Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Community in Ruins

by Mary Wilson

What likely began as an ordinary evening on May 20 back in 1957 quickly turned deadly as an F-5 tornado tore a 71-mile path of destruction, beginning in Spring Hill, KS, and bouncing through Ottawa, KS, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Martin City, Knob Town and Ruskin Heights. 

May 20th marked the 60-year anniversary of the tornado that thrashed through the area. Ruskin High School suffered extensive damage, including the almost complete destruction of the gymnasium that was supposed to house the high school’s graduation ceremony the very next evening. All that remained on the sign for the gym was a few haunting letters: RU IN.

The 1957 tornado, deemed the Ruskin Heights Tornado, took the lives of 39 people, with more than 500 injured. Roughly 400 homes were damaged or destroyed.

In the last few years, survivors, many of whom were young children at the time, have found solace and comfort through a social media group created on Facebook. With 673 members, “1957 Ruskin Heights Tornado Survivors CAUGHT EVER AFTER” is dedicated to providing an outlet for shared memories and a bond that has lasted a lifetime.

Dave May, who would later graduate from Ruskin High School, recalled that the horrific night brought the community closer.

 “As I sit in the comfort of my living room, I can't help but think about the tornado tragedy that happened in my childhood stomping grounds 60 years ago tonight, and the lives it took and changed and the people that were scarred for life,” May said in the Facebook group over the weekend. “I wasn't in the tornado, but lived in Ruskin then, and growing up I have heard many stories that were tragic and some that were a miracle. My heart truly goes out to the victims who suffered along the 71 miles the tornado was on the ground. After the tornado, it seemed to make Ruskin a little tighter, and neighbors knew neighbors.”

Diana Leonard’s family home sat just south of the tornado path, and while her family didn’t see extensive destruction to their property, the storm left a lasting impact on their lives.

“I was not quite six years old in 1957, and I well recall the events of that day,” said Leonard. “Our home was on the east side of the Kansas City Southern railroad and south of Ruskin, and was okay, other than a 2x4 stuck in our roof like a birthday candle, and the horrible debris scattered across our yard. 20 years later, my younger sister was set to graduate from Ruskin on May 20. We shared our girlhood room the night before and she was up and down all night and nervous as a cat. She said she had heard these things happen on a 20-year cycle and she was sure we were going to have another tornado. I tried to reassure her that we would be fine, but, wouldn't you know it, the early afternoon of May 20, 1977, a straight-line wind came through and toppled our dear old elm tree in the front yard, landing it squarely on top of my car! That will teach me to laugh at old wives' tales!”

Ellen Robinson, then a newly-advanced kindergartner from Tower School, took to the Facebook group to express her gratitude to other survivors of the Ruskin Heights Tornado.

“I graduated from the Tower School kindergarten 60 years ago today, and by that night it was obliterated into dust, leaving no trace,” said Robinson. “I'm friends with a few survivors, and I feel an unspoken kinship with them unlike any other of my friends. I'm grateful for them every day, and very thankful for this Facebook group, because I know there's a wound hidden in each of us. You think all trace of its trauma is gone, then there will be a particular chartreuse or pink in the sky, a scent of earth or electricity in the air, a news story, and instantly you hurt again.”


The memories from the Ruskin Heights Tornado of 1957 are everlasting, with the impact and the loss much greater than homes being destroyed. Loved ones were lost and the lives of the survivors were forever changed. Each year, the anniversary of the tornado is commemorated with the laying of wreaths at the site of the memorial in front of Ruskin High School. For 60 years, the Ruskin community has mourned the ruin and the devastation, but despite the tornado’s impact, the survivors continue to share their stories with each other and with the next generations. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Southwest High may once again see students

by Brent Kalwei

The Uniting at Southwest group is proposing to reopen Kansas City’s Southwest High School as an autonomous public school to be under the umbrella of the Kansas City Public School district. Group representatives Mike Zeller and John Couture laid down some of their plans at the Sixth District Second Fridays meeting on May 12 at the Trailside Center.

