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Published: Saturday, 11/23/2002

Van Wert gathers up items tossed by twister

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A digital date in the corner reads 1993. Inked on the back: Sawyer, One week old.

There's Alvin and Dee too, married 25 years. And Mrs. Peggy's preschool class, 1999.

There's Christmas ornaments, a stuffed koala spouting mud-riddled stuffing where its leg used to be, and - until yesterday when a weeping young woman came to claim it - a simple white wedding dress.

Here, on 10 lunchroom tables in an empty gymnasium of the Van Wert City School District administration building is this city's makeshift lost and found.

Thrashed by an F4 tornado nearly two weeks ago, the city continued to clean up as snow blanketed twisted wreckage and crumpled buildings and muffled the sounds of heavy equipment still assigned to clean up.

For the fourth day in two weeks, Van Wert City Schools were closed.

The schools had been closed three days after the tornado Nov. 10 that killed two here and three elsewhere in Ohio, and they were scheduled on a two-hour delay several times in case bus drivers had to pick their way through debris-cluttered roads.

On Thursday, they were delayed again, this time because of fog.

“Tornadoes, fog, snow, and ice,” Superintendent Cathy Hoffman said, shaking her head. “We've had enough.”

Mrs. Hoffman spent a bit of the day as a private investigator of sorts. Since her school system has become the repository for the fragments that folks around here have collected from their farm fields and front yards, Mrs. Hoffman has organized the materials using names on the backs of photos, the bottom of canceled checks, and on front of dirtied envelopes.

Some of the items have arrived by mail with notes from residents in the Toledo area, more than 75 miles away.

“We feel badly about the hardship you are all facing right now,” wrote one Toledo couple. “We pray that the people to whom this picture belongs are safe and sound.”

Many of the items contain names. Dreema's brass Christmas tree ornament from 1995 lies near a tattered 1939 photo of 10-year-old Viola. Matt W.'s Meijer name tag is slipped among the items, as are Lisa Walton's military dog tags.

Among the items that have been returned through the collection, which yesterday numbered more than 100, are several photos and personal papers, two teddy bears, and an uncashed reimbursement check for $1,000.

A young couple walked into the building. Claiming her wedding dress, the woman said only that she'd been married less than a year, said Jamie Ropp, the superintendent's secretary.

Supported by the man, she said nothing more. Crying, she left with the dress. No one remembered to get her name, Ms. Ropp said.

“We didn't know what to do,” Ms. Ropp said. “It was so sad.”

Though those who have come to claim their items might find the task emotional, there is solace to be found in some of the smallest items, Mrs. Hoffman said.

A little girl was thrilled to get her teddy bears back, and that's exactly what Mary Allmandinger had hoped.

The mother of two, she had been with a group of friends helping clear debris from farm fields west of town last week.

Nearby, her family's Ohio City farm, where they raise popcorn and soy beans, had been spared by the deadly storm. She found the teddy bears and ran them through her washer and dryer.

“I knew we had to find the child who it belonged to. That's the least we can do,” she said. “I mean, I can wash a teddy bear.

“With everything that these people have gone through, who knows? Maybe it would help this child sleep a little better.”



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