By Marion A. Ellis
Special to The Globe
DURHAM, N.C. —
When I graduated from Joplin High School in 1956, the commencement speaker was the superintendent of schools, just as he had been for years. This year, the president of the United States will do the honors, and I can only imagine the excitement those high school seniors will feel when Mr. Obama stands before them.
It won’t be the president’s first visit to Joplin. He spoke at a memorial service the week after the May 22 tornado.
The class of 1956 was the first to contain African-Americans after the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Two were in the Joplin High School class of 1956 along with 377 whites. There is no mention of this important fact in the 1956 high school yearbook. They are simply listed along with the others in alphabetical order.
Joplin is not a big city, only about 50,000. It usually doesn’t expect to be the center of national attention. Its most well-known previous claim to fame may be that it was mentioned in the famous song “Route 66.”
Other improbable national mentions have included hometown visits in various years by its most famous native sons, actors Bob Cummings and Dennis Weaver. Cummings had a hit television sitcom series in the 1950s and Weaver played Marshal Matt Dillon’s limping deputy Chester on “Gunsmoke,” which is still being reprised some late nights on obscure cable channels. (In actuality, Weaver did not limp and was a champion high school hurdler.)
Another Joplin factoid is that it was the home of songwriter Percy Wenrich, who wrote “Moonlight Bay.” Poet, novelist and screenwriter Langston Hughes was born in Joplin. And the city held the ignominy of being the scene of opera star Marian Anderson being turned away from the town’s leading hotel because she was of the wrong color.
Joplin also was the hometown of murderer Billy Cook. Cook, who had grown up in a cave in Joplin, killed six people on a 1950 rampage that covered three states. He was caught after murdering a family of five and executed on Dec. 12, 1952, when he was 23 years old.
The episode was the subject of a 1953 movie “The Hitch-Hiker.” It was directed by Ida Lupino and starred Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien. William Talman played Billy, who had the words “H-A-R-D L-U-C-K” tattooed on his knuckles. The whole sordid story is something that Joplin would just as soon forget.
As a young reporter for The Joplin Globe, I interviewed Bob Cummings and managed to insult him. He had come home to visit relatives and we met in the Dugout Lounge at the Mickey Mantle Holiday Inn. (Mantle had grown up in nearby Commerce, Okla., and had played shortstop for the baseball farm club Joplin Miners before going on to the New York Yankees where he switched to center field and the rest is history. Years later I asked him why he had not signed with the St. Louis Cardinals instead of the hated Yankees, and he said he had tried out for the Cardinals but had been told he wasn’t good enough).
Anyway, I had learned that Cummings’ show was ending and I asked him what he was going to do now. He was offended because I didn’t know the show was being syndicated and he said haughtily: “Well, I’m not dead yet. We’re going into syndication.” I still didn’t know what that meant, but I pretended that I did and said, “Congratulations.”
Obama will probably be told some of Joplin’s historic past as the center of lead and zinc mines, and he will be shown some of the damage from the May 22, 2011, tornado and some of the rebuilt houses, many by volunteers, including a whole block included in ABC television’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” (The program aired Jan. 13, 2012, and ABC promptly canceled the series.) The tornado registered winds up to 200 mph, killed 161 persons and destroyed a third of the city. A tornado was commonplace in the area during each springtime when I was growing up during the 1950s, but none had ever reached this intensity.
Obama also may be told that Brad Pitt, who grew up in nearby Springfield, Mo., and his partner Angelina Jolie donated $500,000 toward reconstruction efforts. And that Sheryl Crow who is from Kennett, Mo., auctioned off her vintage 1959 Mercedes and gave the $260,000 proceeds to the tornado relief fund.
In fact, tens of thousands of people have visited Joplin since the tornado to do what they can to rebuild the town.
Marion A. Ellis, of Durham, N.C., is the author or co-author of numerous books, including a biography of former Duke University President Terry Sanford and a history of the American College of Trial Lawyers of Irvine, Calif. He is a former Joplin resident.