Comics Crusader

Alter_Ego_ComicsMarc Bowker is a super hero to comic book lovers.

With special powers attained through a classic liberal arts degree and a devotion to service, his mission is to get more kids reading comics and recast the role of the classic comic book store.

He’s even got a not-so-secret headquarters in Lima, Ohio (named after the city but pronounced like the bean). The store’s name: Alter Ego comics. It’s family friendly, clean and well-lit. Inside you’ll find comics for all ages and tastes, graphic novels and an abundance of action figures. It’s filled with “the world’s finest pop culture collectibles,” although it also includes one collectible Bowker is not about to part with—his 2013 Small Business of the Year Award.

“It was kind of a shock,” Bowker says, “to be recognized by your peers in business when you’re a newer comic book store as opposed to an established business that’s been in existence for generations.”

His work ethic surfaced early. His first job came at age 11 delivering papers, followed by a second job (while keeping the paper route) at age 14 as a bag boy at Kroger. He graduated up through the ranks and eventually became a cashier.

Comics were always his calling, though.

“I was a Marvel guy. My first favorite comic was the Secret Wars series. I grew up with ‘Super Friends’ on TV and ‘Star Wars’ at the movies.”

He grew up in the 1980s a true child of pop culture. “I never grew out of comics and kept reading them in high school, but I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want to be considered a nerd.” 

Bowker met his wife at Xavier and they eventually settled in Lima, her hometown.

Then, bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, he was endowed with super retail power. And, just like any other friendly neighborhood Spiderman, he started on the web.

“I started online first because it was safer. Many people would have been satisfied with that. But I really wanted to have a physical presence in the community, and to improve the image of what a comic book store and comic books were.”

Now Alter Ego’s online presence is “brimming with geek goodness” and offers a nice balance to the bricks-and-mortar store that is celebrating nine years devoted to reading and enjoying comics. Still, there’s more to do. Bowker is now focused on helping others.

“I’m working with a mentoring program for small business; there are a lot of mom-and-pop shops out there struggling to survive.”

This looks like a job for Comic Store Man.

A Trophy Life: Staying in Gear

sensibaughChad Sensibaugh offers career advice you don’t hear everyday—“I interned for seven seasons before I got a full-time job.”

But since that first full-time gig as assistant equipment manager for the Seattle Seahawks, he now has an equally rare perk—a Super Bowl ring.

Sensibaugh’s personal path to success didn’t come with a playbook. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in sports management from a university not known for football, and truth be told, baseball was his first love. As a freshman, he tried out as a walk-on. He wasn’t picked, but they asked him to hang around and help out. He also worked at Xavier’s ticket office and landed a job working at a training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“I busted my tail because you want to make a good impression and you never know where it could lead to.”

It led to a full-season paid internship. And a maxed-out schedule.

“Once football starts, from training camp to the final game, from an equipment standpoint, it’s a seven-day week.”

There’s an easy description for what the equipment manager is responsible for—everything. Everybody from players, coaches, trainers and other personnel have their own specific equipment needs. Down to rubbing the footballs in very specific ways.

”Some quarterbacks prefer a perfectly smooth ball with all the ‘pimples’ rubbed off.”

Watch Sensibaugh at work preparing footballs from his days as an intern with the Cleveland Browns.

And come game day, he says, the players are depending on your skills and the whole world really is watching. “You take pride in it. You’re responsible for how things look and work out there on the field on every play.” And if you’re really, really lucky, at the end of the season you get a ring for your efforts.

Alumni Profile: Jeff Schneider

Jeff Schneider

• Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, 1968; Master of Business Administration, 1979
• President, Jeff Schneider and Associates
• Addison, Texas


Meet the Millers |
“No one was musical in my family. The reason I wanted to play was because of a grade school friend—Glen Miller. (Not the Glen Miller.) His whole family played and he invited me over. His dad said, ‘Jeff, you need to tell your mom and dad you want to play music.’ Now I’m a jack of all instruments and master of none. I play piano, guitar, banjo, and alto and tenor sax.”

Marching to Xavier | “I got to Xavier and I was in the marching and concert bands. I didn’t want to be a music major, but I wanted to be in the music program. I was able to study accounting and do the music as well.”Schneider

King Accountant | “I graduated and went to work for Arthur Young. One of our clients was King Records. I had no association with them while I was at Xavier. I couldn’t even find it when we were supposed to meet there.”

