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Rubble yields special memories for tornado survivor

July 14, 2011 12:00AM

Natalie Mauller-Smith shows the award found by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Safety Officer Dave Stanton.

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Small things can be really important when everything seems gone. "
~ Natalie Mauller-Smith
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On Saturday, Natalie Mauller-Smith, who, like so many others lost so much in the Joplin tornado, is getting married. On Thursday, she got an early wedding present from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Dave Stanton, a safety officer with the Corps of Engineers met Mauller-Smith where her childhood home once stood to return to her an award he found in the rubble. The award is from the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Pittsburg State University, acknowledging Mauller-Smith as the Outstanding Spanish Student of 2006. Although the small piece of stone and brass may have little intrinsic value, it means more to Mauller-Smith than most people can imagine.

"Most everything's gone," Mauller-Smith said. "What wasn't in the house was in a storage shed that was destroyed. Small things can be really important when everything seems gone."

Mauller-Smith, who is beginning a new job teaching English and Spanish at Chetopa, Kan., in the fall, said the award is especially important to her.

"My experience at Pittsburg State and in my Spanish classes is what inspired me to be a teacher," Mauller-Smith said. "It's why I am a teacher."

Mauller-Smith holds two undergraduate degrees from PSU as well as a master's degree, which she completed this summer.

Stanton said it is surprising that he discovered the award amongst the tons and tons of debris.

"We had just finished clearing a lot," Stanton said. "The crew just demobilized, and I was walking along the street and I saw something in the gutter. "Pretty much everything else was clean. I saw the marble plaque and on the top I noticed it had somebody's name. I thought, 'wow, this must be something important to someone.' Looking at the property, they probably lost everything, but this one little thing survived the event, so I thought it might be special to someone. This one little thing might be the only memory that she has of that house."

Stanton turned the plaque over to public affairs officials with the Corps of Engineers who contacted PSU to track Mauller-Smith down.

Mauller-Smith said receiving the award just days before her wedding is a positive sign.

"We're looking at the wedding as a new beginning," Mauller-Smith. "I'm starting a new job, I'm getting married. We're looking forward to the future and this memento is a nice connection to the past."

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said Mauller-Smith's story is typical of the way the removal of the tornado debris has been handled.

"Members of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the thousands of volunteers who have come to Joplin understand that they aren't just handling debris," Rohr said. "Prior to the storm, the debris was part of someone's home or personal life, and we've taken every step to make sure personal items are handled with respect.  We're grateful that this award was found and could be returned to Natalie, and we wish her and her soon-to-be husband the best of luck as they begin the next chapter in their lives.  We'll be here for them, and the other residents of this great city, every step of the way as we rebuild our community together."

On Friday, Stanton will leave Joplin after serving for a month in the storm-ravaged city. A veteran of the Katrina cleanup in Mississippi, Stanton has seen his share of devastation and also of recovery. He said it all comes down to Americans helping Americans.

"If my hometown of Portland (Ore.) was hit like this, we'd want people from all over to come help us," Stanton said. "It's great when Americans can step up and come in and help out. If nothing else, in my 30 days here, if this one thing gets back to her, I've done my job."

©2011 Pittsburg State University