

“We’ve lost a lot,” he told his daughter as they cried together after the plane crash. “But we have a lot left.”

Since last summer, the Joplin Museum Complex has given away more than 40,000 of Murwin Mosler’s images. That sounds like a lot until you consider how many images they started with. Belk’s best estimate is a quarter of a million.

That means that about 84 percent of Mosler’s photographs have not been claimed. The museum’s collection will grow by about 30,000 in November, when the First Baptist Church in Carthage turns over its collection of photographs scattered across the region by the tornado. Some of them were found up to 200 miles away.

The church’s photos are all unidentified. They aren’t in envelopes with names and dates. That will make them harder to give away.

Belk says he knows many of the photos at the museum will probably never be claimed. But he has no plans to give up. He feels like he was fated for this project.

“We can’t close the door on this thing,” he says. “We’re involved in this forever.”

Last year Kristie Tusinger, a lifelong Joplinite, went to the museum and picked up eight packets of photographs. When Tusinger saw that the first envelope held photos of her sister Lorie, she quickly closed it. She didn’t want to break down in the museum.

On the day of the tornado, Lorie and her husband Glenn had just returned from their favorite place, Walt Disney World. The couple visited Orlando, Fla., several times a year, but this trip was special because it was their 15th wedding anniversary.

During bad storms, Lorie and Glenn Holland always went to their neighbors’ house, Tusinger says. “Those neighbors were at graduation that day.”

The tornado took the lives of the Hollands and more than 150 others. The Joplin community lost so much that it was hard to focus on what was left.

After some time, Tusinger was able to look at Murwin Mosler’s photos of her sister. One image shows Lorie at 12, a curly-haired girl who loved Disney movies, sitting on a swing in a yellow gingham dress. Another, Tusinger’s favorite, shows Lorie as a beautiful high school senior. She wears a soft pink turtleneck and has curls that fan out from her face. In both photos, her face glows with a warm, sweet smile.

Tusinger thought the only copy of Lorie’s senior photo was lost in the tornado. So it’s hard for her to put into words how meaningful it was for her to open an envelope and find a cherished piece of her past.

Brad Belk considers this Murwin Mosler’s last gift to Joplin. Sheryl Colson calls it a miracle, and Marcia Long believes it’s God’s plan.

But as a little girl, Murwin Mosler’s daughter would’ve had a different name for the work her father did.

Magic.

To reach enterprise reporter Sarah Gish, call 816-234-4823 or send email to sarah@inkkc.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/sarah_gish.

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