Studio Sounds | “We arrived at what looked like an old garage. It looked like money had been spent on the recording studio itself, but most of the building was in its original condition. The rooms we were in were really small and we were working on card tables. When we heard the music, we asked, ‘Hey, can we go listen?’ ” 

Godfather Encounter | “We were behind the glass so they couldn’t hear us. The lead singer was maybe 15 feet away. He was wearing jeans and a loosely fitting dress shirt. He had a pompadour haircut and was sweating because he was dancing as he sang. When they finished he asked, ‘Who are the three guys in the suits?’ The engineer told him, ‘These are the auditors.’ And I thought, ‘Hoo-boy, here we go.’ Usually when someone finds out we’re auditors, the conversation goes downhill.’ Instead the guy asked me, ‘Do you play an instrument son?’ I said, ‘I play the guitar, sir.’ He said, ‘Then come on out here. You can play with us.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ Fright went right through me. But I walked right out there. There were two or three guys with guitars, and one guy just handed me his. He said, ‘Here, have fun.’ “

It Felt Good | “The song was ‘I feel Good.’ They cranked up and away we went. I’m playing along. I could read music so I could tell what they were doing, and I played in a dance band for about a year, so I could keep up. When we were done he came over, gave me a high five and said, ‘Son, you’re pretty good.’”

Naïve Fun | “I came back and asked the engineer, ‘Who is that guy?’ He said, ‘That’s James Brown.’ I was so naïve, I didn’t recognize him. I’m sure the recording ended up on the studio floor, but it was great fun.”

Future’s Market: Mentoring neighboring school children

It’s an early spring afternoon and Bryan Cannon, principal of the Alliance Academy charter school, hits the streets with about a dozen seventh and eighth graders in tow. They turn right on Montgomery Road, then hang a left onto Dana Avenue.

Their destination—the polished wood, widescreens and brushed steel of the Fifth Third Trading Center, crown jewel of the Williams College of Business. Scheduled is a biweekly meeting with the student managers of Xavier’s D’Artagnan Capital Fund to discuss all things financial. And yes, there is pizza.

The meeting is part of the Financial Literacy Program, a student mentoring program masterminded by associate professor of finance David Hyland. For the past two years, he’s partnered with Alliance Academy to introduce middle school students to college students—and to the world of commerce. Together, they cover everything from balancing a checkbook to maintaining a stock portfolio.

“We get neighborhood kids who go by this place all the time and see this imposing thing they could never think of,” says Hyland. “We invite them on campus and tell them, hey, there are real people here, too, and there’s no reason why you can’t come here, or somewhere like here.”

“Last year my kids learned about stocks, investment and even basic things about banking and budgets,” says Cannon. “It was so beneficial for them to learn something they weren’t familiar with.”

The program is run by the Xavier students who also manage roughly $1.6 million of the University’s endowment through the D’Artagnan Capital Fund, which Hyland also oversees.

Why mix college business majors with middle school city kids? One reason is to add a human touch to a world that’s typically perceived as being driven by numbers and a bottom line.

Plus, Hyland clearly enjoys his role of mentoring mentors. “I’m a big believer in delegating. I view my role as more of a facilitator.”

But Hyland had only just begun to facilitate. Amid the professor, principal, middle-schoolers and college students, he added real-world experience in the person of Robert Donelan, a retired Fidelity Investments executive. Hyland wanted Donelan to bring his street-level perspective on finance to the pizza party.

“[Hyland] was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing something with the Alliance Academy, would you like to help me put something together on financial literacy?’ So I put a course curriculum together, which included things like: What are the basic things to do to get a job? How do you manage money? How do you invest money?”

They arranged for the kids to go to Fidelity’s operations in Covington, Ky., where most of its U.S. transactions are processed—a facility large enough to warrant its own zip code and where the glamour of Wall Street meets the reality of the back office. It was a trip, Donelan says, that gave the kids insights that everyone could use.

“You’d be surprised,” he says. “There are doctors and lawyers who haven’t got a clue as to how to manage their retirement savings. And the earlier you start kids, the better.”