“This is not a private school, this is a public school,” Zeller said. “Every child in that building would count as KCPS kids.”

Uniting at Southwest’s plan is to make Southwest into a diverse project-based learning school that helps students identify opportunity, conduct research, and work with others to develop solutions and essential skills in today's world.

“We don’t want to have a 1950s Southwest High. That was a racist, segregated-by-law public school,” Zeller said. “Nor do we want to create a situation like in 2015 where there was a school there, but there was not this vast neighborhood full of homes and children. We want a school that looks like the world that these children are going to graduate into and work in. That’s a school where everybody is there together; not only on racial lines, but class lines, too.”

“This is a time where we can look to be creative in how we view education,” added Couture. “I think this is such a great opportunity for the city.”

Zeller lives about three blocks from the Southwest High School building, which closed after the 2015-16 school year.

“We moved to that neighborhood so that our kids could walk to school up at Academie Lafayette,” Zeller said. “I had every intention of sending our son up the hill to Southwest High until the school closed. My oldest son made the bus trip up to Lincoln College Prep, which was on some days about a 50-minute bus ride. I remember thinking that is a long way. My son is commuting to high school. It just seemed odd at a great American city that a child would have to travel so far to go to a college-bound high school.”

According to Zeller, many people are leaving Kansas City and moving to cities such as Lee’s Summit, Raytown and Prairie Village.

“It’s just unfortunate and unnecessary,” he said. “It pushes down property values and lowers tax rolls. We have a big city with a lot of old infrastructure. We need those tax dollars, and we need those people living in city and contributing to the revitalization of the city.”

When Zeller took the innovative idea to the Kansas City Public Schools district last fall, they indicated that the school was closed because there was not enough demand for it.

“Maybe the supply wasn’t right,” Zeller said. “There’s a whole lot of people that would like to stay living in the city and even more people who would want to move into the city if they had choices that they wanted to choose.”

About 1,200 people have taken the group’s online survey.

“They have indicated that they would strongly consider sending about 1,350 children to this school,” Zeller said.

According to Zeller, quality integrated public education in the city was not a common belief by most parents about 15 years ago. But they do believe in it now.

“It’s a heavy lift to start a high school,” Zeller said. “You gotta start strong. If you trip coming out of the gate, you’re done. Reputation is destiny. You have to plan it really well. You have to hire a leader a couple years in advance.”

The Bloch, DeBruce, McDonnell and Stowers Foundations are funding the Uniting at Southwest group’s research and development efforts.

“We explained our vision to them,” Zeller said. “They said, ‘We’ll back your research and development efforts; and if you can pull it off, we will get behind all of these upfront costs it takes to start a public school.” 

Zeller listed the UMKC Dental School of Law and Penn Valley as examples of institutions that are helped out by philanthropic resources.  

“In Missouri right now, there is no funding mechanism to start schools like this,” he said. “Missouri’s just a school district model that worked great in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when cities were growing, and we were knocking down cornfields and putting an elementary school at the edge of the metro. Then people would appear and it would fill up. We have a different situation now that requires third-party assistance.”

According to Zeller, if Uniting at Southwest is unable to partner with Kansas City Public Schools, the group plans to partner with an existing charter school or create their own charter school.

“We have the funding to do that,” he said. “It would be a waste of philanthropic and public resources to have to do that, and it would break my heart. But we are prepared to do that if we need to.”

Uniting at Southwest’s plan is to begin with just freshmen during the first school year.


“I think at its peak it had about 2,500 kids at the height of the baby boom,” Zeller said. “We would never want a high school that big. They’re too anonymous. Kids don’t know each other and the teachers don’t know them. We think that the sweet spot is around 800 or 900 kids, and you would want to get to get there slowly. Every year you would want to add one grade.”

