May 10, 2014

Greensburg woman, 81, perseveres in hard years after tornado, husband’s death

Few small towns ever get the attention this town got after it disintegrated seven years ago. Sarah Schmidt escaped nearly all attention.

Few small towns ever get the attention this town got after it disintegrated seven years ago. Sarah Schmidt escaped nearly all attention.

On May 4, 2007, her town of 1,500 was blown to bits by a tornado, nearly every stick, roof, window and door.

Twelve people died in the storms, including her husband, Harold. The cars in town all looked like they’d been sand-blasted in hell.

President George W. Bush came to the town – twice. TV camera people hung out in Greensburg for months or came back periodically for years. They did national morning shows, documentaries, tornado disaster follow-up stories, Greensburg tornado anniversary stories.

Sarah Schmidt, a farm wife and great-grandmother, lived in a government-issued trailer for a while and then went to work as a checker at Dillons. No heroic headlines for her.

Until now, no one had photographed her visiting Harold’s tombstone at the north end of town, a visit she makes three, four or five times every week.

Schmidt lost Harold, the shoes off her feet, all the photos of her children growing up and her entire hometown.

And then, because of her view about self-reliance, she took that Dillons job, at just above minimum wage. She opens the Greensburg Dillons herself at 5 a.m. She did it to make ends meet.

That 81-year-old employee you see at the register as you stand in line? That’s Schmidt.

They don’t make documentaries about grocery store clerks like her.

Maybe they ought to.

12 neighbors

Harold and Sarah Schmidt had climbed down to their basement just as a roar of wind blew outside.

When the lights went out in the basement, Harold took a few steps toward where he had flashlights stored, and that put him right where he was mortally injured.

The whole house lifted up and turned in the air, like a spaceship taking off. Sarah looked up where the ceiling had been and saw lightning zigzagging in open sky. Hailstones smacked into her arms and legs.

She heard the screech of steel scraping against concrete. When the tornado passed, she saw Harold’s 1-ton Dodge flatbed truck sticking nose first in the basement, right beside her.

“There’s a truck in our basement,” she said.

“I know,” Harold said. “It’s on me.”

That’s the last thing he ever said.

He was proud of that pickup. He’d bought it at an auction and had it parked in front of the house, where he tinkered with it. At 77, he was still farming full time with one of their sons. He had hoped to use the truck to haul hay.

Sarah tried to find a wood post or something to pry the truck off him, but she’s a small woman.

She tried to climb out of that hole in the ground to get help but couldn’t do it.

So she began to scream for help. She’s not much for screaming, she said.

Within minutes, 12 neighbors who had also lost their homes began to jump into that hole with her. It seemed like it took them forever, she said. But they lifted the truck off Harold. She saw blood all over him.

The men made her get out of that hole. They’d brought a ladder, and she climbed it to get out. The men put Harold on that same ladder, using it as a stretcher, and lifted him out. Sarah walked across the yard barefoot, over broken glass and shredded bits of wood, because apparently the tornado that left her alive in the basement had somehow stripped her of her shoes.

They wouldn’t let her ride in the ambulance with Harold. Rescuers were finding so many dead and wounded people that they decided there was no room in any ambulance except for victims. So Sarah rode away from the hole in the ground on the tailgate of a pickup full of other homeless people.

A granddaughter who found her among the homeless gave her her own shoes and clothes, and then they tried to find out where Harold might have ended up. They found him in Pratt, a long ride by car, and Sarah lived in that hospital room with him for the next five surgeries and 10 days.

He died on May 14 seven years ago.

‘I’d say no’

They buried Harold. And even before they buried him, Sarah found out the National Guard had buried nearly everything she and Harold had ever owned.

Her kids and neighbors had looked around the hole in the ground on South Main Street where she and Harold had lived since 1951. All they found that was salvageable was Harold’s Bible. Sarah kept it. The bulldozers overseen by the National Guard scooped away the rest.

So now Sarah Schmidt faced certain decisions. When you lose everything, Sarah said, don’t dwell on anything.

“What good does that do?”

Sarah is the matriarch of a western Kansas farm family. Most farm people from western Kansas know what that means. It means an 81-year-old lady like Sarah Schmidt can stand out in the sun for a long time on a day above 95 degrees, like the other day when we visited her, and she didn’t think it was hot outside. Not even close.

It means she grew up working all the time, even as a kid. It means work becomes like breathing. You do both all the time.

More to the point, she said this week, it means you can lose your husband, be suddenly alone, all your belongings gone and also be surrounded by four children and 16 grandchildren – and now nine great-grandchildren – and yet none of the children who love you will dare ask whether they can take you in and support you. Nope.

“The reason none of them asked is that they all knew what I’d say,” Sarah said. “They knew I’d say no.”

Hers is a close family, Sarah said.

