Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud: Greed, Corruption, and the Joplin Tornado
Author: Randy Turner

Chapter 5
We Will Have School

When the Joplin Schools leadership team met at North Middle School the morning of May 24, C. J. Huff, functioning on just a couple of hours of sleep, stood in front of the group and outlined what steps the team would take to get the school district back on its feet.

As Huff recalls, the seven members of the R-8 Board of Education slipped quietly into the room, sat in the back area, and never said a word, not even a whisper.

“They listened and watched as I worked with my team,” Huff said.

At the end of the meeting, Huff made the statement that changed the course of his life. He was the one in charge, as he recalls. Without asking the elected board “and without my team knowing it,” as the meeting was about to break up, the superintendent said, “School starts in 84 days. Let’s get to work.”

No one argued with him. Not one word of objection was raised. Huff credited that to the get-it-done attitude of his team. They probably thought he was crazy to set such an impossible goal, he said, but that was not the impression that everyone had from that meeting.

One person who attended said no one ever thought anything else. It was only C. J. Huff who was making that statement sound as if was the rallying cry that miraculously caused schools to open on August 17.

Huff commandeered a digital countdown clock from his football coach and installed it at North.

“It was symbolically important for our community to see that,” he said. From that day on, Huff would refer to that, both in private conservations and in advertising for his many speaking engagements across the country as the rallying cry that helped get a stunned and shattered community through the horrendous days following the tornado.

The Board of Education, meanwhile, not only did not say a word about Huff’s proclamation, but handed him another tool that R-8 taxpayers would come to regret.

“They never questioned my decision,” Huff later told the Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA) at its annual conference in October 2011. The board, at Huff’s request, also approved adaptation of MSBA Policy DJF, giving Huff the authority to make emergency spending decisions without board approval.

No questions were raised about Huff’s need for such power. “They didn’t hesitate a second. If they hadn’t given me the power,” he said at that October 2011 conference, “the kids might still be at home.”

The board’s faith in his judgment was absolutely vital, Huff said. “If you’re not joined at the hip, you won’t be ready for unknown challenges.”

***

As much as Cunningham Park was a symbol for Mark Rohr and the City of Joplin during the times immediately after the tornado, C. J. Huff and his public relations team decided that press conferences would be held in front of the rubble that was once Joplin High School.

Huff was backed by the same silent Board of Education that had listened meekly the morning of May 24 as he declared that school would start August 17. Six days had passed and this was the first meeting Huff had scheduled with staff. Actually, the staff had held two meetings the previous Wednesday at the old Memorial Middle School building, but Huff had not been there. It would have been much easier for staff to have gathered at the North Middle School gymnasium or at Memorial, but this was also a photo op for Huff, who referred to it as “a family gathering,” but the family needed to stand back several steps to accommodate the national media.

C. J. Huff was playing to a much bigger audience.

I wrote about that “family gathering” in the 2012 book Spirit of Hope: The Year after the Joplin Tornado:

A brisk wind whipped through the gathering crowd as it waited for the superintendent to speak. This was the first meeting of district personnel since the tornado- a family reunion of sorts, and the audience was filled with the same dreadful fears that had taken hold of their lives since 5:41 p.m. on May 22.

Had their colleagues survived? Were the students who had sat in the classrooms a few days before ever going to have a chance to move on to the next grade, or to grow to adulthood?

They also had to worry about their jobs. It was almost a certainty that there would be fewer students whenever school started again. Would there be the need for as many teachers, as many secretarial staff, as many custodians? Was there a possibility that this gathering might be the last time they would ever see each other as co-workers and colleagues?

Though C. J. Huff had cast aside the suit and tie in favor of a maroon baseball cap with a proud “J” for Joplin and looked more like a Sunday golfer than a community leader, it was clear that this was the man in charge.

The face was boyish, something that had concerned some Joplin School District patrons when Huff had been hired. Ironically, the May 2008 board meeting when Huff had first been introduced to the public had been interrupted by the sounding of a tornado siren. Outwardly, the superintendent looked the same, but a closer examination showed the stress of having to deal with a crisis few school administrators had ever faced, the slight redness in eyes that had not been closed many times since the tornado.