The Alliance/Xavier partnership began in the spring of 2012 as, of all things, a simple stock market game. Cannon picked students from his own after-school male mentoring program to go to Xavier and play. Hyland, though, found himself looking forward to these meetings as much as the students.

“Every week the kids would come over, we’d have pizza or snacks, then fire up the computers and start looking at the stock market.”

With programs like Squawk Box on the wide screen, plus the dedicated D’Artagnan Fund streaming ticker, it felt like a real trading floor. “It’s fun for our Xavier students, because they get a chance to teach. For example, last year, one of the eighth graders wanted to buy stock in the Army.”

While trying to buy stock in a branch of the armed forces and field trips to massive fulfillment centers constitute—especially to an eighth grader—the glamorous side of big business, at the end of the school day, it’s becoming comfortable with the working world that’s most important to Hyland.

“We talk about budgeting and looking for a job and what kind of place might hire somebody their age,” he says. “And get the kids interacting with the college kids. We’re trying to get them to think about building a résumé, what sort of things can we do in the next four to five years that’s going to help them in college and with their careers.”

50 Years Later: The JFK Assassination

Xavier’s campus was quiet at 1:30 p.m., Nov. 22, 1963. Clouds and rain were rolling in. The temperature hovered at 58 degrees.

Students were registering for spring semester classes and heading into Thanksgiving weekend. The football Muskies were gearing up for their final game at Bowling Green.

Xavier_News

Those listening to 700 WLW heard Fred Bernard interrupt his show “Tunepike” with this message: “There’s a bulletin just handed me from Dallas. An unknown sniper fired three shots at President Kennedy. Kennedy seriously wounded.”

Those watching “As The World Turns” saw their live television broadcast program replaced with the voice of Walter Cronkite: “President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.”

To those who were on campus and recall that day, the impact may have been softened by time, but the impressions remain.

David Hellkamp, longtime professor of psychology, was a graduate student at the time and recalls, “I had just walked into the office of my thesis chairman, John Marr, to discuss possible topics. There was another fellow sitting there, a neurologist at UC. All of a sudden, there was a knock at the door. A woman was standing there, crying. She blurted out, ‘President Kennedy has just been shot.’ We were stunned. The neurologist, however, then asked, ‘Where was he shot? Do you know?’ She said, ‘In the head.’ And I remember him saying, ‘That’s not good.’ ”

For psychology professor Earl Kronenberger, this was the best and worse of days. “On Nov. 22, 1962, I got married. Fast forward, it’s Nov. 22, 1963. In the morning, I said to my wife, ‘This is our first anniversary. We’ll go out to dinner and be happy.’

“I can still see myself sitting there, working at the office. Somebody came running into our office and said Kennedy was shot. We were all shocked. This is what happens when you have a tremendous trauma.”

[Read the Xavier News Special Edition from November 1963 about the assassination.]

Hellkamp saw and felt the same shock. “Students, faculty, staff just spontaneously starting to walk toward the chapel.”

Professor Gerald Quatman felt the same group reaction.

“We were just so shocked. We thought of Kennedy as being the perfect president—young, handsome. The savior of the country because of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

And despite deep political divisions prevalent on campus at the time, Kronenberger remembers how, “Everybody empathized with what was going on. There was no such thing as politics. There was more of a feeling that something was happening to the United States that wasn’t allowed to be. But yet it was.”

The Physic of Getting Hammered

For a physics major, finding the moment of inertia for a cylinder is as easy as I=1/2 MR2, but what about the concept of righty-tighty/lefty loosey?

Physicists are famous for having heads wrapped around theories, but it’s been laboratory technician Dennis Tierney’s task to make sure they keep their feet planted on the ground, or at least on the floor of the Department of Physics’ machine shop, by fabricating a hammer as part of their Xavier experience.

XUXU3547“If it’s not on a computer, or connected to a Bluetooth, most students today aren’t interested,” says Tierney. “And it is important that even a physics major knows which way to turn a screwdriver because sooner or later a physicist will probably have to work with a machinist. And many of our students have never had a shop class because they were too busy taking AP physics. But even if they never pick up another screwdriver, they at least have some vague idea what it takes to set up the machines used in an experiment.”

Two at a time, students report to Tierney’s shop and learn the basics—and a typical 4H project this isn’t. The proper-sized drill bit, proper tolerances, correct tap size, thread pitch and more, are all based on a blueprint and specifications of .003 of an inch in all dimensions.

