In a normal year, the fall issue of Crossroads magazine would have focused on Homecoming activities, says Rhonda Clark.
But 2011 was far from a normal year for the Joplin community.
On the evening of May 22 – at 5:41 p.m. – an EF-5 tornado tore a deadly six-mile path through town, claiming 161 lives and decimating thousands of homes and businesses.
In the days and weeks that followed, Missouri Southern became an integral part of the city’s relief efforts. Clark, ’00, then then an assistant professor in the Communication Department at Missouri Southern and editor of Crossroads magazine, says it was obvious that the university would have a story to tell.
“(Alumni Director) Lee Elliff Pound had contacted me that summer because she saw a need in the Missouri Southern community among those who had lost quite a bit in the tornado,” says Clark, ’00.
“We did a newsletter that went out to alumni asking for donations to a fund to help faculty, staff and students affected by the tornado. In doing that and being on campus at that time, I saw there was a story we had to tell that was uniquely Missouri Southern.”
Work began that summer on the issue that would focus on the tornado and its aftermath. Some students even volunteered that summer to get to work creating content for the publication even though they weren’t taking classes.
Ten years later, former students who contributed to that 50-page issue say that the experience is one they’ve continued to carry with them
“Rhonda called me with assignments (for the magazine), and it really marked a change in my life. It gave me a purpose,” says Willie Brown, then a non-traditional student who had yet to re-enroll for classes that fall. “I didn’t think of myself as a professional photographer until I went to college.”
Brown says his own home near 20th Street and Murphy Avenue sustained serious damage, but taking photographs of firemen, doctors and local residents who shared stories about that night with the magazine was a humbling experience.
“You couldn’t talk to anybody on campus or in Joplin who didn’t know someone who had been directly affected,” says Lakin Larimore, ’13, who now works in marketing for a local construction company. “Everybody felt it and wanted to get involved and help tell these stories.”
Kisa Clark, ’11, who is now a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon, helped serve as a liaison for Diane Sawyer’s ABC News team in the days after the tornado.
“As a budding journalist, it woke me up to the realities of what the job could be,” she says.
She later joined her fellow Crossroads staff members to put the magazine together.
“For someone who hadn’t worked on the magazine much at that point, I remember it being very intense, and I was super impressed with the team we had and what we put together,” Kisa Clark says. “We put together a publication about an important event in the history of our town. It was a horrific event, but I’m proud that as students we were able to use our skills.”
Nathan Mills, ’12, now design editor for The Joplin Globe newspaper, says working on stories in the aftermath of the tornado deeply informed his perspective on journalism.
“The first story I was assigned was on an alum who was directly affected by the tornado,” he says. “I reached out but never got an answer. When we finally connected, she told me that it was such a traumatic experience she didn’t want to talk about it.”
Mills, who also shared his own story of survival in the issue, could understand where she was coming from.
“I didn’t want to talk about it either,” he says. “But (working on this issue) gave me an opportunity to empathize with the people I was talking with. As a reporter, when you’re able to empathize it can make subjects open up more and make a story better.”
Looking back, Larimore says the experience stressed the importance of print publications.
“They can be the backbone of a community, with their ability to share people’s story,” she said.
The students’ work would go on to receive three awards from MarCom, which recognizes excellence in marketing and communication. They received a Platinum Award for writing and Gold Awards in the design and magazine categories.
“It was a tough issue, but I can’t stress enough how proud I was of our students, and many of them were directly impacted by the tornado,” says Rhonda Clark. “They saw the importance of what we were doing. They wanted to be a part of it and help cover these stories.”