Friday, May 12, 2017

Grandview Main Street looks to bring entertainment to downtown


by Brent Kalwei


Grandview Aldermen interviewed candidates seeking to manage the Farmers Market at the board’s work session held Tuesday, May 2.

Those applying for management were Grandview Main Street and the Farmers Market’s current manager Larry French.

Grandview Main Street’s focus would be to expand upon the existing Farmers Market, with functions such as a wine walk, food trucks, family-friendly entertainment and events, Christmas in July and potential partnerships with 8th and Main and the Grandview Arts Council, to include activities such as music and sidewalk chalk art.

“We envision a lot more than just a Farmers Market. We envision activity and what would be the heartbeat of our downtown,” Grandview Main Street President Mary Wilson said. “Our main goal is to get people into our downtown and to showcase our businesses that we already have there, and hopefully garner future investment in our community in the process.”

Ward One Alderman Damon Randolph asked Grandview Main Street representatives what they thought the Farmers Market’s biggest challenge is.

“Marketing. I live here and I forget about it often,” Grandview Main Street Secretary Kim Curtis said.

Grandview Main Street added that they can provide marketing for the Grandview Farmers Market event through social media outlets, the Grandview Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson County Advocate. The Aldermen discussed marketing the Farmers Market with electronic signs.

Alderman Ward Three James Crain expressed concern about Grandview Main Street having the manpower to volunteer for events that complement the Farmers Market.

“Our business and volunteer community as a whole doesn’t seem to want to get involved unless something is happening,” Wilson said. “We haven’t really had a whole lot happening. When we hosted our original open house for Grandview Main Street, we had a list of people who showed interest, and that’s what we’ll build off of in the beginning.”

“I think if we truly want to have different results, we should give Main Street a chance,” Alderman Ward One Sandra Kessinger said. “I think they have a lot of players already here in the community who have a vested interest in the success of anything that’s going on in Grandview. I think that’s the piece that is missing.”

Ward Two Alderman Annette Turnbaugh expressed interest in French and Grandview Main Street taking partnership in leading the Farmers Market. 

“I don’t want to get too far away from what the Farmers Market is,” Turnbaugh said. “I would like to see a marriage of the two. I want to make sure that we have somebody at that Farmers Market that knows the laws, rules and regulations of the county, or we can get in trouble.”

Mayor Leonard Jones believes an operation should be run by one leader opposed to many.

“My problem with that is that you always want one throat to choke. You don’t want two throats,” Jones said. “I can tell you from a manager’s perspective, the worst thing you can do is have one, two or three heads. That’s called a freak, and that’s not good.”

French wants to keep the originality of the Farmers Market.

“One of the first things I will tell you about markets,” he said, “if you switch today, you will kill the market. Belton took their market from 30 vendors to four. Most of the big vendors come from 40-60 miles away. They are not from right here. They are not going to move out of their markets.”

Jones prefers the Farmers Market be held on a day during the week.

“I’m from the old school. I think a change of date would probably be a good idea,” he said. “The reason I say that, is because my Saturday is jam-packed. Personally I’ve got so much going on Saturday that I forget about the Farmers Market.”

Alderman Ward Three John Maloney asked French if Farmers Market attendees are seeking any particular items that current vendors do not already provide. French’s answer was certified organics.

According to Ward Two Alderman Brian Hochstein, the Farmers Markethas received very little interest from the community. Hochstein, who is sometimes a vendor at the Farmers Market, said that he had a net loss in his first year of selling.

“It takes local people selling local,” Hochstein said. “As a vendor, you never want to miss regardless of if it is raining. If you miss one time, you could break that relationship. It is a difficult game for not a lot of money.”

Hochstein has in the past heard comments about how expensive the vendors’ products are.

“I’m like, ‘compared to what?’” he said. “It’s handmade, it takes a lot of time, and our profit margins are miniscule.”

Ultimately, three aldermen voted for French to continue the management of the Farmers Market, two voted for Grandview Main Street and one voted for a partnership.