The project takes eight to 12 hours of lab time. Tierney, final arbiter as to whether the finished hammer passes muster, offers them this advice: “Pay attention to detail, watch what you’re doing and you’ll save a lot of time down the road. And that’s true with everything else you do in life, too.”

Healthy Approach

Lynn Oswald still recalls her days as a registered nurse in the newborn nursery of The Fort Hamilton Hospital, in Hamilton, Ohio. This was 1980; dads-to-be still smoked and paced in the waiting room, and newborns were kept in an observation nursery.

But there was one little boy Oswald will never forget. “Newborns choke a lot as they’re getting used to the outside world and get a little blue around the lips. You intervene and they’re OK. With him, the color changes were critical. The blue came up his chest and his neck.“

She put him into an incubator and called the pediatrician. “He told me the only reason I wanted to put the kid into an incubator was because I didn’t want to bother with taking it out to the mother. Back then, doctors were in charge, and nurses did whatever they said, no matter what. But I told him if I was going to take him out of the incubator, it would be from his direct order. So the doctor let him stay.”

Oswald took care of the baby, and he had no further problems that night. But when she came back the next day, the baby was gone.

“I asked what happened to him and was told that he had died from a congenital heart defect. It wasn’t anything anyone did. They just couldn’t fix it. Today they can. But that really left a mark on me. I felt very bad about what happened.”

Oswald then dedicated herself not just to health care, but also to changing the administrative culture. “Decisions made regarding patient care should also include the perspective of those who working directly with patients.”

After earning her Master in Hospital and Healthcare Administration in 1986, Osborne remained at Fort Hamilton, moving into management and eventually becoming its CEO. When ownership of the hospital changed and senior administration replaced, she found herself in unfamiliar territory—without a job.

“I decided no matter what my opportunities looked like, I would not discard any of them.” That’s when the phone rang. It was Dr. Paul Keck at the Lindner Center of Hope, a nonprofit mental health center.

“Fort Hamilton and the Lindner Center of Hope are at two ends of the spectrum,” she says. “I thought, Oh no, it would be so difficult. But from my first interview I was taken with their mission and people. I knew it was right for me.”

Oswald has been the executive vice president of the center since 2011, carrying on her mission to bring expertise and compassion to health care administration. “I’ve always felt I could do something different and I could be a person who could change things.” And even change herself in the process.

Food for Thought: A Philosophy of Good Eating

Jason Perkins wheels his office into a parking spot just outside the Pendleton Art Center in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. The office is hard to miss—a bulky 1991 Grumman/Chevy P-30 step van that began its life as a bookmobile in Madison County, Ky.

“When I got it, the little check-out kiosk was still there,” he says, “but the shelves had been removed. It took me about four months to buy all the equipment and have it converted.”

All meals can be accompanied by a drink, side item and a lively discussion of Aristotle—if you’re so inclined. Perkins graduated, with honors, in 2000, with a degree in philosophy which still serves him well when he dons an apron and fires up the grill.

“I was a big fan of the German Idealists and my favorite class was metaphysics,” he says.

His shrimp and bacon sandwich isn’t bad, either.

The eclectic exterior design is based on Perkin’s own drawings including his abstract logo which tends to provoke a lot of personal projections as to what it actually is. “It’s part of a pen and ink drawing I had done. The original piece was 11 by 13 and that was a small section of it I just really liked. So when I put the truck on the road I thought that would make a nice emblem.”

As far as EAT?

“I came up with Eat because I wanted something very simple and that everyone could relate to.” And it’s served up in five different languages on the side: Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Spanish, which along with English, are the five most widely spoken languages in the world.

Perkins is its owner/driver/head chef/philosopher. While the city grows its numbers of food trucks, EAT! isn’t your typical burgermobile. Sure, there’s a Philly steak sandwich to satisfy the true carnivores in the crowd and a Portobello sandwich for fungus fanatics. But Perkins focuses on Eastern-style cuisine. Among his regular lineup—thin rice noodles with carrot threads, onion, Napa cabbage and black sesame seeds. Or a not-your-mom’s grilled cheese filled with Indian paneer and served with spicy onion chutney.

