The names of 161 people who lost their lives in Joplin’s catastrophic 2011 tornado will endure through a 17-foot memorial sculpture that was dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday at the Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex, Seventh Street and Joplin Avenue.
Officials of the city, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Cornell Complex and Active Lifestyle Events, which commissioned the sculpture, gathered in near-freezing temperatures to dedicate the memorial, which stands on the east side of the Leggett & Platt Green at the rear of the arts and entertainment complex.
Clifford Wert, treasurer of the Cornell Complex, described the location of the memorial as “a hallowed spot” because of its location near Joplin Memorial Hall, which served as a makeshift medical triage site in the hours immediately after the tornado.
It’s also a sacred location, he said, because it has been the beginning and ending point of the Joplin Memorial Run, an annual marathon to honor those who died in the tornado and the resilience of the community in its aftermath.
Each year, the run is scheduled near the tornado anniversary date of May 22. In the initial years of the run, its start and finish line was where the Cornell Complex now stands. While the complex was under construction, the beginning and ending of the run was moved to Cunningham Park, 26th Street and McClelland Boulevard, which was ground zero as the tornado entered the southwestern city limits.
Since the run began on the first anniversary of the tornado, about 25,000 runners have crossed the run’s finish line, said Audie Dennis, president of Active Lifestyles Events, which coordinates the run.
Dedication of the memorial sculpture marks the fruition of a decision by the Active Lifestyles board to develop a permanent tribute to those who died in the tornado, Dennis said.
Soon after the memorial run was initiated, the Active Lifestyles board began setting aside a portion of proceeds from the run to develop such a remembrance and to help fund other community rebuilding projects stemming from the tornado. Dennis said that since the run began it has raised $400,000, which not only funded the sculptural tribute, but also a playground for the Bill and Virginia Leffen Center for Autism at 2808 S. Picher Ave., and a new roof for Stained Glass Theatre, 2101 Annie Baxter Ave., a faith-based community theater.
The polished, stainless steel memorial sculpture is designed in the shape of a feather flag. One portion of the sculpture stands upright and bears the inscriptions “JMR. 161. May 22, 2011” along one side and “Run. Remember. Rebuild.” on the opposite side. At the bottom of the sculpture the shape of a feather flag is attached horizontally, and it holds the names of those who lost their lives in the tornado.
Active Lifestyles selected the design of a feather flag because it has become associated with Joplin Memorial Run, Dennis said. Such flags bearing the names of the people who died in the tornado are annually placed along the beginning and the finish of the run.
Dennis recognized Jorge Leyva, the local sculptor who created the memorial.
“He’s such a jewel for our community to have,” Dennis said, noting that Leyva has created several sculptures throughout the city, including one on the west side of the Cornell Complex.
Dennis and Wert said the memorial will serve as a site for activities, including Joplin Memorial Run, to mark future observances of the tornado anniversary. Because of the memorial’s location, the Cornell Complex will host various activities related to the observances, Wert said.
In addition to the new memorial, there are two tornado-related tributes at Cunningham Park, which was rebuilt after the tornado. One of those tributes recognizes the contributions of volunteers who converged on the city to help with recovery efforts. Another is the Butterfly Garden and Overlook, designed as a quiet place for people to process grief related to the tornado.