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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

A tribute to my comrades in Joplin

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A few months back, Joplin Globe Editor Carol Stark wrote a delightful column about the night she and several others were "iced in" at the newspaper office. They slept on every available sofa in the building, emptied the snack machines and got the paper out on time.

How long ago that must seem now.

In 2004 when Carol led me into the Joplin Globe newsroom for the first time, I knew I was in the presence of nobility.

Back then, she had more than 20 years at the Globe, after having started newspapering while still a teenager.

The shortest email I have ever received was from Carol, when I inquired whether she still was seeking a full-time reporter.

She wrote back two words, all of three digits -- "I am."

Wow. Busy lady, I thought. I liked her immediately.

I'd applied at the Globe before, but didn't even get an interview. I sent in clippings of my most clever columns and charming feature articles, but that isn't what Carol needed.

So, months later, when Carol took a chance on me, it was only as a stringer to fill in for the "real" reporters.

The Globe was not my first newspaper job, or even my second. It was actually my fourth, or fifth if you count the Navy newspaper I wrote for while in Japan.

The Globe expected excellence.

After many weeks of covering local festivals and one press conference following the death of an Oklahoma jail inmate, the Globe hired me full-time.

In the no-frills newsroom, long rows of desks butted together in clusters of three or four where venerable reporters pounded away at keyboards.

I sat directly across from Wally Kennedy, then a 30-year-man at the Globe. Wally wrote the longstanding Watching Rangeline column and frequently butted heads with legislators on environmental issues.

To my right was the most seasoned cops' reporter I'd ever met -- Jeff Lehr. A search for "Lehr" and "murder" on the Globe site will illustrate what I mean.

To me they were Woodward and Bernstein, and this was the Washington Post. I was sure they'd break the next Watergate story, especially with then-editor Ed Simpson forever anticipating something "hinky" at city hall.

As Internet editor Dave Woods posted the daily lists of "most read" online stories, Wally was first out of his chair to see how his ranked.

Earlier yet, Jeff would grab the paper with the ink still wet to reread his own stories, and could tell from across the room if a comma was out of place.

Several others in the newsroom, including night editor Mike Stair, metro editor Andy Ostmeyer and reporters Debby Woodin, Scott Meeker, Susan Redden and Mike Pound, also had been with the Globe more than 20 years.

Reporters Derek Spellman and Roger McKinney were the newbies, with only about 10 years each. That longevity was the same in every department.

In this business, that's rare.

That dedicated troupe seemed like a family, and would laugh over incidents from years earlier, like the time a rookie reporter concluded a phone call with a death row inmate by exclaiming, "You have a nice day, now."

Together they endured cancer, the death of loved ones, divorce, weddings and the birth of babies --all the while producing a top-notch paper.

Carol is famous for scouring the newsroom at night, seeing who could crank out a quick 10-inch story to fill some white space on Page 3. "Overtime is authorized," she'd say.

Wally tipped me off early to pick up the phone in faux dialog at those times. The ruse seldom worked.

We'd groan, but always come through for the paper.

Globe writers and photographers covered horrific crimes, heartbreaking accidents and unthinkable corruption without ever backing down from asking the tough questions.

I was in awe when I heard Susan Redden ask the leader of Westboro Baptist Church, "So you mean you're going to picket at the funeral even when you know the family doesn't want you there?"

These Globe reporters are tough I thought to myself.

Yet, I sometimes saw them drip silent tears onto their keyboards, like the time the body of brutally murdered 9-year-old Rowan Ford was found stuffed in a sinkhole.

So, it came as no surprise to me when I heard how my former colleagues went to great extremes Sunday, May 22, to get to the Globe office after an EF5 tornado ripped Joplin in two.

Reporter Jeff Lehr stumbled through debris for three hours looking in vain for anyone he could help before finally getting a ride from strangers to the Globe office downtown.

He arrived dazed, homeless and soaking wet, yet sat down and wrote a heartfelt account of riding out the tornado in a tiny foyer closet while many of his neighbors perished.

In his words: "While it shouldn't have surprised me, it did: That I was not alone, that all my neighbors had suffered the same, that their roofs and walls and things were all gone, too. And it began to dawn on me that some might be injured, even dead, and that I might actually be among the fortunate, and that, as such, I needed to do something for those who had not been so lucky."

As the Globe workers began arriving and calling in, it was apparent that 10 lost had their homes. One, page designer Bruce Baillie, lost his life.

In those early hours, those who made it to the Globe that night had no way of knowing the extent of the destruction or number of dead.

I called Jeff at the Globe last week because I simply could not stop thinking about the tragedy that struck the town I loved for four years. Although two weeks passed since the twister, Jeff sounded as if in shock.

"I think we're all suffering from post-traumatic stress," Jeff said.

Five days after the storm, my old boss Carol wrote a heartfelt column about the news' community's response to Joplin's trauma.

Particularly touching, Carol said, was a care package from the Tuscaloosa News staff who were paying a debt forward from the newsroom in Roanoke, Va. The letter explained that since the Virginia Tech shooting incident, the Roanoke news team began a practice of sending support to newsrooms responding to tragedy.

So, it was Tuscaloosa's turn to pay it forward, encouraging Joplin to do its part to pull the community back together.

"The human spirit is an amazing thing to witness," Carol wrote. "And, so is the generosity of those in the newspaper industry who have heard about Joplin's plight."

In 2008, I moved from Joplin to Stockton, which had suffered a similar tornado event five years earlier. I still recall the eerie feeling of walking on Stockton sidewalks, passing empty foundations where houses once stood, finding things such as flattened spoons embedded in the oddest places.

Ironically, Andy called me from the Globe and asked me to write a five-year follow-up story about Stockton's tornado -- what had changed, who left and who stayed.

Many I talked to told me they missed the grand, vintage buildings and 100-year-old trees. Time for them was now measured "before" and "after" the tornado.

Yet, they found pride and unity in rebuilding.

I have no doubt my old friends in Joplin will do the same -- and that the Globe will be hugely responsible for returning normalcy to a city annihilated.