By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Jordan Herr graduated from Joplin High School in 2010, the ceremony wasn’t televised. Nor were K-9 dogs and White House Secret Service agents present.
“At first I didn’t feel like I was at a graduation, especially in comparison to mine,” Herr said in reference to Monday night’s commencement exercises at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University. “It’s totally different.”
Herr, her sister, Jenna, and other family members were in attendance to see her brother, Jeff, graduate with the class of 2012.
“But I think they deserve it,” Jordan Herr said. “They deserve to have the president (and) the governor come speak. They’ve been through a lot.”
Jeff Herr was among 431 graduating seniors who completed a year at a temporary high school at Northpark Mall after an EF-5 tornado destroyed Joplin High School last May 22.
That location earned them the moniker “Northpark Mall graduates of 2012” from senior class president Chloe Hadley, the first of several commencement speakers Monday night.
It also made the class the focus of worldwide attention.
“We went to a school in a mall, Katy Perry announced our senior prom, and the president of the United States is at our graduation,” said Siri Ancha, a student graduating summa cum laude, during her address.
The commencement exercises were likewise the subject of national attention, Superintendent C.J. Huff said in his remarks to a capacity crowd and those watching the televised ceremony.
“You are joined by millions who have followed you every step of the way,” he said.
Carol Dyer, a 1988 Joplin High School graduate, had mixed emotions about seeing her daughter, Tara Francisco, graduate in such a unique ceremony.
“It’s a very emotional day,” Dyer said. “I lost my school, and she lost hers. It’s been quite a year. And here I am, getting ready to hear the president at my daughter’s graduation. I’m really proud of her, but I’m also really excited that he’s here, because it will be something she can tell her children about.”
Despite the obvious differences, it was a commencement ceremony very much like any other. The JHS band played “Pomp and Circumstance.” Michelle Barchak, a student graduating summa cum laude, thanked her parents and teachers for their support. School board members named each student as they presented diplomas.
One of them, David Willard, served in the Joplin ROTC color guard at last year’s commencement ceremony. He barely made it home before the storm hit.
His family, including his mother, Diana Willard, took refuge in a friend’s house behind East Middle School in Duquesne as the tornado leveled a quarter of the town east of Joplin.
Minutes later, they emerged from the shell of a home without injury.
A year later, they were emotional as they prepared to watch David Willard accept a diploma. The family rebuilt, and David Willard, who has learning and developmental disabilities, adjusted to a new school.
The chance to hear President Barack Obama and Gov. Jay Nixon speak was especially meaningful to his mother, who also has learning and seizure disorders. She serves on the Governor’s Council on Disability, and she praised the president’s support of those with developmental disabilities.
Karen Lieurance, whose daughter, Madison Lieurance, was among the graduates, predicted that the ceremony would be emotional.
“She’s my first born,” Lieurance said as she wiped away a tear, “so of course this is an emotional day.
“But it’s not sad. It is the end of something, but such an exciting beginning. These students have used this as a positive. We have friends with kids that were lost. Many of our friends lost their homes. But they didn’t quit; this class didn’t quit. They didn’t quit doing things for others, having fun the way high-schoolers do and should, making the best of things, sticking together.
“They’re incredible. This class is truly incredible.”