“I like to come up with different flavor and ingredient combinations,” he says. “I tried to make a reasonably diverse menu but it could all still be prepared in the truck.  “Pendleton’s usually a pretty good evening. We get a nice mix of artists and guests, and even occasionally people from the neighborhood will come in.”

Now he can be found most days hitting the street in search of hungry people. “The other day I was at the Christ Hospital facility in Clifton.” It’s a lot like fishing—being in the right place at the right time. And the results can be surprising, even to this two-year veteran of the food-on-wheels wars. “You’d think Christ Hospital, and a school of ravenous nurses come to mind, but no. “It was mostly accountants and I.T. folks.”

So how does a philosopher eventually become rolling chef? First attend the Midwest Culinary Institute with the best of academic intentions. “My initiial plan was to go to culinary school, get a culinary degree because I was looking to go the graduate school philosophy in San Francisco or New York. So I’d work my way through grad school working in restaurants.”

But that’s when his carefully considered philosophical plans took an unexpected turn. Then shortly before I graduated, I got an internship at Givaudan (an international flavor and fragrance producer) and found out I really liked the flavor industries. But don’t call Perkins a former flavorist.

“I was a food scientist. The flavorist created the flavors then I work to incorporate it into different foods. For seven years I worked for Cargill (or as Perkins calls it “Corporate America”) as a food scientist then I decided to strike out on my own and see what I can do.” Thus, EAT was born.

During the summer, 70 to 80 hour work weeks aren’t unheard of.  While the winter months account for only about 25% of total sales. “But if there’s a real winter, like long and cold, it’s slower than that.”

While the idea of heading south for the winter and doling out grilled paneer sandwiches on Panama Beach may seem appealing, as a family man with three children, domestic duties call. His wife, Samantha Gerwe-Perkins, also a Xavier grad, teaches journalism at Walnut Hills High School, which frees up her summer and makes his off-season busy at home.

“Maybe I’ll head for the beaches when the kid’s are older, but at this point, I’m primary care provider.” And, of course, head household chef.

 

 

Leading the Way: Merging Health Care

Susan Gilster’s high school counselor meant well when he told her, “You can be three things—a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.” It was typical advice in the early 1970s for a young woman in a small, Midwestern town trying to find her way in the world.

“I really wanted to study mathematics, but I believed him for some reason,” Gilster says. “And nursing was the area I had the most interest in.”

So she pursued it. But white shoes and a nursing pin just weren’t enough. After working at the Cleveland Clinic, Institute de Clinica in Venezuela and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, she enrolled at Xavier to earn her bachelor’s degree in general studies. What she got, though, was knowledge that transcended a single job title.

“I got a wider introduction into ethics, management and leadership,” she says.

Call it determination or a friendly jab at her high school counselor, Gilster went on to earn her PhD, focusing her dissertation on creating a leadership model for health care. With that, she set off on a professional path that has been self-exploratory and trailblazing.

In 1986, she co-founded and served as executive director of the Alois Alzheimer Center in Cincinnati, the first specialized facility dedicated to the care, treatment and study of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States.

“When we started the center, we’d go and talk to people and they didn’t even know what the disease process was,” she says. “Everybody thought it was just people getting old. The change between how it’s treated then and now is just phenomenal.”

Most recently, she founded The Gilster Group, a multidisciplinary collaboration of experts in memory loss and dementia providing education, training and consulting to health care providers. Now she’s the one being sought out for advice.

Some lead by example, others shift paradigms. So if the notion of health care and leadership seem contradictory, Gilster suggests redefining one’s definition of what a leader really is. “I was intrigued with leadership styles, primarily servant leadership. I believe that health care and nursing, plus a lot of who I am and what I’ve done, is about serving other people.”

She also believes that a true leader sometimes follows—and that includes following their heart. “Being a true leader is really about serving everyone.”

After the Storm

True to the forecast, 70 miles north of Joplin, Mo., it begins raining. It is cool, cloudy and blustery, feeling more like fall than spring. The combination creates an almost ominous feeling, a harkening back to what it must have felt like two years earlier, on May 22, 2011, when a similar cluster of clouds and rain spawned an EF-5 tornado that ripped a hole through the heart of the small, southwestern Missouri city.

