Three years after Joplin tornado, a celebration of city’s ‘heart and soul’

Architects used a temporary high school at an empty mall as an incubator for ideas for the new Joplin High School, which was dedicated on Friday.
Architects used a temporary high school at an empty mall as an incubator for ideas for the new Joplin High School, which was dedicated on Friday. Special to The Star

In tears, Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff asked again and again, “How do you say thanks?”

So many people had gathered Friday to dedicate the new Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center.

Watching were Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Rep. Bill Long and crowds of students and teachers, all surrounded by 6.5 miles of burgundy ribbon coiled around the school and parking lot representing the length of the May 22, 2011, tornado’s monstrous destruction.

It left 161 dead, including an educator and seven students, two of whom were Joplin High School Eagles.

“How do you say thanks,” Huff said, for so much generosity from near and far for a community “that suffered so much but still musters the will to do everything it can for the welfare of its children?”

Everywhere in the crowd, people like special-education teacher Debbie Leatherman looked on — the “heart and soul of America,” Biden said, “the examples of who we are as people. ... We never break. We always rebuild.”

This was the ribbon-cutting to the last “home” for Leatherman’s rebuilt world.

This was the one she had cried over the most.

The first home she lost was her house. She and husband Steve had emerged from their basement to a numbing site of soaked and splintered wood under the gaping gray sky. They didn’t cry then only because what they saw was unfathomable.

For two days, they’d heard people describe the 6 miles of devastation stretching west from their home, but they didn’t venture in until a friend through Facebook asked for help contacting an aunt and uncle.

The scene overwhelmed them by the time they reached the high school.

“We saw the horrific reality,” Debbie Leatherman said. “We saw what we as a community were facing. We had to pull over to the side of the road.”

‘A clear vision’

Even still, a stunned community made “courageous” decisions, Nixon told the crowd.

The will that would eventually bring Joplin to this day “provided a clear vision,” the governor said. “It set the tone how hard this community would work together,” and that “a school is the essential beating heart of this community.”

Kansas City architects from the DLR Group who would design a hastily built temporary high school in a shopping mall, and then the new campus, rolled in the day after the storm.

A district staffer was driving them to the high school scene, DLR principal Kevin Greischar said, and became disoriented in a littered city grid stripped of all landmarks.

“His voice got crackly; he was crying,” Greischar said. “He’s looking for the high school, and he can’t tell where it’s at.”

Within days — even as families still searched the ruins and pleaded through social media to find missing relatives, and even as teams of district personnel were still trying to account for all missing students and staff — the district declared its mission to get schools opened on schedule, by Aug. 17, 2011.

Schools had to be the anchor. The people who wanted to preserve Joplin feared that scarred families who lost their homes and livelihoods would leave.

The district and its designers had to deliver hope — in 55 days.

The temporary school in the empty mall space couldn’t be an officelike collection of moveable walls and folding tables.

The designers with Universal Construction and other partners were going to stuff the space with pieces of the state-of-the-art high school and tech center campus to come.

They would create collaboration spaces, openness, flexible learning environments — “a lot of cool stuff,” DLR senior associate Brian Murch said. They engaged students in the designs and kept feeding renderings through social media.

The temporary building would be an incubator for the ideas that would take root in the permanent campus.

New schools were coming, giving despairing families some sense that “they could get their lives back,” Murch said.

Crucial moment

The road back to this ceremonial day could have taken a much longer course.

There was a reason high school Principal Kerry Sachetta’s finger shook as he tried to peck in election numbers into his phone calculator that Tuesday night in April 2012 when a $62 million bond issue was on the line.

A community already sacrificing so much had been asked to sacrifice some more with a tax increase to help speed the school district’s rebuilding.

The election clerk brought out the numbers where Sachetta and others waited anxiously. It was not a simple matter of seeing more “yes” votes than “no” votes.

The bond issue required a supermajority of four-sevenths, 57.14 percent, to pass. It was too close to tell without calculating the numbers.

Back then, the designs for the new high school and three other new schools were just taking shape.

The big dream — that high school students could enter such a gleaming facility in the fall of 2014 with science labs, a coffee shop, career and technology centers, glass-walled think tanks and much more — all depended on what number popped up on Sachetta’s calculator.

“It was an adrenaline rush,” Sachetta said. His hands shook “as if the whole world was watching me do math.”

The margin of victory ended up being 42 votes out of some 8,400 cast, 57.64 percent.

It was not an easy choice for the community, with so many people in need, Sachetta said. “I was proud of the community,” he said. “They’re going to be happy when they come into this school.”

When Sachetta spoke to the crowd Friday, the feeling of indebtedness was strong.

“We must be worthy of this structure,” he said, speaking to the students, staff and community. “We must be worthy of the trust shown in us.”

Connected again

Seventeen-year-old Bryan Gandy took in the piped-in band music and the arrival of the stately dignitaries Friday with deepening appreciation.

“Finally, we have a place where we can all be together,” he said.

The senior had gone to ninth grade in the mall-turned-high school. He’d also taken courses in the displaced Franklin Tech Center in yet another building.

“When you think about it, for three years I haven’t had a place to stay,” he said.

He likes that they are all together, and that the many windows and glassy hallways give everyone the sense of seeing everyone in the community.

“You see people together, and you see we’re learning,” he said.

The designers wanted that “connectivity,” said DLR senior associate Scott Heidmann.

“We didn’t want students feeling overwhelmed or lost,” he said.

Senior Rylee Hartwell, 17, was one of the students who were part of the design process. They called themselves the Dream Team, helping in the re-imagining of a high school campus.

“I feel like this is a final chapter,” he said. And he raised his arm with the silver wristband all students were wearing with the words, “Mission accomplished.”

‘Joplin strong’

An old ring with about eight keys sits on Debbie Leatherman’s dresser where she can see it every day. None of the keys fit any locks anymore.

They were all rendered useless in the length of time she and her husband cowered in their basement. She had keys to their house, their two cars, their camper, the school and her classroom, and some file cabinets — all gone.

The new keys to the new high school were the last to be replaced on her new key ring.

But she will keep her old set. She calls them her “grateful keys.”

Grateful for so many things, she said.

This is how you say thanks, Huff said.

By students striving every day to become better people, by educators never giving up on a child, by parents staying vigilant and loving, and by a community joining in making sure every child can reach to high expectations.

You say thanks, Huff said, by “our relationships with one another, walking hand-in-hand, Joplin strong.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.