After Huff was introduced, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and spoke.

“First of all, it’s good to see the family here. I miss you guys. I want to thank you for making the time to join your Joplin Schools family today as we celebrate life in the midst of destruction.

“Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who have given their lives to defend those principles we hold most dear. I was thinking about this last night and the parallels to our situation are striking. Our soldiers don’t choose the battles they fight. They suit up, show up, and do their jobs. We didn’t sign up for this war either. But true to form, in the past week you have pulled together as a family, supporting one another through prayer, words of encouragement, volunteerism, and actions. No task was more daunting than our primary mission following the tornado last Sunday evening- the mission- locate and account for all of our family members.”

At that point, Huff’s voice began to falter and tears streaked down his face.

“At 3:16 last Friday, I received a text message.” He stopped again.

Someone asked, “Are you all right?” The question was picked up by the microphone.

Huff nodded and continued his sentence, “That indicated that mission was complete. As a result of your diligence and unwavering fortitude in the face of insurmountable challenges, 100 percent of our family is accounted for.”

The whoops, hollers, and applause began, but the news was not as positive as Huff’s words indicated. All of the family members had been accounted for, but not all of them had survived the tornado.

“I personally believe that all things happen for a reason,” Huff continued. “I believe in God and I believe 3:16 last Friday had significance for all of us. It was a great moment of relief for our family, but more significantly, I believe there were biblical implications, as well

“John 3:16 says this, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.”

Huff paused, took a deep breath and collected himself once more. Many in the crowd, understanding the words that would come next, were also fighting tears, some unsuccessfully.

“Today, we grieve the loss of eight members of our family. We lost seven children and one educator. Today, we celebrate that we are all together again in body and in eternal spirit. Please join me in a moment of silence to honor the family members who are no longer with us.”

After the moment of silence, Huff began what he knew would be the most important part of his speech. With all of the death and destruction that had hit Joplin eight days earlier, with all of the school buildings that were damaged and destroyed, Huff had to point his family toward the goal that would pull them all together.

“Schools are at the heart of every community,” Huff continued. “It’s where we go to learn, to be inspired and discover and cultivate those qualities that eventually evolve into our careers, so it is only fitting that our schools are not only an essential part of our recovery, but are helping to lead the charge, working in concert with city, state, and federal officials and we will recover and come back stronger than ever.

“One week and one day ago, we were celebrating graduation and preparing for a flurry of parties and other activities. Today, we find ourselves on the back end of a natural disaster that brought more chaos and havoc than we have ever seen before in our lives.

“Our loss has been great. We must never forget those who died in this battle. And today, we celebrate their lives, and their hopes and dreams. We honor their memories by moving forward, rebuilding, and continuing to take care of one another as a family.

“Taking care of family means being your advocate and helping you make it through this crisis. Several of you have inquired if you still have jobs. Let me assure you, we need you more than ever. It may seem chaotic until we get all of our buildings rebuilt and restored and you might find classes meeting in locations you haven’t expected…but we will have school,” Huff said, emphasizing each of those last four words.

The status of jobs was something that was on all Joplin R-8 staff members’ minds. They had families to take care of, bills to pay. Despite that, none of them ever even thought about the possibility that there would be no school in August.

We were Joplin; we were Missouri. That’s just the way we were brought up.

The “family’ part was also a joke to many of those who gathered in front of what had once been a vibrant home for education.

Six days had passed since C. J. Huff had made what he considered to be a bold promise, but only five days had passed since C.J. Huff let everyone in his family knew that their job was to shut their mouths while he began padding his resume.

***

One of the top priorities for C. J. Huff after the tornado was making sure that any information that came out about the school district came from him or whichever person he delegated to handle the task.

For nearly as much time as they spent developing strategies for dealing with the fallout of the tornado, Huff and his administrative team devised a plan to handle the media.

Huff was not worried about the local media. Not only were television stations on board as partners of his Bright Futures initiative, but he had a direct line to the Joplin Globe, one which, for the most part, allowed him to control whatever message the newspaper delivered about the school system.