The National Weather Service, however, also dutifully promises the return of sunshine and a break from showers and thunderstorms, which is a good thing because a celebration is planned. It’s a party in the park marking the two-year anniversary of the tornado, which killed 161 people, injured more than 1,100 and inflicted $2.8 billion in damage. It’s a citywide festival of perseverance and progress—proof with barbecue and frozen yogurt that the human soul can overcome even the greatest of tragedies. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is going to be there, as are Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, the CEO of the American Red Cross, a healthy collection of local officials, plus journalists representing the complete spectrum of news media.

A grim coincidence already has Napolitano in the region, about 200 miles west in Moore, Ok., where the day before a mile-wide tornado, packing winds of more than 200 miles an hour, removed a significant amount of the city from the earth’s surface. Now the national media is looking to Moore for the story and Joplin for the backstory.

Joplin has garnered a reputation as the standard bearer for disaster management and response—a reputation built by Joplin city manager and Xavier grad Mark Rohr. Two years ago, as bodies were being pulled from the rubble, the responsibility of rescue and rebuilding the city fell on Rohr. rohr

With square-shoulders, military-style haircut and mustache, Rohr looks more like someone you’d expect to see stepping out of a cruiser after being pulled over by the state patrol. But he’s not a uniform kind of guy, wearing a soft blue zip-up shirt, blue jeans, white khaki belt and surprisingly fashion-forward white Tom’s slip-ons. Even though his current wardrobe is more J. Crew than dress blues, Rohr emanates a sense of calmness that belies the events that forever changed the city of Joplin—and him.

 

[divider] ••• [/divider]

The Joplin city manager’s office is located on the second floor of City Hall, which is now housed in a renovated five-story department store, constructed in 1910. It was the first building in Joplin to have electric lights, and it features a Thomas Hart Benton mural above the first floor elevators valued at around $8 million.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IMG_0046.jpg”]IMG_0046[/lightbox]Though it’s not often an interview topic, Rohr’s tenure as city manager has also seen the refurbishing of building facades, sidewalks cityscaped with vintage-style lampposts, flower baskets and benches, plus a gasoline powered citywide trolley system. Not bad for a town that until two years ago was probably best known as being a stop along Route 66, a temporary hideout for Bonnie and Clyde, zinc mining and the location of some unidentifiable bouncing orb known as the spooklight.

In the past two years, though, Rohr’s responsibilities have transcended the relative simplicities of trollies and lampposts. He’s become the international media’s go-to guy for disaster response.

“I was on CNBC this morning,” he says. “I didn’t really anticipate what the questions would be, but they asked me what recommendations I would make to the citizens of Moore.  I thought, ‘Wow.’ I came up with something. I said, ‘Just don’t give up hope. Persevere.’ ”

The on-deck lineup cuts across a wide demographic: interviews with Real News from TheBlaze TV at 5:00 p.m., MSNBC at 5:30 p.m. and CNN’s Piers Morgan at 8:00 p.m. It’s not that Rohr has a mania for public attention. He’s just using media to get out the message of Joplin’s recovery.

In nearly every interview, Rohr recounts the storm and the recovery. Even today, as Rohr details the circumstances in an easy monotone from the officious but cozy confines of Joplin’s City Council chambers, it’s spine-tingling to imagine how everyday events and life-changing catastrophes can occur.

“The tornado formed right on the edge of the city,” he says. “Hurricanes you can see coming ahead of time, and if you have any sense you get out of the way.  Tornados, especially this one, not a whole lot of advance notice at all.”

The tornado sirens sounded twice—24 minutes before and then four minutes before.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/copter.jpg”]copter[/lightbox]An hour before it hit, more than 400 graduates of Joplin High were walking across the stage at the Leggett and Platt Athletic Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, about five and a half miles from the tornado’s epicenter. When the storm struck, they were on their way to Wal-Mart for graduation cakes or gathering in backyards.

The tornado ran west to east, bisecting the city just south of the center. Winds peaked at 250 mph. It was between a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile wide and stayed on the ground for 12 miles. Everything in its path was gone.

Rohr had no idea. On the edges of town, it was just another storm.

“It was Sunday night and I was getting ready to watch the Cubs play the Red Sox,” he says, “The phone rang, and I didn’t get to it in time because I was busy doing chores so I could get caught up and enjoy the game. It was our fire chief, Mitch Randles. He left a message. He said, ‘We’ve had a bad storm. You need to get into town.’ ”

 

[divider] ••• [/divider]

The only way to feel the full impact of the storm and fully appreciate the rebuilding efforts is to see it firsthand. So Rohr stands up, walks out of the council chambers and heads to the parking lot where he slides into the passenger seat of a car and becomes a de-facto tour guide to the storm’s path through the city.

