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Union Univ. community spirit shines in midst of crisis

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–“Things are replaceable — people aren’t.”

The phrase seemed to echo throughout Union University’s campus in the first daylight hours of Monday morning, Nov. 11, as faculty, staff, students and volunteers from the community met to begin an all-day cleanup effort after the campus was hit by raging heavy winds from an F1 tornado.

The tornado had formed directly above the student residential buildings shortly before midnight the previous Saturday night. Though damage to the Jackson, Tenn., university appeared extensive, spirits were high from the significance that no one had been hurt.

“There’s a mood of thankfulness everywhere,” said Casey Stafford, Union’s senior class president while standing in front of the SAE men’s fraternity. A large tree had fallen behind the house and was lying across the deck attached to the house. Students were still looking for the shed that once stood beside the deck. “There’s been a lot of damage, but I haven’t heard any complaints — it’s been really encouraging to see everyone pitching in to help get our campus cleaned up,” Stafford said.

Union President David S. Dockery and Provost Carla Sanderson had worked quickly that morning to assign faculty team leaders to more than a dozen teams, focusing each group in a different area on campus. With more than 100 trees knocked down throughout the campus, the buzzing of chainsaws could be heard throughout the day, as volunteers worked to remove the heavier limbs.

Charles Baldwin, a chemistry professor at Union for more than 20 years, spent most of the morning cutting and removing tree limbs in one area of the campus and had come back to the makeshift command center in the men’s commons to get another assignment.

“There’s such a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork evident in this place,” Baldwin said. “Adversity just draws people together, if the spirit is right.” He laughed as he recalled seeing large trees being removed by groups of male students. “There was one fraternity group, five or six guys picked up this huge log which must have been 18 inches across, six feet long, and they just walked it away. To see the devastation yesterday that had occurred, and then the progress that has been made today — it’s unbelievable.”

While campus teams as well as Tennessee Baptist relief volunteers worked to remove the downed trees, other groups worked to sweep up glass and debris from the parking lots. Pressure from the tornado’s winds had shattered the majority of the windows that had been in students’ cars as well as the residence buildings themselves.

“I’ve seen students sweeping up all of the glass in front of the McAffee commons area,” said Sam Myatt, a business administration professor who had helped with the cleanup since early that morning. “I saw several students all just come together to help one person’s car, they all pitched in to get it cleaned up and someone found a vacuum cleaner and they swept the glass out. After they were done with that, one fella just picked up a broom and started sweeping the parking lot.”

Students who had been home with their families for the weekend quickly began arriving to offer whatever help they could give.

“I’ve had students come up to me with these eyes of determination and concern asking what they can do for the campus — they don’t want to miss out helping,” Kathy Southall, director of residence life, said, smiling. “It’s all about the love — love for each other and love for Union.”

Compassion and concern for each other were evident throughout the day. Two students spent $100 of their own money to bring doughnuts and orange juice to students and volunteers. One faculty member who wasn’t physically able to help lift the debris and tree limbs stayed home and made dozens of cookies for the volunteers.

Companies from the community also assisted. Several construction companies brought their heavy equipment and machinery to assist in the tree cleanup, and other businesses like Wal-Mart and The Home Depot donated cleaning supplies, gloves, buckets and brooms while restaurants like Chic-Fil-A and Jason’s Deli brought lunch boxes in at noontime.

By midday, the campus seemed on the verge of transformation.

Sanderson, Union’s provost, had just returned from touring the campus with the university’s director of grounds, trying to decide where afternoon work teams were needed.

“In the four hours we’ve spent this morning, we have made a significant difference, there’s at least two months of work we’ve already completed,” Sanderson said excitedly. “It’s been great to see over a hundred of our faculty out working chainsaws and picking up glass all over — it’s a lesson about community. We try to teach civic responsibility to our students and this has been a living example.”

By late afternoon, the progress was in every conversation.

“We came out with our crew this morning and thought by the looks of things it would take us three days to get all of these trees trimmed down,” said Ben McCleary, part of the Tennessee Baptist disaster relief group from West Jackson Baptist Church, who had just moved one of the smaller bulldozers away from a damaged tree that was being cut down. “We’ve been busy — it’s been a lot of hard work, but with all of the dedicated volunteers who’ve been out here today, everything has been trimmed down and ready to be hauled off.”

“It’s been an amazing thing to behold,” said Dockery, surveying the activity as he checked on students. “Hand in hand, people have worked together. The devastation is being transformed. It is like watching an Amish barn raising to see the determined and joyful sense of community on this campus.”

With the air cooling off, and the activity slowly subsiding, Sam Myatt continued to sweep up the parking lot behind Hammons Hall.

“You know, this morning when I woke up I thought I would see servant leadership today,” he said, choking back tears as he looked out across the much-improved campus. “And I did.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: RECOVERING BAG BY BAG and TREE TRAVAILS.

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  • Sara Horn