ESC aids Eclectic tornado survivor

by Kimberly L. Wright
Air University Public Affairs

6/10/2011 - ECLECTIC, Ala. -- The deadly tornado outbreak in late April tore communities and lives apart. The disaster response also brought people together and gave young Airmen a chance to make a connection with the Air Force's past through their community service.

The people of the Electronic Systems Center at Gunter have developed a bond with a elderly widow in Eclectic, Shirley Graham, whose home and gardens were damaged by tornado winds April 27. ESC personnel -- Airmen, civilian employees and spouses -- first met Mrs. Graham May 7 during their tornado cleanup efforts in Elmore County. Mrs. Graham's deck was destroyed, her kitchen was perforated, sheds were razed and her gardens were wrecked.

"Out came a little, fragile woman who must have been in her mid-80s, bent over from osteoporosis, walking as fast as she could with her cane ... followed ever so closely by her dog, who we later found out is named Toby," said Master Sgt. Jerry Graham, lead functional analyst, training business area, at ESC.

Shirley was in great spirits, though her screened porch had been ripped away, her kitchen ceiling had a 4-foot-by-3-foot hole in it, and the beam was supported by a loose 2-by-4, propped up and wedged in place by a rug and a few towels, her air conditioning no longer worked, and her life's passion had been destroyed."

A gardener with an extraordinary green thumb, Mrs. Graham is well known in the community. Her garden has been featured in "Better Homes and Gardens."

"She can take you on a tour and tell you every name of every plant and when it was planted - blueberries, strawberries, apples," said her son, Max Graham, who noted that his parents used to grow a lot more, including crops such as corn. "It's her heritage," he said. "She raises a lot of plants from seed."

Her green thumb amazes her grandson, Patrick Graham. "I've never seen anybody that can grow anything like that. She's out here every day."

She is also a widow of a veteran of the Army Air Forces, the precursor of the Air Force. Her husband, Max L. Graham, served from 1942-1945. She and her husband built the home in 1958 and planted many of the trees that were wrecked by the tornado.

As a result, Gunter personnel contributed to helping her garden return to a semblance of normalcy by raising money through a push-up-athon, contributing 1,341 pushups and raising $1,456.

Sergeant Graham's wife, Tricia, and systems analyst Cheryl Wheeler were able to glean from her what she most needed to get the garden back in shape.

Wanting to surprise her, Sergeant Graham conspired with her son, Max, saying that they were coming by to return a postholer. "I had no idea what they were planning," said Mr. Graham.

About 20 Airmen and civilian employees of ESC presented Mrs. Graham with saplings, a rocker and tons of other gardening necessities. "I don't know what to say," she said.

Sergeant Graham called the endeavor to help return Mrs. Graham's garden to normalcy "a true allegiance to the past and what we are as a service."

Doing projects like this is good for young Airmen, because it emphasizes community service and teamwork, noted Tech. Sgt. Ronald Blake. "Pulling together just because, this is what it is all about, not doing it for kudos," he said.

Tech. Sgt. Jimmie Hardy also felt compelled to help. "Once they started talking about what they were going to do, I kind of had to," he said.

Patrick Graham, a student at the University of Alabama, was in Tuscaloosa during the tornado outbreak but luckily escaped harm. "Being that close to a tornado that massive in Tuscaloosa really woke me up," he said.

"The outpouring of support from the local community has been tremendous," said Max Graham. "It's gone in 30 seconds, but it takes much longer to rebuild."