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Joplin residents plan to ‘Save One for Zach’ in honor of boy killed in tornado

Zachary Williams was a seventh-grader when he died in the EF5 tornado that destroyed a wide swath of Joplin, killing 161, on May 22, 2011. A member of the class of 2016, he would have graduated next month, on the tornado’s fifth anniversary.
Zachary Williams was a seventh-grader when he died in the EF5 tornado that destroyed a wide swath of Joplin, killing 161, on May 22, 2011. A member of the class of 2016, he would have graduated next month, on the tornado’s fifth anniversary.

Zachary Williams may not have a seat saved for him at the Joplin High School graduation, but he’ll have plenty sprinkled across town, even in other states.

People who never met him are making sure of it.

“I’m in,” wrote one person on Facebook after the launch of an effort to honor Zachary. And another: “I’ll make a special chair for him.”

Zachary was a seventh-grader when he died in the EF5 tornado that destroyed a wide swath of Joplin, killing 161, on May 22, 2011. A member of the class of 2016, he would have graduated next month, on the tornado’s fifth anniversary.

The Star wrote last week about Zachary’s mom, Tammy Niederhelman, and her desire to have a chair for her son at graduation. Joplin High declined the request, saying its tradition is to have a moment of silence for students who died in their high school years.

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The school, however, does plan to honor Zachary and put his name — along with those of six other students and one district staff member who died in the storm — on a big screen for 5,000 people to see. But it will not set out a chair for him.

Charlie Brown of Joplin thinks Zachary and his mother deserve more. That’s where Save One for Zach comes in. It encourages people to decorate a chair in honor of Zachary and display it outside on graduation day.

Brown doesn’t know Niederhelman or her family but said he “was shocked that she was having some pushback.”

“I thought, ‘Surely they’ll do the right thing,’ ” he said. “ ‘It’s just a chair.’ 

He posted a picture of The Star’s headline on Facebook and wrote: “I think all of us in support of this just need to decorate a chair for our front yards. I think I just might head that up :)”

Within two days, more than 150 people had vowed to set out a chair for Zach.

“I live in Michigan,” wrote one woman. “And I’ll put a chair in my yard for Zachary!!!!”

Another wrote: “I’m sharing this in Abilene Texas. I will be making a chair for my yard.”

Niederhelman heard about the effort and said she and her husband, Tony, who was home with Zachary when the tornado hit, have been touched by people’s kindness.

“It’s very emotional, but happy emotional,” Niederhelman said. “There are people who have never even seen Zach, or met me, and want to honor him the way he should be honored. The way any child should be honored.”

Joplin High principal Kerry Sachetta told The Star that he had talked to dozens of people about the issue, including about 30 students. The school’s plan always was to honor the young man, he said.

Late last week, school district spokeswoman Kelli Price said in a statement that officials understand that the issue has resonated with many people.

“We support those in our community and beyond who wish to honor Zachary in their own way,” Price said.

“We look forward to this year’s graduation as a time to honor the past and, most importantly, celebrate the hard work and achievements of our graduating students.”

Niederhelman said some parents of graduating seniors have told her that an empty chair would be a sad reminder on a happy day.

“They say, ‘We wouldn’t want our kids to think about that bad day and be reminded,’ ” she said. “The graduation is on the fifth anniversary; that’s already a reminder. And if you live in Joplin, we have the tornado thrown in our face every day.”

Her son always wanted people to get along and wouldn’t like that the issue became so contentious, she has said, so she is no longer fighting the school’s decision.

She doesn’t know whether she’ll go to the graduation. But the family will definitely have its own chair for Zachary outside their new home in a nearby town where they’re moving in the next several days.

Noel Holland lives in the Joplin neighborhood where the Niederhelmans lived at the time of the tornado. She has already asked Zachary’s mom if it’s OK for her to decorate a special chair. Holland plans to put that chair on the spot where Zachary's body was found.

The goal, Holland said, is to gather there during the graduation and honor the member of the class of 2016 who didn’t survive the tornado.

“I would love to throw a big block party for graduation,” said Holland, who wants to send out graduation invitations for the Niederhelmans and have cupcakes and other party trimmings. “They are missing all of that. … I want to make this a lot more than just a chair.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

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