The national media was a concern.  Local school districts generally did not have to worry about CBS or Fox or CNN, but what had been determined to be the most devastating tornado to hit the nation in six decades had wall-to-wall national media in Joplin.

While Huff wanted to make sure that he was in control of the message, he wanted to make absolutely certain that no one who worked for him would divert attention from that message. A plan was quickly devised and Huff recorded a message that would be sent to all district employees.

***

Most of my adult life, I have been a reporter, starting with 22 years working for small Southwest Missouri newspapers and continuing for more than a decade after I became a teacher in the Joplin R-8 School District, with a blog called the Turner Report.

While teaching was a full-time job and I spent many early morning and evening hours preparing lessons and grading thousands of written assignments, I was still able to keep up with my writing through searching through court records, news stories, and government documents online and offering commentary about things that were happening, particularly in education.

About a year before the tornado, I had also begun writing blogs on education for the Huffington Post and on politics and education for Daily Kos.

With a 34-year record of journalism, one might naturally think that I would be out in the streets documenting what was going on as the city in which I lived dealt with its greatest challenge. That wasn’t the case, however. I waited out the tornado on the bedroom floor in my apartment, a blanket and pillow pulled over me. I listened as KZRG broadcast live coverage, detailing what had happened to Joplin. And I began writing, sending out a series of small blog posts on the Turner Report until the power went out.

When I awakened the next morning, there was still no power, but I was able to get my iPhone charged and began slowly typing my first national report on the tornado for the Huffington Post.

My area of the city was a few blocks from where the tornado hit and though the apartment complex where I lived had a parking lot full of limbs a couple of hours earlier, it now looked as though there had never been a storm.

At the end of my blog post, I wrote the following:

When morning arrived, we were greeted by a sun that seemed almost foreign in light of what had happened.

And now the waiting begins. Every few moments, I scan through Facebook postings, heartened by messages that indicate my students and former students are alive. So far, none have been listed among the casualties through word of mouth, but it may be only a matter of time. Officials have yet to release the names of any of those who were killed.

The Joplin School District has canceled classes for today and they may well be finished for the school year, which had another nine days to go. Three of our school buildings are gone forever and the school where I teach (East Middle School) no longer has a roof.

Many of my former students received their high school diplomas Sunday afternoon during graduation ceremonies at Missouri Southern State University, commemorating their achievements over the past four years at Joplin High School. Now that ceremony, which should have been a memorable milestone in their young lives, will always be tainted by tragedy. As I write these words, slightly more than 14 hours have passed since the city of Joplin was changed forever.

The welcoming sunshine of just an hour ago has vanished, replaced by darkening clouds and the steady, insistent rumbling of thunder.

And now we wait.

After I sent the blog to Huffington Post, for a brief moment I considered making a foray into the tornado area, gathering detail, and helping bring the Joplin experience to the world, both on Huffington Post and the Turner Report.

The moment passed. Once the power returned, I began providing links and coverage of everything that other news sources were doing about the tornado, including links to homemade video and audio, and news releases from the city, the school district, and various government agencies.

I stayed inside my apartment. The last thing I wanted to do was look at death and destruction. The last thing I wanted to do was to be in the way.

I was completely satisfied with my decision until I received a message from a reporter named Terry Greene Sterling with the Daily Beast, who had read my Huffington Post blog. She started by seeking information and then asked me if I would accompany her and serve as a guide when she arrived in Joplin on Tuesday, May 24.

I did not want to do it. Over the 12 years since I had worked at a newspaper, I had been developing serious problems in talking with people outside of those I encountered while working as a teacher. For the most part, when I left school, I returned to my apartment and spent time writing.

Sterling was finally able to convince me by saying she would like to visit East Middle School with me and take a look at the damage. My aversion to social contact was trumped by my curiosity about what had happened to my school and to my room.

