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Olson: 'We're all in this together'

Provided photo
The Cook family, whose home in Oklahoma was destroyed by a tornado in May, stands amid the wreckage of their neighborhood. They emerged from an underground storm shelter to find their home and vehicles blown away, says Lee Newtson, a Sycamore resident who traveled to Oklahoma not long after devastating tornadoes struck the area.
Provided photo The Cook family, whose home in Oklahoma was destroyed by a tornado in May, stands amid the wreckage of their neighborhood. They emerged from an underground storm shelter to find their home and vehicles blown away, says Lee Newtson, a Sycamore resident who traveled to Oklahoma not long after devastating tornadoes struck the area.

Lee Newtson has his favorite quote written on an index card and posted on a wall at his Sycamore home: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

For Newtson, it’s more than just a pithy phrase. It’s inspired him to travel to disaster sites including ground zero in New York City, and to the sites of devastating tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., in 2011, and Ridgway and Harrisburg in southern Illinois in 2012.

After the deadly tornadoes that struck Oklahoma in late May, Newtson felt the calling again. Now a veteran of disaster sites, he knew what the people would need.

“They come out of these things, all they’ve got is the clothes on their back,” Newtson, 70, said. “They’ve got no car, nothing, it’s all gone. So it’s very important anything we can do to help them.”

Kim Shearer of Maple Park, a friend from H D Rockers Bar and Grill, gave him lots of old clothes. Pat Hill of Hill’s Country Store in Kaneville – “the purple store” –  packed him lunch for his drive and collected canned goods to distribute. His neighbors, Rick and Sharon White, gave him “all kinds of juices.”

Many others, including his men’s group at Grace Fellowship Church in Maple Park and the Rev. James Harper, were also instrumental in the effort.

Newtson made the 760-mile drive to tornado alley in late May, arriving May 30.

He had expected to be working with the local coroner or medical examiner, but when he arrived, most of the recovery effort was complete. Then it was a matter of trying to help people who had lost everything regain some sense of order amid the chaos.

After making contact with a local church, he was steered toward a mobile home community called Steelman Estates in a small town called Bethel Acres outside Shawnee, Okla.

Although the tornado in Moore had made the big headlines May 20, the trailer park was leveled by a tornado May 19. Two people had been killed and 12 injured.

Newtson, along with other volunteers that included a pack of rough-looking motorcycle riders who turned out to be quite friendly, set up a supply tent. Portable toilets were brought into the neighborhood. A well and pump company came to get the water service working.

Supplies began to filter in from the church while the families slept in tents where their homes used to be, Newtson said.

Newtson was looking for two families who had lost everything that had no insurance coverage – “I’m not going to fatten the pockets of an insurance company” – and he found them.

Neither was well off before the tornado struck. He photographed them amid the devastation where their homes once were.

The Cook family is a family of six. The Stoops also have children.

The Cooks told Newtson of how they were watching the news on TV, then they were watching outside. When they saw the funnel cloud approaching, they ran for their underground shelter, grabbing their dog just in time. When the storm passed, they found themselves amid devastation.

Bill Stoops, the father of his family, told the Oklahoman newspaper that he was the last to crowd into an underground cellar as the tornado bore down over the tree line.

“Your heart goes out to these people so much,” Newtson said. “You see so much disaster, and you’d love to be able to do so much more, but you’re limited in what you can do, so you do the best you’ve got. “

After a little more than a week in Oklahoma, Newtson returned home. He’s spoken to his church congregation about his experience and how they can help, something that made him choke up a bit.

It’s not easy to witness such scenes, especially for a man who has undergone a five-way heart bypass, has a pacemaker and five stents in his heart and takes nitroglycerin.

Some of the disaster sites he’s visited might put some strain on his heart, he concedes, but it’s what he has to do. Newtson said he has the expertise after working at an Elburn funeral home in the 1960s and ‘70s, and learning about the ambulance service.

“My emotions usually catch up after I’ve been home for a little while,” Newtson said.

Newtson has found ways to cope with what he sees. An animal lover, he went to an animal shelter after rescue and recovery work in Joplin to pet some animals and walked out with a terrier mutt.

“He just kind of looked up at me and said take me home,” Newtson said.

He named the dog “Lucky.”

Newtson is still helping the displaced families he met in Oklahoma. You can donate items to them directly by mailing them to:

• Stoops family, 102 Ponds Lane

• Cook family, 119 Savanna Lane

Both addresses are in Shawnee, Okla., 74084.

Although the families no longer have mailboxes, they can claim their mail at the local post office by identifying themselves, Newtson said.

Newtson says he wants people to send things directly to them. If you want more information about the people, you can reach him by email at or write him at 2535 Lilac Lane in Sycamore.

Why undertake such stressful endeavors, especially in your 70s with a heart condition?

“We’re all in this together,” Newtson said. “Some day it could happen to us.”

• • • 

Ideal helps, too: There are others helping the storm victims.

A few weeks ago at the Ideal Industries plant in DeKalb, equipment operators Connie Williams and Melissa Prather wanted to do something. They approached Mark Mosbach, the plant manager, and told him so.

“They said, ‘We want to do something from DeKalb to help the people in Oklahoma, and do you want to help,’” Mosbach said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ They came up with all the ideas.”

Production supervisor Tim Grych helped coordinate the effort, but Williams and Prather were the ones who took the lead, Mosbach said.

Their ideas included making baskets of items built around a theme – such as barbecuing or bath supplies – and then selling raffle tickets for $1 apiece for a chance to win them. They collected enough donated items to make 15 baskets, and also ran a 50/50 raffle.

Their effort raised $1,361, almost all of it from employees at the DeKalb facility. In addition, Ideal’s owners plan to make a contribution to the fund in the near future, Grych said.

The total sum should be donated to a representative of the Red Cross early next week, Mosbach said.

A newcomer to the area, Mosbach said he was impressed at the giving spirit shown by the DeKalb employees.

“I was really proud of how much it hit all the people in the plant,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d have anything close to the contribution we got.”

Great work, everyone.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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