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By David Pickle
A May 22 tornado destroyed much of Joplin, Mo., but Missouri Southern State Athletics Director Jared Bruggeman said it also built something: a stronger sense of community.
Compared to the rest of Joplin, Missouri Southern’s athletics program was spared. Student-athletes had already left for the summer, and only one person affiliated with the program was seriously injured.
A few suffered serious property loss, including football assistant coaches Kevin Almlie, Matt Barrett, Gary Bass, Atiba Bradley and Tom Howe; former faculty athletics representative Richard Miller; Shaun Buck, a part-time sports information official; and former Athletics Director Sallie Beard.
The staff was able to parlay its relative good fortune into helping their neighbors in the time of their greatest need.
The tornado struck at 5:41 p.m. Missouri Southern’s athletics facility had just finished hosting graduation ceremonies for Joplin High, a case of extreme good fortune since Joplin High itself was wiped out by the tornado. Because of the graduation ceremonies, several athletics staff members were working at the athletics facility when the storm struck.
The tornado started on the southwest side of Joplin and worked its way toward Missouri Southern’s campus, which is on the northeast corner of the community. It skirted just south of the school but virtually obliterated the adjoining town of Duquesne.
Almost immediately, it became clear that Missouri Southern’s athletics facility would become a primary shelter for those who had been displaced.
Missouri Southern State's Leggett & Platt Athletic Center was converted to a shelter.
“That night, we couldn’t communicate by phone, so we checked on our staff that evening by texting,” Bruggeman said. “In that process, all of our staff showed up who were able to. They helped us set up for the Red Cross for the shelter, and they were here to the wee hours of the morning and they were here the next day.”
Athletics staff members quickly found other ways to help.
“They organized themselves into crews to go out and help people in the community,” Bruggeman said. “Maybe a friend of ours had her house damaged – like Sallie Beard’s house. They went over to Sallie’s house and helped tarp up and clean up the yard and do what they could for her.”
They did that kind of work for the rest of the week.
Meanwhile, back at the school, the facility and athletic training staffs worked 12-hour shifts to make the shelter as accommodating as possible and to protect victims from further harm, such as when head athletic trainer Darin Moore got the displaced victims below ground two days later when another tornado warning sounded.
The entire experience was as traumatic as can be imagined, but some of those involved can look back and reflect positively on how they were supported.
“I haven’t been able to get much work out of the office because they’re writing so many thank you letters,” said football coach Bart Tatum of assistance that was provided to his staff. “It’s just been very, very gratifying.”
“If you were to ask anybody in town,” Bruggeman said, “there’s a greater appreciation for day-to-day, and suddenly life doesn’t seem that bad all the time knowing there other people out there who are struggling.”
The school also received a notable boost from its conference.
“The MIAA presidents agreed to donate $10,000 to Missouri Southern for the school to use at the president deems appropriate,” said Commissioner Bob Boerigter. “They may use it to help the coaches or the staff – whatever they feel is appropriate. There are no strings attached.”