As we honor our graduates this Sunday, I wanted to share with you a part of President Obama’s commencement address given on May 21st to the graduates of Joplin High School, one year after a devastating tornado tore through the town and killed 161 people. Two of those killed were Bill and Sarah Anderson, members of the 26th and Connecticut Church of Christ in Joplin. The president singled out their son, Quentin, one of those graduating in the class of 2012, during his speech. You can see a story from the Christian Chronicle which includes a link to the president’s whole speech at this web link: http://www.christianchronicle.org/blog/2012/05/church-member-future-harding-students-journey-draws-president-obamas-attention/
Last year, the road that led you here took a turn that no one could’ve imagined. Just hours after the class of 2011 walked across this stage, the most powerful tornado in six decades tore a path of devastation through Joplin that was nearly a mile wide and thirteen long. In only 32 minutes, it took thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and 161 of your neighbors, your friends, and your family members. It took Will Norton, who had just left this auditorium with a diploma in his hand. It took Lantz Hare, who should’ve received his diploma next year.
By now, most of you have probably relived those 32 minutes again and again. Where you were. What you saw. When you knew for sure that it was over. The first contact you had with someone you love. The first day you woke up in a world that would never be the same. And yet, the story of Joplin is the story of what happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks that followed. As your city manager, Mark Rohr, has said, the people here chose to define the tragedy “not by what happened to us, but by how we responded…”
In a city with countless stories of unthinkable courage and resilience over the last year, there are some that still stand out – especially on this day. By now, most of you know Joplin High senior Quinton Anderson, who’s probably embarrassed that someone’s talking about him again. But I’m going to talk about him anyways, because in a lot of ways, Quinton’s journey has been Joplin’s journey.
When the tornado struck, Quinton was thrown across the street from his house. The young man who found him couldn’t imagine that Quinton would survive such injuries. Quinton woke up in a hospital bed three days later. It was then that his sister Grace told him that both their parents had been lost to the storm.
Quinton went on to face over five weeks of treatment, including emergency surgery. But he left that hospital determined to carry on; to live his life, and to be there for his sister. Over the past year, he’s been a football captain who cheered from the sidelines when he wasn’t able to play. He worked that much harder so he could be ready for baseball in the spring. He won a national scholarship as a finalist for the High School Football Rudy Awards, and he plans to study molecular biology at Harding University this fall.
Quinton has said that his motto in life is “Always take that extra step.” Today, after a long and improbable journey for Quinton, for Joplin, and for the entire class of 2012, that extra step is about to take you towards whatever future you hope for; toward whatever dreams you hold in your hearts.