Jones stated he would like the Farmers Market to provide additional vendors.

“The more vendors, the greater possibility and excitement that you would have people utilizing the products and goods being provided,” Jones said. “The less number of providers is just the opposite.”

French has managed the market for the last several years, and also works as Grandview Farmers Market’s main vendor each week. Jones responded to the question of if French being a Farmers Market vendor and the manager is a conflict of interest.

“That will always be a question that some people could have,” he said. “You’re not going to erase that question regardless. Somebody is going to be chosen. Is it going to be somebody that is already there and has a spot or not? You’re going to have a 50/50 chance.”

Despite not receiving the nod of approval from the Board of Aldermen, Grandview Main Street plans to continue with the idea of bringing the local community back into downtown.

“While the Aldermen didn’t want us to manage the Saturday market, they didn’t say we couldn’t move on with our original Thursday plans,” said Wilson. “There is tremendous opportunity for activity in our downtown. We’d like to breathe a new life into our businesses and our public spaces, while preserving the rich history that our community sometimes seems to forget.”

Jones likes Grandview Main Street’s idea to get away from the norm, and looking for additional event opportunities.

“It’s great to see the Grandview Main Street group thinking outside of the box,” Jones said. “That’s exactly what the city of Grandview needs. I think a lot of the proprietors on Main Street will be excited to know that there is something going on Monday through Friday.”


The Grandview Farmers Market runs from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday on the southwest corner of the intersection of 8th and Goode Avenue. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Following fights, several arrests made at Truman Heritage Festival

by Mary Wilson

What began as a family-friendly event last weekend quickly turned into a potentially dangerous situation, as a large fight erupted during the Truman Heritage Festival on Saturday, May 6. According to Grandview Police, a large fight involving both juveniles and adults broke out at the carnival being held in conjunction with the festival on Byars Road in Grandview, and multiple arrests were made.

“An adult female involved in the fight sprayed pepper spray indiscriminately into the crowd including on police officers trying to break it up,” said Grandview Police Captain Richard Rodgers.

A single gunshot was fired by an unknown suspect in the same area, though no one was reported to be injured. Due to the large number of individuals involved in the fight, a mutual aid request was made to neighboring law enforcement agencies to assist in clearing the crowd. Officers from the Kansas City Police Department, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, the Belton Police Department, the Lee’s Summit Police Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol responded to assist.

Chira S. Smith, 33, from Grandview, was arrested for fighting in public; Ashley M. Plunkett, 30, from Paola, KS, was arrested for assault on a police officer and failure to obey; Bryson M. Sylvain, 29, from Belton, was arrested for failure to obey; and Brittany N. Rymes, 17, from Grandview, was arrested for fighting in public. A 15-year-old juvenile male and a 16-year-old juvenile female, both from Grandview, were also taken into custody. The male was arrested for assault on a police officer and the female for fighting in public.

No injuries resulting from the disturbance were reported with the exception of those exposed to pepper spray. The City of Grandview and organizers for the Truman Heritage Festival on Sunday released a statement saying that the incidents that occurred are not indicative of the community.

“(We) are angry and disappointed by what happened last night as the Truman Heritage Festival neared its end,” the statement said. “We are thankful Grandview PD acted quickly to ensure everyone's safety by calling for mutual aid from area law enforcement agencies. Because of their quick thinking, no one was hurt.”

With the safety of everyone in the community remaining a priority, the statement added that organizers will be reviewing festival security procedures and plans, as well as security for future events.

Visitors and vendors of the festival took to social media following the incidents, expressing concern and outrage, including those there with small children.

“My kids were excited to be there,” said carnival attendee Scott Boyer. “We were only there for about ten minutes when multiple fights broke out. There was so much mace in the air, we were coughing. It was ridiculous and this will be the last time we go to the festival. It was embarrassing for the City of Grandview.”


The adults arrested were charged through Grandview Municipal Court and the juveniles will be referred to the Jackson County Family Court.