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Funerals the next hurdle for Joplin

With the death toll from the tornado now at 139, the Missouri town is starting to honor its dead. One service is held for a Home Depot manager who was killed saving others.

May 29, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • M. Dean Wells, shown with his wife, died ushering others to safety while working at Home Depot.
M. Dean Wells, shown with his wife, died ushering others to safety while… (Family photo )

Reporting from Webb City, Mo. — As 200-mph tornado winds bore down on the Joplin Home Depot near here a week ago, the floor manager ordered customers and employees into the back of the store. At the last minute, though, desperate people still in the parking lot were trying to find a way in.

"There were people tapping at the door," branch manager Steve Cope said. Electrical department manager M. Dean Wells let them in, herded them back toward a safer area, then helped others in, about a dozen in all.

He was near the front of the store when a massive, prefabricated concrete wall collapsed on him and on a father and two young girls whom Wells had just ushered in.

Photos: Tornadoes plague Midwest

By the time it was over, the bulk of the massive warehouse was little more than a pile of twisted metal and concrete. Employees and customers who made it to the rear of the store survived. Six others, including Wells, still near the front, did not.

"Today, we gather for the absolute No. 1 quality my father had. He served others before he served himself," DeAnna Mancini, Wells' 40-year-old daughter, told hundreds of mourners who gathered here Saturday at First Christian Church. Among them was Home Depot Chief Executive Frank Blake.

"He put himself in a very dangerous place to allow other people to survive the storm," said Cope, who is now overseeing a makeshift retail outlet of generators, chainsaws, roofing and plywood in the ravaged parking lot.

Along with a flag commemorating her husband's 10 years of service with the Army, Wells' wife, Margaret Sue, was presented with a neatly folded orange apron of the kind her husband wore each day among the towering aisles of cables, switches and electrical boxes that were his small empire.

The death toll from the Joplin tornado rose Saturday to 139, bringing the total number of tornado deaths in the U.S. this season to 520, surpassing the record of 519 set in 1953, according to the Associated Press. More than 100 people remain unaccounted for.

With President Obama scheduled to appear at a community memorial service Sunday, the gathering for Wells was only one of many that will mark this town's next slow step in recovering from the killer windstorm.

Pastor Mike Geisert, who presided over the service, said afterward that he wrestled with how to present the disaster to his congregation, resisting the notion that it was an "act of God." That, he said, implied that Joplin deserved it. "I don't buy into that," he said.

For those gathered to remember Wells, 59, the pastor read a text from the Bible about the fine homes in heaven, and the place among them being prepared for believers.

"I would think that in this week in which so many homes have been smashed to smithereens, there ought to be some good news in that — that God is preparing a place for us," Geisert said. "Jesus has prepared a place for Dean, and he's prepared one for me and you."

Family, friends and co-workers recalled an optimistic, overwhelmingly friendly man who loved fly-fishing, hunting and camping, and who took intense pride in his grandchildren, whom he taught to shoot a gun and play chess. He was constantly passing around photos of his first great-grandson, born in January in New York, though he had yet to meet him.

"He cried with each and every one of his grandchildren when they were born," Mancini said.

To many, Wells was known as "The Whistler." Enthralled by a bird-call whistler he met as a child in Colorado, Wells honed his own skills and began whistling a flute-like accompaniment with the men's singing group from his church as they traveled each week to nursing homes and hospitals to perform everything from "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" to "You Get a Line, I'll Get a Pole."

The local Neosho Daily News once profiled Wells, who often attracted an audience at Home Depot, when Verizon picked up one of his riffs as a cellphone ringtone. "My whistling is a way to uplift people," he said at the time.

The onset of the funeral season in Joplin has been delayed by the lengthy process of positively identifying the dead. Mancini and her sister, Paulla Wells, 39, knew that Cope had found their father's wallet next to his body. Yet officials refused to release it until the day before Saturday morning's funeral, Mancini said.

"It was FEMA this, FEMA that," she said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We really haven't had the chance to grieve, because we've had to do nothing but fight to get Dad back. And a lot of families are going through this. You feel helpless," she said.

Wells' remains were finally released Friday at noon.

Back at her parents' home, Mancini said, she was searching through her father's desk for a CD of him whistling "Amazing Grace" — its lonely tremolo would fill the church Saturday — when she came across a church program on which her father had scrawled a note from the sermon.

"He writes, 'No greater sacrifice can be given than to give one's life for another,' " Mancini said. "I found that, in my dad's own handwriting!"

She swallowed to get her voice back.

"I am so proud of him," she said. "I'm proud of everybody who made it through this."

Photos: Tornadoes plague Midwest

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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