President Barack Obama praised the resilience of Joplin residents and the volunteers who stood by them during commencement exercises for Joplin High School's Class of 2012.
Graduation ceremonies were held on May 21 at the Leggett and Platt Athletic Center on the Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) campus, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the May 22, 2011, tornado that hit Joplin.
The storm, described by Obama as the most powerful on record in six decades, left memories of first phone calls and first steps in its aftermath. Obama cited Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr's statement that people chose to define the event "not by what happened to us, but by how we responded."
"You had to grow up quickly," Obama said. "You learned you can't always predict what life has in store.
"In your next stage of the journey, you will see cruelty and sometimes bad luck," Obama said. "You will see people build themselves up by tearing others down. But you're from Joplin. You will remember, you will know, just how many people there are who see life differently, those who are guided by kindness and quiet service."
Coming to Joplin, a city of 50,000, has been an equal number of perfect strangers, helping and asking nothing in return. Obama recalled a Japanese man who came to show his appreciation for America's response to the March 11, 2011, tsunami and "pay it forward."
Obama mentioned the Colorado man who drove in with his chainsaws to help, and the University of Missouri football team who came with an 18-wheeler of supplies. One player dug in the debris of a woman's home until he found her purse with the few dollars she had left.
"That's what you'll remember. Because you're from Joplin," Obama said. "You will always know that it's always possible for a community to come together when it matters most. After all, a lot of you could've spent your senior year scattered throughout different schools, far from home. But Dr. Huff asked everybody to pitch in so that school started on time, right here in Joplin. He understood the power of this community, and he understood the power of place."
Obama praised the cheering every time a business reopened and the growing pride in the community. Even if the graduates leave, Obama said Joplin will never leave them, that they have become family with the people in the audience.
"My deepest hope for all of you is that as you begin this new chapter in your life, you'll bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel, to everything you do," Obama said. "You can serve as a reminder that we're not meant to walk this road alone, that we're not expected to face down adversity by ourselves. We need God. We need each other. We are important to each other, and we're stronger together than we are on our own.
"America only succeeds when we all pitch in and pull together, and I'm counting on you to be leaders in that effort, because you're from Joplin and you've already defied the odds."
The 431 students in the 124th graduating class of Joplin High School had the most unconventional year after the May 22, 2011, tornado. Senior class president declared, "I'm proud to be a member of the North Park Mall graduates of 2012," referring to the temporary location of school.
The ceremony represented a celebration of overcoming. The word "tornado" was not even mentioned for the first half hour, until Dr. Kerry Sachetta, Joplin High School principal, asked classmates to remember two students killed by the storm.
Superintendent Dr. C.J. Huff, who received a standing ovation from the crowd, told the graduates they were joined by millions who have followed their progress.
"You have been supported greatly by good Samaritans around the globe," Huff said. "You have been supported by a new extended family, an army of volunteers. You've given back by being an example. On Aug. 17, you came to school and went to work. [On that day], Joplin High School had become America's high school, and on this day, you become America's graduates."
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon also spoke at the commencement, recalling that he spoke one year ago to MSSU graduates, one day before the storm hit.
"All that you have achieved reflects your character," Nixon said. "It also reflects the character of the community, a common optimism, believers, fighters, a community that never gave up. With hope in its heart and steel in its spine, Joplin has come back stronger than ever."
Nixon said Joplin's story was so compelling that others felt they came to be part of the rebuilding.
"Brick by brick, board by board, Joplin rises every day, and the sun sets on a better place," Nixon said. "You forever stand as an example as the best of our nation and the best of us."
Nixon praised Obama for coming to Joplin shortly after the storm, pledging the country would stand with the community at every step.