By Josh Letner
Jody Kirk’s father, Stan, died in the May 22 tornado. Even though his home was miles away from the tornado’s path, he was shopping at the 15th Street Wal-Mart when the EF-5 monster hit it head on.
A year later, Jody Kirk, who lives in the village of Silver Creek, crossed the finish line, carrying her father’s memory with her — literally. Her sign: “Running For The Heavens, In Memory of My Daddy, Stan Kirk,” was a message that needed no explanation.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” she said.” “It seems like just a couple of months ago. It doesn’t seem like a year, but it has been and we’re going to get through this as a community and we’re going to do it together.”
Kirk, along with almost 3,000 other runners representing 35 states, crowded around Joplin’s Memorial Hall early Saturday to take part in the Joplin Memorial Run.
“When I see all the people here, I’m absolutely speechless,” Kirk said while awaiting the start of the five-kilometer race. “It’s definitely a good way for me to cope.”
Some ran a half-marathon. Others, like Kirk chose the 5K. And some 250 children ran a mile.
Audie Dennis, race director for the Joplin Memorial Run, said the event was intended to honor the 161 victims of the tornado, to celebrate the spirit of hope in the community, and to provide a first-class event for runners from across the country.
Show of support
Staff Sgt. Daniel Cox, of Pathfinder Racing, a group of active service members who participate in racing events, said he believed the event succeeded in all facets.
“This event is outstanding,” he said. “There’s a lot of support and people along the route. Overall the city amazes me every time, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Cox said.
The Pathfinder racers carried an American flag and a Joplin flag for the entire half-marathon. Cox says the group encouraged everyone to sign the flag in a show of support. He says Pathfinder Racing will present the flag to Joplin Mayor Melody Colbert-Kean at a future City Council meeting.
The event was an opportunity for Ashley Mille, of Pomona, Kan., and the other members of a group of about 100 called Edie’s Angels. Mille, who ran despite being four months pregnant, said the group ran to show support for Edie Howard, who lost two children, Harli, 5, and Hayze,19 months, and her husband, Russell, on May 22.
“I think it’s great to show support to all of those who lost family and friends here and that they won’t be forgotten and their memory will live on forever,” she said.
The route of the half-marathon passed through the tornado’s path ,and Cox said the destruction keyed memories among the combat veterans running with his group.
“We passed by the old (St. John’s Mercy) hospital and one of our sergeants said it looks like a building in Iraq,” Cox said.
Runner Neil Bryan, a former flight medic at St. John’s, said the images of his former helicopter crumpled in front of the hospital drove home the scope of the tornado’s damage.
“One of the first pictures I saw the next morning was the MedFlight helicopter,” he said. “I knew that there had been deaths and a lot of damage, but when I saw that picture, that’s when it hit me personally, because I knew how meaningful that helicopter was and the lives that it had influenced over the years.”
Doug Martin, of Pittsburg, Kan., lost two friends and his alma mater in the storm. Martin is a member of the Parkwood High School Class of 1981, and said the tornado rendered many areas of his hometown unrecognizable.
“Everything’s different,” he said. “I’m very impressed with the progress. It’s not going to be the same. I knew every street, but now some of them are hard to recognize.”
While Martin compares past and present, Abby Jewell, of Kansas City, compared Joplin’s recovery to that under way in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where she is a student at the University of Alabama.
“Being in Tuscaloosa, we’re not anywhere near the level of rebuilding and removal of debris as Joplin, so it’s great to see a community being able to rebuild so quickly,” she said.
Beneficial to children
Dennis said that while the memorial run has a therapeutic effect for the adult runners, it is important not to forget 250 children who participated in the kids run.
“Many of these kids are going through the same types of emotional trauma that the adults are going through,” he said.
Dennis said the run can be beneficial to children both mentally and physically. He says he hopes that events like the memorial run will help to foster a love of running that could last into adulthood.
Dennis said the turnout for Saturday’s event not only illustrates the support from outside the community, but also the progress Joplin has made in becoming what he calls a running community.
“I moved here in 1995, and if you would have told me then that this community would become a running community, I would have never believed it, but because of so many groups like Rufus Racing and the Joplin Roadrunners, and events like this, now you can’t go out without seeing people running and biking.”
Proceeds from the Joplin Memorial Run will benefit the Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas United Way, Rebuild Joplin, and Joplin Bright Futures.