I come to you now from the land down under, Joplin, Missouri. Where in less than one month, this humble burg will commemorate a one-year anniversary of the brutal devastation visited upon it by an EF-5 tornado that took "at least" 161 lives and left key portions of the town in ruins.
But first let me say this.
To drive into Joplin today from Kansas City you would scarcely notice a thing out of order. While the well-documented damage was significant, you’d almost need a Tornado Damage Map to find the areas that were wiped out. Which if you recall, is exactly what the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau put out resulting in a wave of anti "tornado tourism" among locals. KCC covered that story in January.
Make no mistake, the evidence is there, you just have to come upon it.
Now let’s take a look at a town probably most of you know little about, then I’ll bring things up to date over the next day or two while I’m here looking over a little town that says it’s proud of its past and is shaping its future.
First off, while at 50,000 residents Joplin is less than half the size of even Topeka, somehow it seems more urban. Like more of a city city. Don’t get me wrong, wildly sophisticated it’s not – but then neither is Topeka. It just feels bigger and more urban (but not urbane) somehow.
And as is often the case in many small towns, it’s always interesting to peruse the list of famous folks that are from there. Check out some of Joplin’s escapees.
Atop the list I first saw is Tony Alamo, described as a "religious evangelist, convicted child sexual abuser and polygamist." He’s followed by the likes of serial killer Billy Cook, studly 1950s television and movie actor Robert Cummings, golfer Hale Irwin, MLS soccer star Jack Jewsbury, troubled, former KC Royals catcher Darrell Porter and actor Dennis Weaver.
Quite the list, huh?
Then there’s that artist dude – what was his name? – oh yeah, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton hung out in Joplin – or as a friend from here calls it, "JoMo" – and drew cartoons for a newspaper called the Joplin American as a teen.
New York Yankees superstar Mickey Mantle got stuck playing minor league ball here in 1950 with the same team celebrated KC announcer dude Bill Grigsby started his broadcast career covering. And of course, NBC anchor Brian Williams lived here and started his TV news career on KOAM TV.
I can only imagine the memories Williams must have.
By the way, there’s a ton of Thomas Hart Benton murals and paintings floating around, including in the town’s super cool, historic new City Hall inside the elegant, former digs of the Newman Mercantile Store (circa 1910) in downtown Joplin.
There’s also another very Thomas Hart Benton-like mural, commissioned just two years back, from Benton’s grandson Anthony Benton Gude. Check it out here and note that instead of horses, it’s populated by classic American sportscars.
Which reminds me of an interview I had with Gude way back in 1992 wherein I asked the 29 year-old, then-budding artist if there were any similarities between his art and that of his famous grandfather.
"I see little or no similarities," Gude told me. "But a lot of people see something. I’ve been around his paintings all my life. We spent pretty much every summer together in Martha’s Vineyard, until he died when I was 12."
However, while the young Gude may have been anxious to differentiate himself from his famous forebear, trust me, the good people of Joplin couldn’t disagree more.
Total Benton lookalike was the verdict everyone I spoke to at City Hall said of his mural.
In fact, I can all but assure you that if Gude’s work didn’t look nearly indistinguishable from THB’s, not only would it not be hanging prominently in Joplin’s City Hall, it wouldn’t be hanging there at all.
One more thing, before we move on to news about next month’s disasterversary…
It even turns out Gude has turned into one of those goofy twister chasing dudes – I kid you not.
"He is also a storm chaser," Martha’s Vineyard Gazzette reported four years back. "The recent bout of violent weather in Kansas left him on generator power for a month at the farm, but it provided good work material.
“ ‘I’m trying to get close enough to hear one roar,” Gude told the Gazzette. “That’s my goal in life.’”
The City of Joplin’s goal: never again to hear that roar.