Lake Twp. rebuilds after deadly stormsWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
Superintendent Jim Witt hasn’t cried yet.
He might never cry.
The overwhelming task of leading a tornado-stricken district into the upcoming school year has left his eyes dry and his focus razor-sharp.
He wants to get back to normal.
And not just for the school’s sake, but for the community’s, which is centered around Lake High School.
His oldest son, Casey, will be among the seniors unable to return to Lake High School next year. His middle son, Cody, will be a freshman. The youngest, Aaron, will be in middle school.
“Kids need to be kids. They need some sense of life as normal,” Witt said.
Already, students are appreciating Lake’s post-tornado approach.
Michael Kranz lost his father, Ted, as well as his home in the tornado June 5. On June 8, however, Kranz showed up at golf practice with borrowed clubs. Casey Blank, whose house was destroyed, came to practice as well.
“They certainly didn’t have to,” said Terry Tansel, varsity golf coach. “Maybe for golf, because we don’t practice at the school, we still have a tiny bit of normalcy, but how normal can it be? I cannot fathom not having a parent.”
Kranz politely told Tansel that he would have to miss the practice on June 10 because of his father’s funeral.
Witt said resolve like that will rebuild Lake.
The night the tornado destroyed the high school, Witt’s family got into the car and drove to the school.
It was gone. “It was worse in the light than it was in the dark,” he said. “Words cannot adequately describe it.”
Witt told his staff to forge ahead. Should summer baseball continue? Yes.
What about summer school? Of course.
Witt even promised at the graduation ceremony that Lake High School would be reunited at the start of the school year.
“At this time, we don’t know how, we don’t know where and we don’t know the particulars yet, but I stand here in front of you, giving you my word and the word of the board of education that Lake High School will be together somewhere come August,” he said.
This year’s class was supposed to graduate on June 6 — the day after the storm. The field house was set up and ready for the ceremony. After the storm, the diplomas and programs were saved.
So, even though seniors graduated on June 8, the programs indicated June 6, a date that wasn’t meant to be.
Many have held onto the silver lining that the tornado did not hit during the graduation ceremony. More could have died.
The class valedictorian, Katie Kranz, lost her father. Katie, older sister to golfer Michael, wasn’t scheduled to speak at the ceremony like many people had speculated.
Lake does it differently. Seniors audition to become the graduation speakers. This year, Dustin Fincher and Nicole Schulte spoke as planned.
Their speeches were a mix of thanking the community for their support and typical messages that graduates like to share.
“I personally believe that it is in these four years that you truly find out the person you are deep down and the person you have the potential to become,” Fincher said. “I became shy all over again as a freshman entering high school, but broke out of that shell and there has never been a better feeling than becoming confident in who you are. I can honestly say I grew up with and attended school with some of the greatest people I know.”
Schulte said a lot of people asked her if she was going to change her speech. She didn’t.
“I know how I felt when I wrote this back in November; even after June 5, it is still how I feel today,” she said.
Witt said the senior class motto was never more fitting. “Remember yesterday, live for today, dream for tomorrow.”
In the days leading up to the tornado, the academic year was wrapping up. The teachers had entered their grades and had had their workday June 3.
During that last week Lake High School would exist, senior Brianne Freeman would return to finish a senior video, which contains some of the last footage of the high school intact.
“I was kind of dreading working on it, but I ended up being one of the last students in the school,” Freeman said. “It makes me feel good.”
Freeman said it was a relief to graduate. Her graduation party is June 12, although she attended a party June 6 for a classmate.
“It was different, it wasn’t really celebrating,” she said.
The mood would worsen when she went to what remained of her friend Katie’s house.
“It was good to see her,” Freeman said. “She was actually surprisingly strong — I was so proud of her. I know that Katie was taking it the hardest because all the media attention was on her being valedictorian.”
Jon Reynolds, a 2003 graduate, said Lake has overcome adversity in the past.
