Pomp despite circumstances

1,500 people watch 25 seniors graduate; memorial built from pieces of the school

05/20/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

The Greensburg High School Class of 2007 had one doozy of a senior prank planned, if only the weather had cooperated.

This was no mere TP job.

Tyson Sturgeon and Josh Goodman were going to sneak into the school one night and suspend every chair, every table, every trash can and teacher's desk about 4 feet off the floor, using fishing line tied to the ceiling brackets.

Not just one room, either. "All of them," Tyson said. (They had a lot of fishing line.)

When folks got to school the next day, they'd see a building full of levitating furniture, courtesy of the Class of '07.

Suh-weet.

Of course it never happened. On May 4, a tornado blew through Greensburg and changed everything.

On Saturday, at a graduation ceremony held under tents at the Greensburg golf course, Sen. Pat Roberts called the Class of 2007 "the class of destiny and hope." The superintendent read a letter from President Bush. Photographers swarmed the kids' dressing rooms, and reporters scrambled for interviews.

"It's hard to believe that a little over two weeks ago," said ShaRae Wadel, "we were normal high school seniors."

'Good kids'

Kim McMurry, an English teacher and sponsor of this year's graduating class, describes the kids with one word:

"Ornery."

They like to goof off and have fun, she said. They're pistols. You've got to watch them every second.

But they work hard. "They're just extremely talented, good kids. When they see something needs to be done, they do it."

As seventh-graders, the class held a bake sale to raise money for children who had lost parents in the Sept. 11 attacks.

As juniors, they sold themselves as "slaves" to raise money for the prom, and made more than $2,500. They put on "the most awesome prom ever," Kendra Friesen said.

Their class colors are "John Deere green and yellow -- and chrome," a salute to their rural roots.

They wanted their class motto to be "Git 'er done." But school officials thought they should pick something a little nicer, classier, more mature.

Whatever, they mumbled.

According to the programs passed out at Saturday's graduation, the class motto is: "You only live once, but if lived right, once is enough."

Sounds nice, they agreed. Very mature.

But when co-valedictorian Kelsey Heft finished her speech and prepared to step down from the stage, she remembered something.

"Oh yeah, and one last thing," she said with a sly smile.

"Git 'er done."

The crowd cheered.

'It's like Mayberry'

Most high-schoolers -- many of them in rural communities a lot like Greensburg -- approach graduation feeling like young George Bailey before his angel encounter, before he realizes that it really is a wonderful life:

All they can think about is shaking the dust of their little town off their feet and seeing the world. Getting away. Making it big.

Alex Reinecke, a Greensburg High middle linebacker, golfer and trumpet player who plans to attend Kansas State University this fall, knows the feeling.

"Typically in high schools, you'll hear seniors saying, 'Man, I want to get out of here, get away from my parents, that type of thing.' "

But not here, he said. Not in Greensburg.

While cleaning up the remains of his family home recently, sifting through boards and bricks and mourning the loss of the Mitsubishi Eclipse he and his father had just repainted, Alex heard a neighbor describing Greensburg to a reporter.

"He said, 'It's like Mayberry,' and I thought, 'That's exactly what it is,' " Alex said. "It's small-town America.

"For the most part, all of us want to kind of stay here, in this area. We're all real sad we're graduating, because it means moving away from our friends and people we've known our whole lives."

Alex's father graduated from Greensburg High, he said, and "it was kind of cool to be able to walk the same halls that my dad did.

"I was hoping that my children would be able to walk those same halls, but that can't happen now."

Still, he said, he plans to come home to Greensburg.

"I know it may sound weird to people who aren't from here, but this is where I want to be. This is where I want to raise my family."

'Be thankful, be grateful'

Saturday's graduation ceremony drew more than 1,500 people and countless volunteers. At first, school officials tried to log the donations and other help, but they quickly lost track.

Members of several Rotary clubs, including ones in Wichita, Ulysses, Winfield and Kingman, took charge of the ceremony last week and hauled in tents, tables, chairs and sound systems.

Somebody donated a stage. A group of church ladies from Kingman made a cake for each graduate. Seaboard Foods in Guymon, Okla., brought in enough pork sandwiches to feed the crowd.

"I've honestly lost track," said Greg Soelter, a Rotary member from Ulysses who chaired the activities. "We've got stuff coming from everywhere."

This made for some surreal moments for the 25 graduates as they discovered that the tornado that had wiped their town off the map had also, suddenly and unexpectedly, put them on it.

Like it or not -- and most of them seemed not to -- they were the stars of the show, shaking hands with congressmen and senators and being interviewed while trying to reconnect with friends they hadn't seen since the storm.

"I know some of you are sick of the media being all over the place," McMurry, the class sponsor, told them before the ceremony.

"But please understand that hundreds and hundreds of people you don't even know have made this possible. Be thankful, be grateful, and make sure to tell them how much you appreciate this."

They hardly needed reminding. During a Thursday evening rehearsal at the golf course, Ashton Stout and ShaRae Wadel walked into a nearby building to pick up their caps and gowns and saw a stack of fresh, hot pizzas and tubs filled with water and pop.

"What's this?" Ashton asked.

"A pizza place thought you guys might want something to eat tonight," said Sue Greenleaf, the school counselor.

"Wow," Ashton said. "That's so cool."

"This is all just overwhelming," ShaRae said later. "We want to say thank you, but we don't even know where to start."

ShaRae started by looking up into the heavens. "Thank you," she whispered.

'Bright hope for tomorrow'

Eighteen of Greensburg's 25 graduates lost their homes in the tornado. One student, Taryn Stoltenberg, lost her grandmother. All lost their school and the hope of meeting back there for homecomings and class reunions.

To prepare for Saturday's ceremony, several students drove to the high school and collected bricks from the site. They also found an old Ranger sign -- a cowboy dressed in red, white and blue and sporting a holstered pistol -- in a pile of rubble. They brought everything back to the golf course, and the Rotarians designed a sort of memorial entranceway.

Students passed it as they marched toward the stage, timing their steps to the school band's "Pomp and Circumstance."

Speakers urged them to be courageous and honorable, to be thankful for family and friends, to work hard, to dream big and to realize that life is short.

They know all this already, of course. But they listened.

"Because of who you are and what you've endured, you give us all bright hope for tomorrow," said U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran.

Kara Sutton listened. She was working as a nurse's aide at the local hospital when the tornado hit. She helped transport storm victims and other patients onto buses to get them to safety. Now, more than ever, she wants to be a flight nurse.

"When fear knocks at the door," said Roberts, the senator, "send faith to answer it."

LeVon Crotts listened. He was in Salina for a forensics tournament when the storm hit, and wasn't able to reach his parents until the next morning. He spent that night awake, worried they might be dead.

"We will rebuild the buildings of Greensburg," said Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson. "But the heart and soul of Greensburg are its people. The city of Greensburg is here today. It's already here."

Jared Morford listened, and so did his mother, Raye McCampbell. McCampbell says Jared's done OK since the storm, but he sometimes seems lost.

"He was the kind of kid who could look outside and tell you exactly what time it was," she said. "Now he doesn't know what day it is."

The band played "Tommy" and the Ranger fight song. The students got their diplomas. They smiled and threw their caps in the air.

At the reception, they collected more gifts from people they won't be able to thank -- backpacks filled with MP3 players and other treats, cash, scholarships, gift certificates for letter jackets to replace ones lost in the storm...

Goodman sat down with a plate of food and took a deep breath. He was tired, and grateful (he made sure to say that again), and happy.

And as for that senior prank:

"We'll let the next class do it," he said, smiling. "We'll show them how."

Join the Discussion

The Wichita Eagle is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service