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A Superintendent’s

Unforgettable Lesson of

Tragedy 

 

BY DAN WOLL

Dan Woll
Dan Woll

On June 7, 1984, the board of education in Barneveld, Wis., convened to renew the rookie superintendent’s contract. I was that superintendent, about to finish my first year in the job. A few hours later that night, an EF5 tornado of preternatural strength struck the tiny village, located 30 miles west of Madison, killing nine people, injuring 200 others and destroying homes and businesses, including my district’s single school.

I spent the predawn hours helping rescue efforts, then took a short nap and awoke in daylight to an apocalyptic landscape. The throbbing of big blades in the oppressive humidity portended an anxiety that returns to this day whenever I hear a helicopter.

The school board met in its ruined office, water pouring through a destroyed roof. We pledged to rebuild. Exiting, one board representative said, “You have a lot of work to do.” He could not know how alone that made me feel.

Most of the board members went to homes in the country, far from the leveled village. How different the experience was for those who could not escape. Through open windows every evening, my neighbors and I smelled Barneveld burning in the dump where they hauled wreckage in an endless stream of trucks.

A Personal Toll
How does a tragedy change a superintendent? I can only describe what it did to me. I know I have been emotional and sensitive, a mixed blessing, ever since. I remember bumping into Mike Holland after the storm. His father, my athletic director, had been killed when the tornado ripped apart his house.

Mike, a high school junior, was a good student and long-distance runner. I had trained with him on snowy country roads. At that time, I was not a person who showed much emotion. But when I saw Mike, I hugged him and cried. I became more sensitive than ever with children.

I can recall vividly the first tornado drill that we conducted in school the following spring. The students always grew fearful whenever skies darkened. I felt what they felt. When the alarm sounded, children of all ages moved to designated spots in the building where they knelt down, still and silent except for their beating hearts. I’m retired now, and one thing I never miss is worrying about children.

Around adults, I sensed a change in the opposite emotional direction. I took risks with people’s emotions in a single-minded manner in the months following the storm. I became aggressive and impatient with those who could not move fast or understand my motives. I removed an insurance adjuster from the job, caused an engineer to pass out arguing with me, fired a subcontractor and hung up on a metropolitan newspaper editor. Getting the school open again was all that mattered. For better or worse, that characterized my style for the next 25 years.

Lingering Wounds
In the years since, I would have liked an opportunity to explain what I did in the aftermath of the storm. I have to accept I never will. Maybe if I had not pressed so hard, we would have been forced to consolidate with a larger school district. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction was pushing that agenda.

The village adopted the slogan, “We’re not giving up — we’re going on.” The community did go on and grow into a beautiful suburb of Madison, but a more accurate slogan for the rebirth might have been, “Whatever it takes.” It might have taken too much.

There were victims and heroes. Sometimes they were the same individuals. It has been almost a year since I wrote a 4,000-word piece about the Barneveld tornado, published on its 27th anniversary by the Capital Times, a newspaper in Madison, the state capital. Survivors continue to seek it on the newspaper’s website (www.tinyurl.com/3rvkgb2) and then contact me with their untold stories.

A quarter century later, memories continue to be shared and wounds linger to be salved. Perhaps this is the lesson of tragedy. There is a false high after recovery. Long-term help comes best from those who put down the chainsaws and checkbooks to listen and share, for that illuminates the path to acceptance and peace.

Dan Woll retired in 2010 after 27 years as a superintendent in three Wisconsin school districts. He resides in River Falls, Wis., and is the author of Death On Cache Lake, a novel. E-mail: elcapdan@yahoo.com
 

 

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