“My kids would do anything for me. But they knew I was determined that I was not gonna get to a place where someone took care of me. I was gonna take care of myself.”

‘Where there’s a need’

Sarah is a small person with white hair, and her body tilts just a bit to one side when she walks. But she walks fast.

Anyone who’s ever run a store register with a line of customers snaking away from it knows how stressful that job is, but at the register the other day, Sarah’s hands were flying, and nobody had to wait long. She looked at people politely, with a pair of unusually alert eyes.

Bob Dixson, the mayor of Greensburg, has known Sarah Schmidt for a long time. He said that what Sarah did next, after becoming a homeless widow, was the same thing she did all her life.

“A disaster like the tornado can magnify everybody’s emotions, and you then see: The people who do the most good are people like her, who are at peace with their emotions,” Dixson said.

“She’d lost her husband, but everything she did afterward was always about somebody else. Where there’s a need, and a bake sale, Sarah bakes for the bake sale. Where there’s someone who is hurting and needs calling upon, Sarah calls upon that person.”

For a long time after the tornado, Sarah lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer. And she volunteered 40 hours a week at the Salvation Army, helping other people rebuild their stores of belongings.

And then a little job came open at the FEMA trailer that housed the Kiowa County Courthouse.

All she needs

“What I decided to do was just not dwell on what I’d lost,” she said. “And, yeah, sometimes that was hard.

“But I’d read a little Scripture and asked the Lord to let me know what he wanted me to do.”

She can’t immediately name any Bible passage that is her favorite, she said, but that’s because there are so many good ones in there. The whole Book of James – she likes that book. She pretty much likes all the psalms and the whole New Testament, but there’s more good in there than just those, she said.

Whenever she felt like crying, she’d read a little and talk to the Lord, “and I’d tell myself, ‘Don’t be negative, Sarah. Be positive.’ ”

After the tornado, the records in the courthouse were all wet from the rain and were getting musty. So the county hired her to help clean up those old records. She did that for a while, and then the Dillons store, one of the linchpin businesses in town, announced that it needed another clerk. She applied. And got that job.

So, starting about five years ago at age 76, she worked about 64 hours a week, partly at the courthouse, partly at the Dillons. She would go from one job in the morning to the other job in the afternoon.

After a few months, the job at the courthouse came to an end, and she worked nearly 40 hours a week at the Dillons every week, opening at 5 a.m.

It pays just north of minimum wage, she said. Not much. She’s thinking of giving it up this summer. Or maybe not.

She rebuilt a house on the same spot where she’d lived with Harold. It has chairs, a divan, flowers, Harold’s Bible – and photos of her grandkids. All she needs.

(Note to Sarah’s family: The one thing she wishes for is a little more time with grandchildren.)

There have been a few times, when she was working in the Dillons, that another tornado warning went off. And she found herself quietly grinning inside, watching some other people get nervous.

“I’m not gonna go stand out in a tornado, and I’ll take shelter, but I’m not gonna get upset when a warning goes off.”

At peace

At the cemetery at the northeast end of town, she sits on Harold’s gray gravestone, which has both his and her names and birth dates carved into it.

“I put my name on there because I didn’t want to have my kids have to buy another stone when my turn comes,” she said.

Beside Harold’s gravestone, there’s a smaller stone marking the grave of their son Melvin Dean Schmidt.

Melvin was born in 1959 and lived 24 hours. They had not even made it out of the hospital when he died of sudden infant death syndrome. That was hard.

She comes out here and talks to Harold every week, three or four times.

She relates this the other day, sitting on his stone, with the relentless western Kansas sun beating down on her white hair and signs of drought all around in the neighboring fields. The May wheat looks stressed and stands barely more than 7 inches above dry soil.

That’s not the only sign of stress. A block or so away are holes in the ground where homes used to be.

Greensburg had hopes of thriving after the storm and tried to sell itself as a place where people could live in brand-new energy-efficient buildings, with western Kansas rural values. But as Dixson, the mayor, said, the population is a little more than half of what it was before the storm, about 800.

“I come out here and tell Harold the same things I always talked about,” Sarah said. “What’s going on. How the kids are. I ask him what he thinks.”

She looks across the headstones. Graves of many people she knew.

“It’s not like I need to tell him anything,” she said with a grin. “He’s up there. So he sees how everybody’s doing.”

She took those jobs, and worked long hours, because she was drawing only about $945 a month from Social Security.

The thought that she had a family of children who would drop everything to help her – well.

Living off somebody else is no way to make a living. There are things worse than deprivation.

“I never want to own stuff that’ll blow away in another storm,” she said.

“But I won’t give up my independence.”

She still gets down on some days. But on most days, like this day, she feels at peace.

“I won’t live in the past.

“Or dwell on what I lost.”

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