On Tuesday morning, she picked me up, we traveled through Joplin’s neighboring city of Duquesne, where East Middle School was located just outside the city limits and which had been almost destroyed by the tornado. When I arrived at the school, not only was part of the roof gone, but the gymnasium, the commons area, the music rooms, and the pride and joy of the facility, the auditorium, had also vanished.

Had I made my visit the previous day, I would have been able to check on my room, but boards had been placed over the windows.

In the back lot, behind the crumbled remains of the auditorium, an American flag stuck out of the rubble, an image I will never forget.

After we left East Middle School, Sterling and I took the back roads to the area behind the 15th Street Wal-Mart, another building that had been totaled by the tornado. An entire apartment complex had also been destroyed.

I jumped at the chance to go into the apartment complex because I was concerned about one of my students, a tall, lanky redheaded eighth grade boy who could be a pain sometimes, but who was basically a good kid. Facebook reports had indicated that no one had been able to locate him since Sunday.

While that was no surprise since there were many people who had lost their homes and had checked into motels or moved in with family members, I still wanted to make sure. His apartment was one of those that had been decimated.

 So Sterling went into the apartments with the objective of interviewing those who were collecting anything they could salvage from the rubble, while I was asking people about my student. It did not take long to figure out that no one knew who he was. Many of those who had lived in the apartments had no idea who lived in the apartment next to them, much less a boy who lived elsewhere in the complex.

At the last stop, Sterling and I talked to a man who was working with his daughter removing items from a lower-level apartment. I asked about my student. “I don’t know him,” he said, as he loaded a box into the back of his car. I thought it was another dead end, but the man continued talking, “The apartment manager said everyone was accounted for and nobody was killed.”

Whatever relief I felt from hearing the good news was immediately dampened. “My son was killed,” he said. I didn’t know what to say.

As he told the story, I realized I had read about his son, a young man named Chris Lucas, 27, a manager at Pizza Hut, who saved his employees and customers, but was killed.

“He has two little girls,” Terry Lucas said, adding that another child was on the way. He kept talking and Sterling and I listened. As both of us had discovered during decades in journalism, sometimes people needed to talk; this was one of those times.

After hearing Terry Lucas’ story, Sterling returned me to my apartment complex, dropping me off in the parking lot. I climbed the stairs to my apartment, opened the door, and being a creature of habit, I picked up my phone and checked the messages.

The only message was from my boss, Joplin R-8 Superintendent C. J. Huff. The recorded message, which was sent to all district employees, warned us that we were not to say a word to the media unless we had received permission from Kim Vann, the district’s director of community development, who was handling all media inquiries.

If we spoke to the media, Huff said, we would be guilty of insubordination and subject to dismissal.

I found it ironic that the message had been left while I was not only talking to the media, but taking the media on a guided tour.

It was one more sign and there would be many over the next few years that C. J. Huff intended to control the message and no one was going to stand in his way.

***

The threats of what would happen if teachers spoke to the media continued over the next few days.

Teachers were called in to the old Memorial Middle School building on Wednesday, May 25, for a briefing on what was going on.

After the “moment for celebration” that began all meetings held by anyone in the Huff Administration, Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer made it clear to us. “The media are not your friends; they are the enemy.”  If we spoke to anyone in the media without having it cleared by Kim Vann, “you will be fired,” Besendorfer said.

An e-mail was sent out to staff by Traci House, director of technology, on Friday, May 27:

Per Dr. Huff:

 

We have reports of district employees continuing to talk to/give interviews to media. ALL MEDIA COMMUNICATION MUST BE DIRECTED TO KIM VANN, WHO IS CURRENTLY LOCATED AT NORTH MIDDLE SCHOOL. NO EXCEPTIONS.

 

After my excursion with Sterling, I followed Huff’s orders. If someone from the media called me for an interview, I directed the call to Kim Vann. None of them ever called me back. I was not one of the people the Huff Administration wanted to spread his message. That did not bother me a bit.

What I did wonder about was how Huff felt about my continuing to write since people across the nation were reading my updates on Huffington Post and I had a sizable following on the Turner Report.

Could I be fired for talking to myself?

At the time, I laughed about that. There would come a time when I would not find it so amusing.

 

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