Business bouncing back after May tornado

John Ford

A local printing business has made strides in getting things back in order in the wake of the May 10 tornado that damaged it.

Willis and Associates sustained severe damage in the tornado. A back room of the print shop was destroyed. Printing jobs for the Springfield, Mo., YMCA and 3M out of Minnesota were ruined. Presses had insulation and other storm debris blown into them.

The home of owners Robert and Francis Willis was damaged, and their vehicle was destroyed in the storm.

A clock on the wall of the print shop marked the time the tornado hit: 6:05 p.m.

But today, things are different. New equipment, including presses and computers, has been moved into the business. A new cutter is on order and expected to arrive in the next few days. Other presses have been refurbished and reinstalled.

On the facility side, the back room has been rebuilt, with a loading dock added to the side. Workers were seen installing ducts for a new air conditioning system. Other workers were seen building a garage just off of the shop.

“We’ve been back up to par and doing printing for about three or four weeks now,” said Robert Willis. “We’ve gotten a lot of help from Neosho Printing Company. Roger Blauket, the owner, was out here the first night the tornado hit us.”

Others who have helped included D&S Erectors out of Seneca and owner Dave Arwood, USA Print out of Joplin, Joplin’s RD Printing and owner Ray Lindsey, C-Kan Printing out of Fort Scott, Kan., and Griffith Motor Company of Neosho.

“Griffith Motor Company helped a lot by loaning us a vehicle for about six weeks, because we didn’t have any,” said Robert Willis.

“Another couple of weeks, when we get all of the equipment in, we’ll be back to 100 percent,” added Rob Willis, Robert and Francis’ son who also works in the business.

The day after the storm, dozens of people were seen at the site, cleaning up debris, taking down large trees, sweeping up broken glass and other debris, and picking up ruined print jobs. Yet others brought food and drinks out to those working at the home and business, while others stopped by to offer prayers and words of comfort.

“There’s been a lot of people who we’ve worked for that kind of cried with us a little bit,” said Robert Willis. “We had a lot of people bring food by, brooms, rakes, shovels, just a lot of help.”

Francis Willis said a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Webb City, Carthage, Neosho and Bethany, Mo., stopped by to help, with one bringing in a large track loader to pick up trees.

“He was pulling stumps right out of the ground with it,” added Rob Willis.

Robert Willis added the print shop’s customers have also been understanding and patient.

“A lot of them said ‘We don’t want to bug you as we know you have problems, but if you’re ready to go, we’ve got orders for you.”

The family has also had good rapport with their insurance companies: Safeco on the business and Shelter on their home.

“We have two different companies, and both have been real good to us,” Robert Willis said.

Another person who has helped, the Willis’ said, was state Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, who has had campaign materials printed at the shop in the past.

“He’s been out here three times helping with things, kind of telling us where to go for stuff, getting stuff back in order.”

The Willis’ son-in-law, Rob Metcalf of RDM Construction, is doing the work on the shop.

“He lost his house in the tornado, too,” said Francis Willis. “They let that go to help us here. They’re living in a travel trailer in the meantime.”

As their old paper cutter was damaged in the storm, the company has brought an old hand-driven cutter out of retirement until a new one comes in. That cutter was purchased in 1962 from former Miner and Mechanic newspaper owner Joe Taylor, who used it in his printing business for many years.

“I probably used that 25 years when we first started, then we went to the power cutter,” said Robert Willis. “It’s older than I am!”

The company moved from downtown Neosho to Gateway Drive in about 1972. Until May 10 of this year, they had never experienced a tornado. When the storm struck, the wind blew a storm door from Robert Willis’ hands, and he and his wife huddled in a bathtub in an interior bathroom.

But this wasn’t the first time the Willis family has been touched by tragedy wrought by a tornado. In 1957, just weeks after Francis’ cousin had given birth, the infant was killed in a tornado that struck Ruskin Heights in the Kansas City area. The family had just been over to the cousin’s house to see the new baby the day before, Francis and Robert Willis said. The baby was one of 44 people killed in that disaster in Missouri.

Fifteen others died in tornado outbreaks that stretched from Colorado to the Mississippi Valley.

“Tornadoes aren’t picky who they pick on. They do not play favorites,” said Robert Willis. “I’m just hoping another one doesn’t come to this area, to Neosho, or even close.

We feel like Neosho is a good place to live. The people of Neosho have helped us out a lot.”

Neosho Daily News