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Sept. 6, 2018
Story by Mark Hornickel / Photography by Todd Weddle
This story appears in the fall 2018 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To access more stories and view the magazine in its entirety online, click here.
An emphasis on making connections is engrained in Northwest Missouri State University’s culture and curriculum. Bearcats connect with each other. With their employers. With the communities in which they choose to live, work and play.
Throughout the country, Northwest alumni have accepted a calling to serve their communities in countless roles and a variety of organizations. For some, though, the civic work they do is a life’s passion that presents daily tests to build consensus, influence change and make decisions that help their communities prosper.
Sam Anselm, a 1998 Northwest graduate, and his family were on the deck of their new home during the late afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 2011, enjoying their view of the horizon over Joplin, Missouri. Anselm had stepped into a new role as the community’s assistant city manager just a month earlier, and the family had found some time to relax after a weekend of moving their belongings from their two-bedroom apartment. They had negotiated an earlier closing date on their new home, allowing them to move from their apartment behind a Walmart store on South Rangeline Road, a major retail thoroughfare running through the city.
Suddenly, tornado sirens started to echo through the neighborhood. Seeing the menacing clouds to their south, the family took cover.
When the sirens stopped, Anselm’s gut told him he needed to get to work and he started driving. He ended up at the police station and headed for the city’s emergency operations center in the basement.
|Sam Anselm discusses Joplin’s recovery from a 2011 tornado and his 2014 appointment to city manager in his downtown office. Joplin converted an early 20th century department store building into its city hall, which serves as a centerpiece in the city’s vibrant downtown.|
|Anslem looks on in a rebuilt neighborhood near Joplin’s Cunningham Park, one of the hardest-hit areas by the 2011 tornado. The city is still repairing streets and sewer systems damaged by the storm.|
|Anselm checks messages on his phone before walking into one of his favorite lunch spots, Instant Karma Gourmet Hot Dogs, in downtown Joplin.|
|Anselm stands at the entrance of Joplin City Hall, which stands in the middle of Joplin's vibrant downtown. With two major hospital systems and its place as a retail hub, Joplin serves an estimated 220,000 people a day.|
Calls were pouring in as staff members filled a whiteboard with locations that needed assistance.
“It’s Sunday afternoon. There’s a lot of people out to church and out to eat. They’re doing their shopping in the afternoon. You see the retail names listed on the whiteboard and you start to panic when you think about how many people are potentially involved,” Anselm said.
An EF5 tornado stretching almost one mile wide had cut a 22-mile swath through Joplin’s south side, including Rangeline Road. The Walmart store was among the retail locations listed on the whiteboard. Schools, churches and St. John’s Regional Medical Center were severely damaged. One hundred sixty-two people lost their lives in what is now the costliest tornado in U.S. history.
“We learned that any disaster recovery plan that any city might have sitting on the shelf somewhere does not apply whenever a disaster hits, regardless of whether it’s a flood or a tornado or man-made disaster,” Anselm said. “Every community is unique and every situation is unique. We got to experience closeness in a tight-knit community that came together in response to that.”
While other communities have watched their populations drop in the wake of natural disasters, Joplin is a success story. The city’s population of more than 52,000 people is higher than it was when the tornado struck, and the growth doesn’t appear to be slowing.
Young trees surround rows of new homes, schools, churches and business structures that appear as if they sprouted up on previously undeveloped land. About 500 businesses were affected by the disaster, and nearly 100 more have relocated to Joplin in the tornado’s aftermath, Anselm said.
The city also has committed to maintaining its vibrant downtown and there’s a budding art scene, due in part to the varied public art popping up as expressions of the tornado’s impact. With two major hospital systems and its place as a retail hub, the city serves an estimated 220,000 people a day.
“I think a lot of businesses maybe looking to relocate in the Midwest saw the work ethic of the people here in Joplin,” Anselm said. “I can tell you countless stories of neighbors who crawled up out of their crawl spaces or storm cellars and grabbed a chainsaw, cut down the trees in their yard and then checked on their neighbors and did the same thing over there. It’s pretty remarkable in terms of our recovery.”
Construction is continuing and street crews are still repairing streets and sewers damaged by the storm. In technical terms, the recovery period ends next year when the last of the federal grants Joplin received expires – though it’s easily understood the recovery time is decades for the kind of natural disaster Joplin experienced.
