Published November 20, 2014
PERRYSBURG, Ohio (AP) — There were tears and hugs for all the wrong reasons Tuesday night when graduating seniors received their diplomas from a high school ripped apart by a tornado last weekend.
For many, it was a chance to put down their shovels and stop cleaning up rubble so they could come together to celebrate and mourn at the same time.
"For an hour or two, we could forget about the destruction," said Katie Everhardt, a senior.
Administrators handed out diplomas that were dug out of the rubble at Lake High School's gymnasium. Among those graduating was the class valedictorian whose father was one of five people killed in the storm.
Katelyn Kranz smiled and waved to friends, but she didn't speak during the ceremony. She wiped away tears and got long hugs and a standing ovation when her name was announced.
Everhardt, one of Kranz's best friends, said she didn't how to help at first until she decided to look for clothes and photos that her friend lost when her house was destroyed — "anything that was important," she said.
She and her classmates didn't know whether Kranz would come to the graduation until they saw her just before the ceremony.
"I just cried," Everhardt said. "I was so happy to see her."
After the graduation ended, she opened up her diploma to see a picture inside the cover of her high school — now in ruins.
"Just to think it's not there anymore is mind-boggling," she said.
The tornado, which had winds up to 175 mph, plowed through the center of the high school, demolishing classrooms and the cafeteria and leaving behind a mountain of twisted steel beams, broken glass and bricks.
It flipped two school buses on their sides and tossed another at least 30 yards where it landed upside down near the school's football field.
The tornado was part of a line of storms that ripped through the Midwest over the weekend. About 100 homes were destroyed or severely damaged by the twister, which cut an 8-mile path through small towns and farm fields southeast of Toledo.
Lake High School was destroyed, and both the adjoining middle and elementary schools were damaged. It's too early to know whether they will usable in the next school year.
Seeing the wrecked high school was an emotional blow for several generations of students who spent their youth there. Within hours of the storm, dozens gathered across the street to see the damage and take pictures.
Jim Witt, the school's superintendent, promised the 110 graduates and their families that the school would rebuild, saying that "Lake High School will be together somewhere come August."
"We will continue to grieve for the loss of life, we will continue to search for our belongings," Witt said. "By sticking together and taking care of each other, this school district and this community will be stronger than ever."
Along with commencement programs, volunteers handed out blue and white ribbons in the school's colors and papers explaining how the school plans to go forward next year.
"It's bittersweet," said Kim Greenlese, who came to see her cousin graduate and to show support for the community. Two of her friends lost their homes in the tornado.
"This is all about coming together as a community," she said.