President Barack Obama on Monday praised the community spirit that helped a small town overcome devastating loss as he marked the anniversary of the most deadly U.S. tornado in six decades.
Recalling the kindness of strangers shown Joplin, Missouri, after the tornado killed 161 people a few hours after Joplin High School seniors had attended their graduation ceremony, Obama said the outpouring of help was a source of national inspiration.
"Just as you have learned the goodness of people, so have you learned the power of community," he told Joplin High School's graduating class of 2012. "We can define our own lives not by what happens to us but by how we respond."
Landing in rural Missouri after hosting back-to-back summits of NATO in Chicago and the Group of Eight at Camp David in Maryland, a broadly smiling Obama greeted graduating students, and then reminded them of two classmates killed by the tornado.
"It took Will Norton, who had just left this auditorium with a diploma in his hand. It took Lantz Hare, who should've received his diploma next year," said Obama, who visited a few days after the tornado hit and returned to hail the town's recovery.
Joplin is still rebuilding from the tornado that was up to three-quarters of a mile wide and stayed on the ground for 32 minutes and 13 miles. The old school has been demolished and students took classes in a shopping mall.
Generous donations, including from movie stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, a Missouri native, came from across the country and around the world.
"Some of life's strongest bonds are the ones we forge when everything around us seems broken," said Obama.
He made no mention of the upcoming November 6 election, even though Missouri is a state he needs to win to keep the White House.
But the president's words echoed the hopeful, unifying theme of his 2008 victory that some critics say has been missing in this year's already acrimonious campaign.
"You will meet people who try to build themselves up by tearing others down," Obama said. "But you are from Joplin. So you will remember, you will know, just how many people there are who see life differently; those who are guided by kindness and generosity and quiet service."