“They had all the problems with passing the levy and they got over that hump and now something like this happens,” Reynolds said. “That whole community over there has been through some trying times and they have gotten through it.”
Jim Nietz graduated from Lake in 2001. He remembers how the community came together when senior Joe Abraham died in a car accident.
“When Joe tragically passed away, you saw everyone come together,” Nietz said. “Everyone is pulling together again. That tells us a lot about Lake and the people who live there.”
Nietz returned to Northwest Ohio right before he started eighth grade. Two and a half quarters into the school year, he was diagnosed with stage-three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the students and teachers rallied behind him.
“And I was just the new kid,” he said.
But nothing compares to this latest test for Lake.
“I turned on the evening news and the national news and here are pictures of my high school just crumbled to the ground,” he said. “It is hard to believe. I keep telling myself it is just a building. Doesn’t compare one bit to those who lost their lives and those who lost their houses and everything in them.”
Live for today
School board member Nathan Eikost was working in the Lake Township Police Department when the tornado hit.
It was then the 2008 Lake graduate, who was huddled under a stairwell with fellow employees, heard the screams.
Bailey Bowman, who graduated with Eikost, died trying to seek shelter in the department. She was with her baby and boyfriend, Gerald Lathrop.
“That keeps going back in my mind. If they would have been 10 seconds sooner,” he said.
In the days since the tornado, Eikost has been working from the Northwood Police Department. He also attended the high school commencement. He is juggling a lot of emotions having so many roles in the community.
“I think that we are going to make it,” Eikost said. “Just in the past few days, the community has grown together immensely. In a sense, I would agree. Lake Local Schools is the heart of the community.”
Joe Bialorucki said the support the Lake community has shown his sister, Cythnia Kranz, has been amazing. His niece, Katie, has especially needed it.
“In her mind, she was originally not going to go to graduation. On Monday, she said she will go, but she wants to sit with the family. On Tuesday, Katie had talked to some friends and she decided to go through with it.”
He wants to make sure she follows through with plans to attend the University of Michigan. Life has to move on for the family, he said.
Bialorucki said when Ted was missing, the family feared the worst, but no one would utter the possibility.
Witt said the school is embracing the Kranz family.
“We have made it clear to Cindy and the kids that we are here for them. We told them that we love them.”
Dream for tomorrow
As of June 9, teachers were being let back into their classrooms to see what personal belongings could be salvaged.
Science teacher Jessie Kubuske is trying to find decorations that can be used for homecoming in October.
“Believe it or not, I have thought about it. Where are we going to have homecoming? There has to be some way to make it happen,” she said.
If there was ever a year where homecoming was necessary, this is the year, she said. Her daughter, Jayna, graduated this year and was the homecoming queen.
“We need to make it as normal as possible,” Kubuske said. “I want the class of 2011 to have it all.”
Adrienne Lowe, a senior this fall, said the homecoming dance, painting the rock and home football games are all part of the experience, which is now is in doubt.
Lowe plays volleyball and softball, which now has no equipment or uniforms. The football team also has nothing, although the weights, which were saved, have been set up on the stage at Walbridge Elementary School.
“We have 79 days until our first game,” said head coach Bob Abbey, on June 9, although he doesn’t know where the games will be hosted.
Witt said he will continue to push the district to get back to normal; football is part of normal.
Plans for next school year will be announced soon. The grass and dirt on the campus will be dug up and replaced because of the debris and glass embedded deep into the ground.
But it could have been worse. That’s what people keep telling Witt. Imagine if school was in session. Imagine if it happened on graduation day.
“I don’t let myself go there,” Witt said.
If he did, he might start crying.
Additional Tornado coverage:
Tornado twists roles as wife, reporter by Brandi Barhite
Storm gave no warning by Kristen Rapin
Monroe County, Dundee Come together after tornado by Mary Petrides and Betsy Woodruff
Moline neighborhood residents rally around each other by Andy Ouriel