“There’s a lot of work and it stays in the psyche of people as well,” Anselm said. “People still move forward and do what needs to be done to live their lives. It’s always going to be part of our history, but it has been a positive ending to recover as quickly as we have.”
In November 2014, three years after his arrival in Joplin and the tornado, Anselm was appointed city manager. It was a fulfillment of the interest he developed in public service at an early age while growing up in Wentzvile, Missouri, where his grandfather was the town’s marshal.
“When I was in first grade, I remember taking a field trip to his office and the city hall and police department with my class,” Anselm said. “He threw me into jail to demonstrate how that whole process worked for us first graders. I got to hang out with him for that day and that’s kind of how I got the bug.”
Anselm transferred to Northwest after attending the University of Texas Arlington for one year – the only time he’s lived outside of Missouri. As high school sweethearts, he and his wife, Jennifer Earp Anselm, who also is a 1998 Northwest graduate, wanted to return to Missouri. Northwest’s public administration program appealed to Anselm as he flipped through college brochures.
“A big part of college is just surviving it and demonstrating to an employer that you can make a commitment to something,” Anselm said. “The budget classes and Dr. Dewhirst’s history classes and Dr. Brekke’s law classes were really good in terms of setting that foundation.”
After graduating from Northwest, Anselm earned his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2002. He started his career in St. Peters, Missouri, working as a purchasing specialist and then as a volunteer specialist, until being named assistant to the city manager in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2008. Looking to grow in his career, he saw an opportunity when he moved to Joplin in 2011.
Joplin features a stretch of the famed Route 66. Mickey Mantle played a minor league stint there before making it big with the New York Yankees. Anselm also boasts of the city’s wide-ranging dining options.
“There’s a lot of stuff to do and we’re within a pretty easy drive to the KC area and northwest Arkansas for folks who want to get out and explore some amenities beyond what Joplin offers,” he said.
While a city council sets policies and approves the budget, Anselm is responsible for ensuring the policies and programs approved by the council are carried out effectively and efficiently. He has oversight of 14 city departments, from police to the water utility.
Anselm thrives on collaboration and enjoys working with teams to build consensus. He works actively to meet residents’ demands while looking for ways to grow the city’s revenue streams. He is mindful of the need for affordable housing because it helps families put down roots and spend their entire life cycles in the city.
It’s challenging work, he says, and no two days are the same.
“That’s also one of the most exciting things about it,” he said. “I can wake up at 6:30 in the morning, get my kids ready for school and start to plan my day, and by 8:30, I might have a call from a resident or a council member. Something might have happened and it rearranges your schedule for rest of the day. At the end of the day, I get to help people and serve the community that I live in, even if that means helping a resident who has a neighbor with some tall grass and helping them learn about how the city addresses those issues.”
Joplin benefited from an influx of resources, donations and volunteers after the tornado hit. A crew from the popular television show, “Extreme Makeover,” built a row of seven houses to spur one neighborhood’s rebuild.
The city documented more than 1 million service hours by about 200,000 registered volunteers. More than 400 city agencies helped by providing police officers, public works staff and other services. With spotty cellular service in the hours after the tornado, Anselm hastily emailed a request for help to a city manager listserv and surrounding cities responded immediately. Anselm gets chills when he recalls walking into a fire station around 6 a.m. the next day and seeing a bay filled with firefighters from surrounding states in their assortment of gear.
In Cunningham Park, which St. John's Regional Medical Center overlooked, a series of steel frame structures rise above a pavilion with a water wall and butterfly garden. The structures represent houses that stood on the ground while the wall is composed of 38 segments for each minute the tornado was on the ground. The city planted 162 trees in the park in memory of each person who lost their life as a result of the tornado.
As he walks through the park, Anselm acknowledges that Joplin has come to embrace its connection to the tornado, but the community hopes its image rests more heavily on what it has accomplished since then.
“We don’t want to be known as a tornado city,” Anselm said. “We want to be known as a city that recovered from it, and it hasn’t been a hindrance to our growth and development. There’s a lot of well-meaning people who work hard to try to make sure we take advantage of the opportunity.
“One of those messages that we thought was important to put out to the community was ‘We’re not going anywhere, and neither should you. Stick with us. We’ll come back bigger and better. It’s come to fruition.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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