To an out-of-towner unaware of the history, it could appear Joplin is just a city in the midst of an urban renewal. But it’s not.

“We had 7,500 homes that were impacted—3,500 destroyed and 4,000 damaged,” Rohr says, reciting the numbers well-etched into his memory. “We had 540 businesses either destroyed or damaged. Today, 85 percent of the homes and 90 percent of the businesses have been rebuilt or had the permits pulled to do so.”

Turning onto Main Street, Rohr narrates the path he followed that night[lightbox link=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWLvve8KN20″ target=”_blank”]videoimage[/lightbox]

“I knew where the fire chief was because he had described it to me over the phone,” he says. “But because of all the downed trees and power lines, I had to run two or three blocks from where I parked the car to where he was. The first thing I saw was a green minivan with the windows blown out. There were two deceased citizens right there, five feet away from me. I realized then, this was a pretty serious thing. I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts and decided what needed to be done next, because it was my responsibility to deal with it.”

Continuing on Main Street, Rohr calmly points out various landmarks—where the Mexican restaurant used to be, where the green minivan was. “That green van sat in this parking lot for months afterward.”

As the car approaches 20th Street, a major thoroughfare through the city, Rohr instructs the driver to turn right.

“We looked ahead and saw the vocational school was completely flattened. And the high school, which was nearby, was half gone. And it just got worse the further we went.

“We went over the railroad tracks, just passing the high school, and a lady flagged us down and told us a church had collapsed, there were people trapped and they needed our help. So we went out there and saw a little bit of everything.

“We tried to help pull people out of the debris and do whatever we could. There was one lady who had lost her leg. I pulled another lady out with a broken leg, then another lady that I was told didn’t make it. I sat her down in the grass and went about helping some other people. There was an interesting story that developed about that later on.”

 

[divider] ••• [/divider]

It doesn’t take long to discover one aspect of Rohr’s personality—he’s a compartmentalizer, with an ability to feel and think deeply. Events can be horrifying, incomprehensible. Yet, to him, still interesting and worthy of study.

It’s that interest, and the thinking, that has enabled him to create a path for a city and its citizens out of devastation, and stay on a path that’s become a model for the rest of the country.

When the nation turned its attention and television cameras to Joplin, Rohr intentionally stood in front of a twisted tower of trucks and cars smashed together by the force of the winds. The site was Cunningham Park. At the time, the spot demonstrated the extent of the destructive power the storm had delivered. Today, it stands as the symbolic city center for both progress and remembrance.

“Cunningham Park is the oldest park in the city,” he says. “It’s right there that the storm went from an EF-4 to an EF-5. It was literally wiped out.”

Probably what was most striking about that interview was not what he said, but what the reporter said in closing: “I know it’s a busy day for you sir, and best of luck.”[lightbox link=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZDGqAA5j9s” target=”_blank”]rorhimage[/lightbox]

Rohr remembers it more from a personal perspective. “Yeah, I was wearing a torn hat that I had on when I left my house and was still wearing the next day.”

It would be nearly 30 hours before Rohr would be back in bed. And for the next 28 days, he worked an average of 16 hours a day.

 

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Larger cities tend to have mayors who become the face of a major event—most famously New York’s Rudy Giuliani during the Twin Towers attack and New Orleans’s Ron Nagy during Hurricane Katrina. No one knows who the city manager of New York was at the time, because they didn’t have one.

A city manager is the full-time professional who works with elected officials, most of whom are part-time. In Joplin, there are nine council members and they pick their own mayor every two years, from amongst themselves. With this structure, the bulk of the burden to actually run the city and do the work rests with the city manager. It can be a daunting task, and Rohr’s skills at it haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year Governing magazine named Rohr manager of the year, calling him “The Builder.” In reality, though, Rohr is more of a planner. Or as he puts, “My sisters said I could plan the fun out of anything.”

He laughs.

“I may not be the funnest guy to be around all the time, but planning sure came in handy.”

