I’m from Joplin.
A year ago today, I was in my home with my wife and our two small children, staying dry on a stormy Sunday and marveling at the strength of the wind and rain across the rooftops of my neighbors’ houses. Half a mile to the northwest, a tornado was touching down, and in the next half hour it would cut a swath through my community – my hometown – that would change our world forever.
In the last year, it has been impossible to tell a story without hearing a story about the tornado. It has become a part of everything for us here in Joplin. It is the story behind every business opening and ribbon cutting, every economic initiative and development plan. It is the reason for every new home, every new duplex, every new apartment. It is our world.
In the last year, the people of Joplin have heard a lot of inspirational speeches. People from across the world have come to our small, southwest Missouri community and have told us their stories and encouraged us to stand strong. After a time, those words can ring hollow for us; we are the Show-Me state. We have seen inspiration first-hand. We’ve seen a world where people are kind and good, where man reaches out to man simply for the sake of making the world a better place. We have seen charity beyond anything that we could have imagined.
We have been inspired by true greatness, and next to that kind of heroism, speeches mean very little.
When President Obama came to Joplin for a memorial service the week after the May 22, 2011, tornado, I can honestly tell you I don’t remember what he said. I was there. I stood at the front of the balcony in Missouri Southern State University’s Taylor Auditorium, in awe that our nation’s president had come to give Joplin strength; I took pictures as he hugged and comforted the families of the victims before he left. But I don’t remember what he said.
Last night, Obama came back to Joplin. He gave the commencement address to the 2012 graduating class of Joplin High School – the “Northpark Mall class of 2012,” as one student said – and again, I was there. But this time I remember what he said. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget it.
It wasn’t a lip service speech. I’ve heard a lot of those. They’re the “Joplin, you’re awesome!” speeches, the kinds of speeches that commend us for our strength and our resiliency and tell us that we’re the greatest people in the world. Gov. Jay Nixon’s address, for instance, had that very quality, that kind of AC/DC, fists-in-the-air spirit. He did it well.
But President Obama gave a different kind of speech. He spoke to a different aspect of the character of the people of Joplin, one that until now I had not been aware of. He gave a speech that I will never forget.
And in it he said, “You’re from Joplin.”
It wasn’t a battle cry. It wasn’t something to congratulate ourselves about. It was a matter of simple fact, a call to remember: We are from Joplin, the place where charity and giving and selflessness found a home after May 22, 2011. And no matter where we are in the world, no matter the adversity we face or the cruelty we may experience, Obama said we would remember what love and compassion and challenge truly mean.
“As you begin the next stage in your journey, wherever you’re going, whatever your goal is, it’s safe to say you will encounter greed, and selfishness, and ignorance, and cruelty, and sometimes just bad luck,” he said. “You’ll meet people who believe that looking after others is just for suckers. But you’re from Joplin. So you will remember, you will know just how many people there are … who are guided by kindness and generosity and quiet service. You’ll remember that in a town of 50,000 people, nearly 50,000 more came in to help the weeks after the tornado – perfect strangers who’d never met you and didn’t ask for anything in return. …
“That’s what you’ll remember. Because you’re from Joplin.” Mr. President, I’m from Joplin. And I will remember.