Special Reports

May 9, 2007

Greensburg senior signs with Friends

Her signing of a letter of intent to attend Friends University drew a bigger-than-usual crowd. No wonder. In Greensburg, good news has been hard to find since Friday night's ravaging tornado.

Her signing of a letter of intent to attend Friends University drew a bigger-than-usual crowd. No wonder. In Greensburg, good news has been hard to find since Friday night's ravaging tornado.

So when basketball player Kelsey Heft signed on the dotted line Tuesday, it was a chance for some emotionally and physically exhausted townspeople to take a moment to feel better.

About 18 classmates from Greensburg High and 30 townspeople looked on as Heft, smiling widely, made it official in front of what is left of the high school she attended for almost four years.

She's leaving -- probably in August -- for Wichita.


Wait, Heft hadn't given any thought to leaving Greensburg. And when she was reminded that attending Friends will most assuredly involve leaving Greensburg, she sounded reluctant.

"I'm not going to want to leave here," she said. "There's going to be so much to do here for months and months. Something to help someone. It'll be hard to leave when I know I could be doing something for someone."

As the tornado approached, Heft, who had just arrived home from a track meet in Bucklin, took cover in her basement with her parents, a younger sister and two elderly neighbors. They never saw the tornado. But they heard it and felt it.

"You could just feel the pressure against your body," Heft said. "My ears popped. The pressure, that's what I remember the most."

Heft's house, on the east edge of Greensburg, was mostly spared. The roof over the porch was blown off, but other than that there wasn't much damage.

So, until Heft and her family saw a friend running past their house frantically after the tornado had passed, they knew nothing of its massive destruction.

"He was from the other side of town, and he just came sprinting past us saying, 'My house is gone, my house is gone, my house is gone!' " Heft said. "He must have been in complete shock. He looked right at us, but it didn't even seem like he was seeing us."

It seems like so long ago. Her town is mostly gone now, and Heft still can't believe what she doesn't see.

"The pictures you see on TV and in the paper don't even do it justice," she said. "To be able to stand on Main Street and see in a straight line all the way to the other end of town...."

Her voice trailed off.

Heft's role in Greensburg now is simple -- she's an inspiration. She has always been one of those people who emphasize the positive, and those people are in high demand.

So she smiles in the face of destruction and loss.

"You have to look forward, not backward," Heft said.

When she looks back, Heft sees pain, sadness and carnage. But if she looks forward, there is hope and possibilities.

"Long term, things are going to be just the same in this town as they've always been, maybe better," Heft said. "We all hear the people who say that Greensburg is never going to come out of this. But we're eventually going to have a brand-new school, a brand-new Main Street, a brand-new highway through town. It'll be the same as before Friday. Everybody will come together."

"Before Friday" has taken on added significance in Greensburg. Before Friday there was a peaceful calm, like there is in most small towns where people go about their daily lives without calamity.

But when that tornado started to form to the southwest of town late Friday evening, the calm was lifted. Sirens sounded, people headed for shelter. They prepared for a storm.

They got one of the most destructive tornadoes in the state's history.

It took the house of Heft's 94-year-old great grandmother, Lois Seacat, off its foundation.

Heft was with her grandmother, Sherrell Heft, when they first saw the destruction to Sherrell's childhood home. It was the toughest thing Kelsey has been through yet.

"The first thing she wanted to do was get in that house and get out as much as she could," Kelsey said.

Authorities deemed it too dangerous, but one of Kelsey's aunts did get into the house long enough to recovered Seacat's wedding ring. Seacat suffered minor injuries and is in Pratt Regional Medical Center.

There are hundreds of unfolding human dramas in Greensburg. Strangely, all of the tearing apart has, Kelsey believes, built a stronger community bond.

That's why she chose to sign her letter of intent in front of the high school and not do so in Wichita, as was suggested.

"Actually, we had arranged for me to sign the letter with Friends on Monday," Heft said. "But things have been a little chaotic around here."

The signing was symbolic for Heft. It represented not just a commitment to Friends, but to her hometown.

"This is my school," she said, careful to use the present tense. "We're having graduation here, too. We could have moved it to another town, but I talked to some of my friends and this is our town. If we have to have graduation in a park with people having to stand, then that's better to us."

Heft spends her days checking on friends and offering whatever help she can. People are working non-stop to dig out from this tragedy. Heft is happy to help them dig.

Her biggest value, though, is that smile. It's one that comes naturally, even in the rubble. Even as the only town she has ever called home lies flattened.

It's an indestructible smile amidst all of the destruction.

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