You rarely hear someone say, “I want to be a city manager when I grow up.” Rohr certainly didn’t say it. He was raised on the border of Blue Ash and Evendale, two northern Cincinnati suburbs. “I went to Moeller High School and grew up right across the street from Blue Ash and saw it transform itself.”[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/walmart.jpg”]walmart[/lightbox]

Through planning, Blue Ash rebuilt itself from a small village into the area’s major northern business hub. It doubles its population during the day as a result of the number of offices and medical facilities, and then spends the taxes it collects on its residents, increasing property values by maintaining the streets and building luxury items such as free pools and parks.

The concept wasn’t lost on Rohr.

“I didn’t realize it until I got my master’s in public administration,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to land an internship in Blue Ash, and got to see how it all worked. I saw what the city manager did and said to myself, I think I can do that. That pointed me in the direction of trying to be a city manager. My first job as a city manager was at the ripe old age of 27.

“Lucky for me I had 24 years of experience as a city manager by the time the tornado hit. If I had been a neophyte, I would have been overwhelmed. Before the storm, there was a manual. In theory, it’s an operating guide in case of a natural disaster. But there’s nothing that says, ‘You have an EF-5 tornado and a third of your town is gone, flip to page 23.’ ”

 

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As Rohr continues his tour through the town, he points out different pieces of history and tragedy. One thing, though, becomes apparent: The story of Joplin is just as much about what you don’t see as what you do: empty sign frames, concrete slabs and neatly mowed fields with flowers blooming in random places—bits of landscaping leftover from now vanished houses.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IMG_0108.jpg”]IMG_0108[/lightbox]He points to an open field. “The old hospital, Mercy Hospital, was right over there, about where that dirt patch is. It was nine stories tall and moved four inches off its axis.”

Then a concrete slab. “That’s where the church was. Where we pulled the people out.”

There’s a 30-foot tall iron cross at one end of a parking lot. “See the cross? That was the Catholic Church. It was destroyed. The priest was found in his bathtub under rubble. He was OK. The church was gone. The school was gone. But the cross was unscathed.”

At Cunningham Park, the car comes to a stop and Rohr gets out. It is blustery. Thick, dark clouds roll in from the west.

“These trees were stark white, because everything got scoured. The wind was 200 miles an hour, and they were debarked. The experts were telling us they’re dead. The leaves sprouting are the stored up energy, but we’ve left them. We didn’t want to go around taking trees down. Why not wait a couple of years after the newer trees have developed?”

There’s also a plaque next to the fountain with the names of the tornado’s victims. Rohr points to a name and recounts a story of bad luck, tragic twists of fate or boundless bravery.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/tree.jpg”]tree[/lightbox]Will Norton. “He had just graduated high school an hour before. He was going to attend film school. He was on his way home with his dad. His mother and sister made it into the garage. He gets sucked out through the sun roof, his dad is injured trying to hold him and they can’t find him for three days. Finally, they found him in a nearby pond.”

Christopher Lucas. “He was the Pizza Hut manager and strapped himself to the freezer door to protect the people inside. He’s like 27, and makes a split-second decision that saves 15 people’s lives and forfeits his own in the process. His mother will be laying a commemorative wreath at the ceremonies tomorrow.”

There’s one name not on the list. “Remember the lady I pulled out of the church that I thought was dead? She ended up living. She lost her sister and her daughter and they’re on here.”

It’s getting late, and Piers awaits. Rohr climbs back in the car and heads back to City Hall.[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/park.jpg”]park[/lightbox]

“What I’ve learned is that a lot of cities just do what I call ‘grass and trash.’ Cut the grass, collect the trash and tomorrow’s another day. Through planning, you can make your city the kind of city you want to make it. Meaning you just don’t have to accept the way things are. You can make a difference.”

Tomorrow, when the sun is out and skies are clear, Napolitano and others will stand here, remember the tornado and praise the town for all it has done. Rohr will be seated on a chair behind the podium, happy for the attention the city is getting. Happy for the people. Happy with what Joplin is becoming after the storm.

 

 

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[button link=”#” size=”small” target=”self”]Additional Content[/button]
• See a photo gallery of the tornado and the rebuilding efforts from photographer David Eulitt.
• Read a story from Esquire magazine about the tornado.
• Mark Rohr’s 10 Tenets of Disaster Recovery

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