JOPLIN, Mo. — President Obama returned to Joplin Monday one year after a tornado ravaged the city, praising residents for overcoming historic adversity through the human spirit to succeed.
He said the community and its restoration success are a model for a nation stuggling to recover from difficult economic times.
"You are the source of inspiration to me, to this state, to this country and to people all over the world," the president told the high school commencement on the anniversary eve of the tornado that killed 161 and destroyed one-third of Joplin.
"America only succeeds if we all pitch in and pull together -- and I'm counting on you to be leaders in that effort."
Obama told the 431 graduates they had "already defied the odds" of a natural disaster that destroyed their school, and that they should remember the generosity offered their community from across the nation in the aftermath of the tornado.
"There are so many good people in the world," he said. "There is such a decency, a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours. So class of 2012, you've got to remember that."
A year ago, the tornado struck Joplin an hour after high school commencement at Missouri Southern State University. One 2011 graduate died in the tornado, as did a member of the 2012 class. The high school was destroyed, requiring students to study in a vacant warehouse converted to classrooms.
But Tuesday the city broke ground on a new high school and two other schools scheduled to open in 2014, symbols of the revitalized Joplin.
Sabrina Duncan graduated the day of the tornado, and lived to tell about it when she and family members huddled in their car outside the local Wal-Mart, where they had gone to pick up a cake only to find it locked down.
She said the storm took away an important day in her life, and that she feels lucky to have survived it.
"It seemed like our graduation was forgotten really quickly, which kind of bothered me because it was a big day for me," Duncan said. "But it’s understandable as well because our graduation is such a small thing compared to what happened that day. But I’ll always remember graduation as a good thing.”
Her twin brother, Skylar Duncan, was among this year's graduates. He said the commencement was "an important day for this community."
Obama visited Joplin a few days after the tornado that caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. His return trip gave him a view of a community that is in the throes of rebuilding the more than 8,000 homes and businesses wiped out by winds beyond 200 mph.
Obama and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said the commencement ceremony served as a symbol of triumph for the community since the tornado.
The president said Joplin residents "learned that we have the power to grow from these experiences. We can define our own lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We can choose to carry on, and make a difference in the world. And in doing so, we can make true what’s written in Scripture, that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character and hope."
Prior to the formal ceremony, Obama visited with the graduates, thanking each of them for their contribution to the community.
“He gave us a little pep talk and told us we did really good, and then shook all of our hands,” said Hailey Carpenter. “Everybody’s. It was awesome.”
Details for this story were provided by the Joplin (Mo.) Globe.