Joplin High School TV Production Class Perseveres Amid Tragedy

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JOPLIN - Standing in front of what's left of Joplin High School, senior Luke Lenhart's vacant expression and distant eyes, speak volumes.

"You can't put into words. I mean, we're standing next to a tree that should be up to 50 ft tall. It's just... crazy," Lenhart said, shaking his head.

Lenhart thought he'd graduate, diploma in hand, walking out the doors of a school he'd grown up in. But he had to grow up faster, for the Class of 2011 would be the last to walk out those doors.

"The high school was gone, Rangeline was gone, every place was just gone," Lenhart said.
"You think one Friday you'll be back again next Monday but... that was never the case," senior Emma Cox said.

In a time of chaos...

"Days or minutes, hours after the storm I got a lot of text messages and phone calls saying, 'What's the studio like?' 'What's it look like?' 'Is it even there? ‘Are we gonna have classes?'" Joplin Eagles Television Station Manager Danny Craven said.

Even though it was destroyed in the storm, Joplin High School's TV Production studio became students' stability.
"I mean, we hadn't even finished the school year and they were concerned about whether or not we were gonna have TV Production the next year," Craven said.

Now, more than ever, TV Production's JET-14 News Team knew - the show must go on. 

"We're kind of just starting over, but I think that symbolizes the city of Joplin," TV Production teacher Bruce Vonder Haar said.

JET-14's new beginning started during the summer, when students were asked if they wanted to come to the new high school and unpack boxes of new equipment.

Boxes, and boxes of new state-of-the-art equipment, including six high definition (HD) field cameras, editing software, and new computers with updated technology. And, a new studio set is on the way.

"We were all just so ready to get this new school year started because we knew we had so many new opportunities," Cox said.

Senior Brad White was beaming when he thought back to how that summer afternoon sealed the class's bond - a new beginning.

"We got these new cameras that are just amazing compared to what we did have, it was just cool to open stuff up, ‘Ah what's this?' ‘Ah this is cool!" You know, just setting everything up... it's always nice to get something new, it's kind of like Christmas," White said.

But not every piece of JET-14 could be replaced...

One of the show's leaders, Will Norton was driving home from graduation with his father, when the tornado took his life.

"Being pulled out the sunroof of his vehicle was the way he had actually been taken out, from the tornado, and his dad holding onto him, trying to keep him inside the vehicle and - I can't imagine putting myself in his place," Craven said.

That night, it wasn't just buildings, reality came crashing down.

"Will was so involved in this class, and everybody knew Will was the leader of this class. He was the most talented student in this class, without a doubt. And you know it's funny, because all the kids would agree to that... so when we lost Will, it affected all of us a lot. The kids were just devastated, I was devastated," Vonder Haar said.

"We want to do things for him (Will), and when we do TV Production stuff he's always in the back of our mind, like, we're gonna do this for him, we're gonna make things look good for him," White said.

Will may be in the back of their minds, but in many ways he's in the forefront as well. Students and teachers wore bracelets with Norton's name. TV Production students are working on tribute videos for Norton as well.

"All of us in TV Production, we all work together on projects and everything, so we're like one big family. And, whenever we lost Will, that was losing a key piece... we lost a brother, he was that close of a friend," senior Luke Lenhart said.

JET-14's unifying experience of losing a brother pushed new leaders like Luke Lenhart to the forefront.

"Why you get into teaching and why you stay in teaching is because of kids like Luke. I mean he volunteers to do everything, before you even get the sentence out," Vonder Haar said.

Everything included volunteering as a firefighter after the tornado hit. At just 17 years old, Lenhart was pulling bodies out of the damage. He said it was a night he'll never forget, an experience "no one should have to go through."

"The first couple of weeks, it was all just pure adrenaline. I mean the first body, that was the toughest, and the last. As bad as it sounds, once you see one, you kind of have to push it through your mind. You can't stop and think about it because that's what will break you down over time, is whenever you stop and think about everyone that had a family, and friends, and maybe a husband or wife. But you just have to think of them all as the same - victims of a tragedy," Lenart said.

Together as one, JET-14 said unlike their former high school, the bond that holds this city, and their team together, will not be broken.

"Jet-14 and TV Production is definitely a state of mind. It's not a building, it's not bricks and mortar, it's, it's more about being together making fantastic production," Craven said.